As a consequence of the recent press coverage given to Alan Gribben's newly sanitized version of Mark Twain's classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The staff at the Mark Twain House & Museum has been inundated with requests for a comment, and while we greatly appreciate the media attention, we are very disappointed by the cause of it.
Once again, the trendy "feel good" sentiments of modern political correctness have foisted on the public another redaction of great American literature that purges from the original version the ugly truth revealed in the vicious language of racism that Mark Twain had sought to expose during the Jim Crow Era of the late nineteenth century.
Twain once said of his most famous work that it: "...is a book of mine in which a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision, and conscience suffers defeat." Here Twain articulates the subtle and ironic intent of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by distinguishing between its depiction of "conscience," which is merely what our society teaches us is right and wrong and which Twain castigates as "deformed" in the case of post-Reconstruction society, and a "sound heart," which refers to the inherent and eternal goodness of human nature.
Twain admitted to once having embraced all the most cherished beliefs about racial difference and black inferiority that gave moral justification to the slavocracy of the antebellum South. He used his story of the boy Huckleberry Finn to illustrate his own epiphany about American racism and to offer a cautionary tale at a time when American society was receding back into the same depravity that had earlier torn the nation apart in the Civil War.
What many readers of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn don't realize is that the book was not an anti-slavery, or abolitionist work -- The Civil War, The Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th Amendment had ended that nefarious practice in 1865. Although Twain's book is set during the antebellum period, it was published in 1885 when "freedmen" had already been an established fact of American life for two decades, but also when segregation and racial degradation were again in ascendance everywhere in the nation.
Twain's character "Jim" is a black man that had to bravely navigate the treacherous waters of repression in the Deep South, all the while assessing the degree to which he could reveal his true self to a young white boy "Huck," who eventually does come to see their common humanity. It is no accident that "Jim" is the defining character of a story that was meant to expose the racially regressive period in our history known as the "Jim Crow" Era.
To substitute the word "slave" for "nigger," which is the key to Gribben's dilution of Twain's classic work, is not only to remove what makes the racism so terribly palpable to modern readers, but it also negates the power of the parallel Twain intended to be drawn in telling the story of Huck and Jim during the time of "Jim Crow." The word "slave" is anachronistic to the original book, and it destroys the book's potency as great historical literature and a valuable teaching tool.
While there have been many abridgements and expurgated editions of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn published over the years to make this classic American story accessible to younger readers, and some of these editions are actually for sale in our museum bookstore, they can only be viewed as a prelude to the way that all mature American readers should engage this book. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not a happy or comfortable book to read, but there can be no doubt that it still is one of the essential books we Americans should read in order to understand and reflect upon the ugliest and most divisive aspect of our national story and character.
Craig Hotchkiss has been the Education Program Manager at the Mark Twain House & Museum for four years, prior to which he taught high school history for 32 years. He holds three advanced degrees in Educational Psychology, World History, and American Studies