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Huck Finn's Inner Conflicts Reflect Our Own

This week’s announcement by NewSouth Books that it’s publishing a new edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in which a racial slur that begins with the letter N is replaced with the word "slave" stirs up conflicting reactions.

On the one hand, the effrontery -- "the vapid, smiley-faced effrontery," as the great Twain biographer, Ron Powers, put it -- to replace a word that a genius pointedly used more than 200 times when he wrote the book in 1885 seems a bit like covering the large, gaping wounds shown in Picasso's Guernicawith Band-Aids.

But there are already scores of editions in print in which the N-word appears. And every year, it seems that some school district somewhere refuses to read Huckleberry Finn because of it. Dr. Allen Gribben, the Auburn University Twain scholar who has edited this new version, says he just doesn't want one word to keep students from reading a great book.

Mark Twain wrote conflicts into Huck Finn's soul. Huck was a river kid of the 1830's who ran away from so-called "sivilized" life with his guardian, Miss Watson. He throws in with Jim, a slave who has escaped Miss Watson, and is trying to get to freedom. Huck and Jim run, rob and scrounge together to survive. Jim refuses to run off when the going gets tough, and Huck refuses to betray Jim for a reward, even though his "conscience" reminds him that under the law, Jim is stolen goods.

"All right then," Huck screams at himself, "I'll go to hell!"

As Mark Twain wrote in his lecture notes, "a sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience."

I thought of that this week when the House of Representatives read the Constitution of the United States, but dropped several sections that were later amended, like Article 1, Section 2, that classified slaves as three-fifths of a human being. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland said,  "We failed to show the American people that ... our ability to constantly improve on what the founders gave us is a blessing, not a reason for divisiveness."

It’s vital for artists, of all people, not to be sanctimonious. Art is supposed to puncture sanctimony. Conrad, Kipling, and Gilbert and Sullivan all wrote great works of literature in which they used the N-word when it was more slang than epithet. Editors and publishers often changed them through subsequent publications, arguing that their historical context had changed, too.

But take the N-word out of Huckleberry Finnand you take away a chance for students to learn and adults to remember the history that made the story daring and bold before it got labeled and shelved as a classic.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.