NewSouth Books is coming out with a new version of Mark Twain’s work combining Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in one volume as the author apparently intended originally and clarifying some spelling and grammatical confusion.
More controversially, The editor, Dr. Alan Gribben, has decided to change the word “nigger” to slave and “injun” to Indian. As an author, my immediate reaction was negative. Almost every reaction I’ve read was opposed to his decision. Personally, I am annoyed by efforts to “modernize” the language Abraham Lincoln used to make it more “accessible” to modern readers. I greatly admire Mark Twain. As an author, I felt angered and disrespected by Dr. Gibben’s decision.
However, I took the time to read Dr. Gribben’s explanation and to reflect on it. I think he has some valid arguments. He stated that “the n-word” has become even more offensive as a racial slur over time. He reported that, in his experience, students, parents and teachers have become more reluctant to even consider reading these books, which are classic American literature because of that word. He said his efforts to discuss the context in which Twain used the word often failed because of the powerful emotional reaction engendered by the word itself. He pointed out there are many editions available with the original language. Of course, Twain, like all authors, was edited by others.
I believe his observations are correct. Do they justify changing the original language?
I cannot speak to how a black person might perceive the word. Mark Twain wrote eloquently of overcoming his background of unquestioned racism. In my opinion, Huckleberry Finn is one of the most anti-racist books ever written. How can I convince someone who refuses to read the book because of its language? What about offering the choice between the original and the new edition to people offended by one word? Does that make sense?
I used the word “niggardly” in my novel, Abraham Lincoln for the Defense. When questioned by a black reader, I was able to show that the origin of niggardly is quite different than the word it sounds like. At least one person got fired and others have been reprimanded for correctly using the word niggardly. Should writers abandon the word to avoid confusion?
In an essay I wrote, I described a church of having a changing mixture of ethnic backgrounds in the congregation and increasing economic problems. An editor told me that was a racist statement. Since I wanted to get published I changed it. I did not and do not now think it was racist. The editor did. How do you defend yourself against a charge of racism?