The Controversy Hits the Television Airwaves
New South Books is a fiercely independent publisher based in Montgomery, Alabama and known for social activism and attention to Southern culture. Co-founder Randall Williams stated his case on the "Huckopolis" controversy during an excellent 60 Minutes interview with CBS correspondent Byron Pitts. (It originally aired on March 20, 2011.) "We respect Dr. Bradley’s belief that a full exploration of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn requires a discussion of the epithets," said Williams during the interview. "We encourage teachers who feel comfortable addressing the epithets to continue to teach original editions of Twain’s works. The NewSouth edition remains an alternative for teachers who want to use the books in their classrooms, but are unable to present them in their original form because of pressure from parents or administrators to exclude the books." View the full interview with Randall Williams on the 60 Minutes website. You can also watch extra material, including Pitts and 60 Minutes editor Ann Silvio discussing their decision to use racial epithets during the piece, along with unaired segments from Pitts and Williams’s conversation. NewSouth’s world headquarters are in historic downtown Montgomery, in a 1960s-era building formerly known as the Montgomery Shoe Factory, a shoe-repair business. Williams and co-founder Suzanne La Rosa changed the sign on the front to Montgomery Book Factory, kept the boot on top of the two-story building, and installed a bookstore on the first floor where there was retail space. The bookstore sells both new and used books and specializes in the same categories of books that the company publishes. Learn more at the New South website.
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Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Go Back to SchoolDuring the past year I worked on an experimental edition of Mark Twain’s two most famous novels to make them teachable again in the public school districts that have dropped them from reading lists owing to their racial pejoratives. I signed a contract with NewSouth Books, an independent press in Montgomery, Alabama known for its titles on Southern history and literature, civil rights, and race relations.
Early in January 2011, weeks before the book’s release, The NewSouth Edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn became national news when Publishers Weekly ran an anticipatory article about it. This concept of an optional edition of Twain’s novels immediately met with more condemnation than support. I gave radio interviews and appeared on television newscasts to outline how the edition would substitute the word “slave” for the nine n-words in Tom Sawyer and the 219 usages of the same racial epithet in Huckleberry Finn. The media launched a flurry of preemptive strikes to discourage its publication. One would have thought from the furor that I was dislodging a cornerstone of Western civilization. Newspapers condemned the forthcoming edition, even asking if I intended next to delete the cruelty to whales in Moby Dick. Editorial cartoonists weighed in, gloomily predicting the end of free speech in America. Several prominent commentators attacked the edition for being issued by an independent publisher, especially a press located in the South. Letter-writers and internet bloggers insisted that I would be desecrating a pair of literary monuments in an act of unthinking sacrilege.
In actuality, however, the edition had its basis in much reflective thought. I resolved to take this editorial measure after making a statewide speaking tour to tout Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer at libraries in small towns as well as larger cities. The idea was to boost younger readers’ interest in older classics by showing them an example that pre-dated the Harry Potter series. After my talks I was often approached by public school teachers who reported that they no longer introduce Tom Sawyer in their integrated classes because of the inflammatory n-word. According to them, both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are now off-limits in many classrooms. Later, I found that there are school districts across the entire country, most of them careful not to make headlines for “banning” two classics, that have simply allowed these books to quietly slip off their approved curriculum lists of assignable readings.
Driving home from my Tom Sawyer library presentations, I contemplated the prospect of generations of students being prevented from encountering Twain’s masterpieces. In today’s colleges it is frequently possible to earn a bachelor’s degree without completing a course in nineteenth-century American literature. Eventually large numbers of Americans will lack any first-hand knowledge about the (arguably) greatest author of prose our nation produced after Hawthorne and Melville. It occurred to me that I was equipped by my lifetime of studying and teaching Mark Twain to prepare an edition of Twain’s two novels that could offer teachers and school districts a workable alternative to avoiding the books. After all, I had reconstructed Twain’s library and reading in a 1,000-page catalog, co-edited a collection of his travel writings, and published numerous essays investigating his biography, prose style, and celebrity image. What if I produced an edition of both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn that retained every phrase, sentence, and chapter in them except the offensive racial slurs?
