Sunday, January 16, 2011

Political Correctness and Huck Finn: How Far Is Too Far?

Books get banned. It’s a fact of life, and it’s not a pleasant one, but it still happens. It’s not the hand of one person to say what an entire community should or should not have access to. Over the years, a lot of stories evolve. Stories that are told orally change, and new and updated versions of tales that we have deemed classics are produced. Some act as abridged versions of the novels, such as Great Illustrated Classics, whereas others are totally modern re-tellings, such as the film 10 Things I Hate About You which is based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

Unfortunately, this means that sometimes books are changed in ways that might be negative. One particular incident that comes to mind when I say this is the recent news of a new edition of The Adventures Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain which will be free of racial slurs. Click here to read more about it. Racial slurs are terrible, and they should be deleted because they are politically incorrect. Right? Personally, I don’t think so.

For those who don’t know much about the novel, it takes place in the Mississippi Valley in the early nineteenth century and was first published in 1884. Looking at this in historical context, it’s about twenty years after the Civil War, when African Americans were emancipated from slavery but racism was still going strong in many parts of the country, particularly the south. The main character, Huck Finn, finds himself floating on a raft down the Mississippi with a runaway slave named Jim. Suffice it to say, the political climate surrounding race back then was very different, and the book contains several uses of the phrases “the N word” and “Injun,” which most people today consider offensive. The n-word has been replaced by the word “slave” and “Injun” is being replaced by “Native American.”

Obviously, this language has gotten Huck Finn banned a number of times, and the censored version will probably make it’s way into more schools and libraries, as Jackson Pearce pointed out in a video she made on this very subject.

More people getting to read this book is a good thing, and sure, some people can probably work through Twain’s commentary on racism without the offensive language. Personally? Even though I know there are upsides, I’m against it, because I think the language seriously affects the impact that this book has on readers. Click here to see a comic that spoofs how a politically correct version of Huck Finn would read.

Society has a tendency to look back on times that were filled with issues such as racism, war and violence and talk about how we should never let history repeat itself. With this kind of talk, you’d think we’d want to make an effort to study history accurately, instead of sugarcoating it. I also think Pearce makes an excellent point abut how entitled we are to change Twain’s words, especially since he clearly has a reason for using them. I mentioned Great Illustrated Classics earlier, and now I'm kind of curious as to whether or not one was done of Huck Finn and how much the language has been modified. If there is a modified, kid friendly version, how is that different from what's happening here? I'm not sure, but I’ll be sticking with my uncensored version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, filled with racial slurs.

What are your thoughts on this literary scandal? Do you think it’s worth it to change a few words of a book so it’ll reach more people, even if that makes it less accurate and lessens the impact? Leave your thoughts in the comments. I’d love to know!


  1. Personally, the change makes me angry. Books like Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird used those racial slurs to try to expose the ignorance and intolerance, not celebrate it. When we take those words out of the books and replace them with something more PC, it's like we're trying to rewrite history. NO ONE back then would have ever DREAMED of calling someone a Native American. I'd rather have them NOT read the books then to have some sort of mis-represented view of history. Those words are SUPPOSED to make people uncomfortable. Students aren't going to learn to be bothered by injustice if they don't see it in its most raw form.

  2. I absolutely agree with you. I don't think the book should be changed. They are the way the author has written them and they are a commentary on the times and to a message. I agree with Beth, I think that by having them mis-represent history they are being watered down and their power being diluted. People need to see injustice and racism in history (and in the world today) to make their decisions. It's out there, it can't be hidden.

    On the other hand, I'm wondering if these PC version will get people to want to read the original more than they normally would have. will they read both versions and be able to make some thoughtful and analytical opinions from it?

  3. It's interesting that I happen to be reading "Fahrenheit 451" at this very time because I just got to the part about why they started burning books in the first place... because too many people were being offended. Ummm... so didn't this literature professor who thought to change these words consider the lesson of "Fahrenheit 451" before thinking this was a good idea. I mean, he's a literature professor so you know he's read it!

    Although, like Midnyte Reader, I wonder if this is a ploy to get more people to actually pick up the original. Like the old saying goes, there's no such thing as bad press. By bringing this debate to the forefront, more people are probably going to go read the original.



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