Editing Twain

Friday, January 7, 2011

Mark Twain, a century after his death, continues to spur social and political discourse.

The first volume of his autobiography became a best seller when it published in 2010. Twain himself put a hold on parts of the publication until it could be printed in full in a time when it wouldn't offend people.

It seems odd, then, that as new versions of his full and complete thoughts are being printed -- because we can supposedly embrace and understand them now -- a new version of one of his dearest works is departing from Twain's original words.

NewSouth Books plans to distribute a new edition of the "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" in February with "slave" replacing the n-word and "Indian" replacing injun.

The cleansed copy was spurred in large part by Alan Gribben, a Twain scholar and English professor at Auburn University in Montgomery, Ala.

Gribben has defended his stance, saying he personally has felt uncomfortable saying the word aloud in the classroom. He also said he's heard from educators who would like to teach the Twain story, but refrain because of the use of the n-word, which appears 219 times throughout the story.

Some denounce the move as a bow to political correctness. Others cry censorship.

I have to side with a third group which thinks an author's work shouldn't be arbitrarily or unnecessarily changed. As both a writer and an editor, I have written words and I have changed others' words. However, I mostly make changes for flow or clarity, not for comfort.

Great stories paint a picture of the time in which they are set. Twain's novel ironed out several cultural and social lessons, not the least of which was racism and prejudices.

Knowing the word, its history and the hurt it causes is what keeps decent people from using it.

Scrubbing the novel of both of these expressions only waters down the depravity of those who use it and belittles the transformation of those who come to realize it's wrong.

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