Few will deny that the n-word is hurtful to young African American readers, or that its repetitious presence in required assignments causes many readers of other ethnicities to wince. This particular racial epithet has taken on additionally insulting connotations after the 1870s and 1880s, when Twain was composing these works, and since the 1840s, the decade in which he set his novels. The vernacular of uneducated people along the Mississippi River more than 150 years ago included a term that today smacks of permanent inferiority and has become a fighting word in various regions of our country, in spite of attempts by rap and hip hop artists to appropriate and defang the n-word’s effectiveness as a derogatory insult.
Although my publishers at NewSouth Books, Randall Williams and Suzanne LaRosa, had expressed initial reservations about whether we would be able to sufficiently alert teachers to the availability of this niche edition, that concern of theirs soon turned out to have been needless, to put it mildly. Until the Egyptian uprisings pushed through another news cycle, the publishers and I had the sense that nearly everyone who reads newspapers, looks at internet blogs, listens to radio, or watches television had learned about the NewSouth Edition and held a strong opinion one way or the other about its justification. The Wall Street Journal reported nearly 60,000 posts about the edition on Twitter and Facebook within a four-day period in January. Debate teams at high schools and colleges eagerly took up its implications. College and local newspapers tussled with the issues involved. News outlets in Canada, Australia, the Republic of Ireland, and the United Kingdom treated the matter like an international crisis. It became clear that textual purists, worried about historical accuracy above all else, would prefer that these novels not be taught at all rather than make any compromise about a degrading name. I sensed an enormous disconnect between the university and media intelligentsia and the world of the public school teacher. Early critics of the edition at least took into account my scholarly record and credited me with being “well-intentioned,” but as bloggers fanned the flames with falsehoods the subsequent commentators were not so kind. My campus email address logged in forty or fifty messages a day, most of them in the form of protests, the majority of them ill-informed and abusive.
During the weeks preceding the volume’s appearance, media pundits and entertainment personalities on radio and television exaggerated the news to make it seem as though all other existing editions of the two novels would hereafter be abolished. People outside academe wrote to me in consternation, fearful that they would never again be able to read the original versions of Twain’s novels. I referred them to the relevant part of my Introduction (available online at newsouthbooks.com) citing authoritative editions that do contain the n-word and urging readers to consult them. I had to laugh whenever the professional commentators avoided pronouncing or printing the very word they were mocking me for substituting and that they are expecting public school teachers to read aloud in integrated classrooms. The editors’ newspapers routinely reject letters to the editor that contain the word. Media broadcasters and columnists know that their own jobs would be forfeited if they dared to violate a tacit protocol by uttering or publishing that dreaded word.
Some objectors charged that I was second-guessing Twain’s artistry and demonstrating little respect for his ability with phrasing. One of my favorite sayings of his — about the difference between lightning and a lightning-bug — was often quoted back to me. I found this notion to be downright comical, since I am on record, in articles and encyclopedia entries, as praising Twain’s knack for using exactly the right words in the right places. The issue is not whether he knew what he was doing when he employed the n-word; the point is whether the books can still entertain and enlighten in the public schools without those racial epithets in the dialect that Twain recalled being spoken during the days of slavery. I contend that these novels are so well-crafted that they do retain their impact.
Fears about a “slippery slope” were commonly expressed--that this optional edition might inadvertently usher in a new age of sensitivity to racially disparaging words in other authors’ texts. Here I could only point out that this one Twain specialist has no control over such developments. Having dedicated my academic career to studying, appreciating, and promoting Mark Twain, I saw it as my duty at this juncture to assist the public school districts and their teachers in giving students access to Tom Sawyer as well as Huckleberry Finn. This latter book is the fourth most challenged classic” title in the United States, and Tom Sawyer is the fourteenth. It is a fact that the n-word also occurs in another book still assigned in numerous high schools, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), but much less frequently than in Huckleberry Finn and with a greater consciousness of its negative import and racial animus. Huck Finn’s flow of n-words is unthinking and automatic; Scout Finch employs it only occasionally in her narrative and for a powerful effect.
Certain editorials proclaimed that the substituted term “slave” “sanitizes” Huck Finn’s narrative, glossing over the plight of ante-bellum African Americans. Where is the logic in alleging that the designation ‘slave” avoids the abject condition of those enmeshed in slavery? The NewSouth Edition merely translates the offending n-words; it does not write human slavery out of Twain’s novels. Completely intact are the representations of his disgust for an institution he was ashamed of having supported in his adolescence and beyond. (Twain’s family had owned as many slaves as they could afford. Moreover, his father sat on a jury that gave penitentiary sentences to several abolitionists who came across the river in an effort to help slaves escape.) A case could be made that Huckleberry Finn was partially a gesture of atonement for the author’s unenlightened views during his youth.
