NYR iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Hugh Rawson

Hugh Rawson

Posted: January 25, 2011 11:40 AM

Mark Twain's Language: "Bad" Words Then and Now


When The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was originally published, people were not much disturbed by Mark Twain's use of n*gger, let alone injun, terms that have been replaced by slave and Indian in the latest bowdlerization of the Adventures, this one edited by an Auburn professor, Alan Gribbin, and released by NewSouth Books. The first time around profanity and public morality were hotter issues.

The Adventures, copyrighted in 1884, was distributed in February of 1885. Initial orders totaled 40,000 copies; within a few weeks another 10,000 had to be printed. This would be a good start for any book today and it was very good back then. "Your news is splendid," Twain wrote his publisher on March 16. "Huck certainly is a success."

Almost simultaneously, the newly published book came under attack. The committee in charge of the public library in Concord, Massachusetts - an intellectual epicenter of the nation as home to Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne -- voted unanimously to exclude Huck from its shelves.

The committee members couldn't condone Huck's willingness to tell a lie in time of need and his deciding, after considerable internal debate, that he'd rather "go to hell" than betray Jim and see his companion returned to his original owner, Miss Watson. One member of the committee, fortunately nameless for the sake of his place in literary history, was quoted in the Boston Daily Globe of March 17 as saying, "While I do not wish to state it as my opinion that the book is absolutely immoral in its tone, it seems to me that it contains very little humor, and that little is of a coarse type... I regard it as the veriest trash." Another pure-minded member chimed in with "Yes, the book is flippant and irreverent in its style; it deals with a series of experiences that are certainly not elevating; the whole book is of a class that is more profitable for the slums than it is for responsible people, and it is trash of the veriest sort." (Concord's reputation was only partly redeemed when local Free Trade Club's immediately elected Twain as an honorary member.)

Similar bans of Huckleberry Finn and of what now might be called its prequel, Tom Sawyer, were enacted in succeeding years in Des Moines, Denver, Omaha, and many other towns and cities. Huck has always been high on the list that American Library Association compiles annually of titles challenged in schools and libraries. In 1982 the novel even was banned for a short time at the Mark Twain Intermediate School in Fairfax, Virginia.

Professor Gribbin has said that he believes the substitution of slave for n*gger will make it easier for teachers to teach the book. This change may confuse some students, though, since Jim has freed himself by running away from Miss Watson, and so is not actually a slave during most the book. And by making the substitution, many good teaching opportunities are lost.

For example, one could explore the history of the now-offensive word. It stems from the Latin niger, black, as does Negro, but where the latter came directly from the Spanish or Portuguese negro, n*gger was adapted from the French nègre. The so-called N-word wasn't always regarded as being as odious, witness Carl Van Vechten's 1926 novel, Nigger Heaven, a sympathetic portrait of life in Harlem. (The title comes from a nineteenth-century slang term for the upper balcony of a segregated theater.) Exploring further, a class might consider why, up to the present time, black people (and not just rappers) can use the word, often affectionately, even admiringly, while white people can't.

Literary landmarks along censorship way include Joseph Conrad's The Nigger of the Narcissus, published at the end of the nineteenth century and removed from many school libraries in the twentieth; Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's The Yearling, published in 1938 and released two years later in a "school edition" that omitted two passages containing the troublesome word; Agatha Christie's 1939 play, Ten Little Niggers, retitled first as Ten Little Indians and then as And Then There Were None, and Nigger, the 1965 autobiography of the black comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory. Then there was the case of an aide to the mayor of Washington, D.C., who was required to resign in 1989 after he offended a black colleague by saying he would have "to be niggardly" in dispensing monies from a particular fund, although niggardly comes from a Scandinavian word meaning "miserly" and has nothing to do with the other one.

Students might also want to think about Mark Twain's racial attitudes. Accurately reflecting the everyday speech of people in the Mississippi valley in the 1840s, the text of Huckleberry Finn includes more than 200 instances of n*gger. But this probably doesn't say very much about the author himself. Twain publicly championed Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute, while privately paying the tuition of a black student at Yale Law School. "We have ground the manhood out of them, and the shame is ours and not theirs, and we should pay for it," he said in a letter to the Dean.

Twain deserves the last word. Replying to a friendly librarian, who had informed him that the superintendent of children's books for the public library system in Brooklyn had decided toward the end of 1905 to transfer all copies of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer to adult sections, where young readers would be less likely to encounter them, Twain maintained that he had written both books "for adults exclusively." He was greatly distressed, he said, whenever he found "that boys and girls have been allowed access to them." He went on:

"The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never be washed clean again; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again this side of the grave. . . . If there is an unexpurgated in the Children's Department, won't you please help that young woman [meaning the superintendent] remove Huck and Tom from that questionable companionship?"