More serious were the accusations that I was practicing “censorship.” I would answer that exactly the opposite is the case. I have devised a means by which these novels can return to public school classrooms from which they are currently barred. “Censorship” is normally defined as having the enforcement of governmental mandates behind it. Am I not, then, in reality circumventing a system of silent but effective censorship? The step I have taken will significantly enlarge the younger audience for Twain’s brilliant works. And those teachers and curriculum directors who are comfortable using the standard editions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are entitled to continue doing so.
MARK TWAIN’S FLEXIBILITY
Many columnists seemed to believe that Mark Twain, if he were alive today, would object to any tampering with his texts, however minimal. I can only reply that no one, including myself, can channel the mind of an author more than 100 years after his death. We do know, however, that Twain was probably our most commercially minded author ever. He employed an army of salespeople to knock on doors in cities and farmlands, his latest book in hand, because that method of marketing was more lucrative than the retail bookstore system. We are also aware that he was capable of enormous and continuous changes. He drastically modified his views about religion, Native Americans, slavery, history, philosophy, evolution, financial investing, Shakespeare, politics, colonial imperialism, and dozens of other subjects. He altered his public costume repeatedly, arriving on the East Coast in a shockingly unconventional sealskin coat and concluding his days on earth by donning white linen suits. Who is to say that this chaser of fortunes and public attention might not smile upon a revision that would reinsert his boy books back into school classrooms and gain new readers?
My publishers resolutely refused to halt or postpone the NewSouth Edition in spite of the invectives hurled at them, and more than a month after its issuance the tide began to turn. “60 Minutes” and its CBS television affiliates aired on March 20, 2011 (see sidebar) a probing debate in which one teacher acknowledged the “pain” that the n-word inflicts in high school classrooms. For the most part, hostile commentary about the edition dampened after that. Besides, readers were now able to obtain copies of the book and see for themselves the Introduction and notes. The publisher and I soon received grateful letters of support from classroom teachers who had given up on assigning Huckleberry Finn. “It is a great move on your end,” wrote one high school instructor.
"I completely stopped teaching this book because of the effect it had and has on African American students. Any person who disagrees with your version should be forced to assign and teach the old version . . . , just so they can experience the difficulty and discomfort of such hateful language in a scholastic setting. . . . . It simply isn’t worth teaching because the n-word becomes the focus. Not only does it hurt feelings, but it can also spark hostility. . . . I think it’s a good option and I’m glad you did it."
Another teacher agreed, writing:
"I fully appreciate your effort to make Huckleberry Finn accessible to more high school students. I suspect that not one of your critics has stood before an integrated classroom. . . . I also doubt that they have seen the expressions of humiliating discomfort of students in a classroom where the novel is used as an excuse to repeat the n-word over and over. Thank you for your efforts to return the most important novel in the American literary canon to its rightful place in high school curriculums."
No university press or large commercial publishing house could have withstood the barrage of hostile publicity that preceded this book’s arrival. Only an independent press with a philosophical commitment to ameliorating our civil discourse about race relations would have been capable of honoring the contract they had signed and seeing the project through to publication despite a concerted media effort to prevent its release.
Now and hereafter the teachers and school districts have another option besides forgoing these two classic literary works. The liberating act of setting aside the reviled n-word, which has fruitlessly dominated virtually all public discussions of these novels for the past forty years, enables teachers to pass beyond that inhibiting barrier and help students perceive Twain’s deeper critiques of selfish human tendencies, humorous satires of river village life, and implicit condemnations of social conformity. With the availability of this alternate edition, students are no longer held captive to the n-word in assigned Mark Twain readings.
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About the Author: Dr. Alan Gribben co-founded the Mark Twain Circle of America, compiled Mark Twain’s Library: A Reconstruction, and recently co-edited Mark Twain on the Move: A Travel Reader. Gribben has written numerous essays about Mark Twain’s life and image. He has taught American literature and writing classes for nearly forty years, and currently teaches on the English faculty of Auburn University at Montgomery.
Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition
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