Main Site

This is Gem Newman's blog. Return to the main site.


06 January 2011

Expurgation on the Mississippi

I am enormously fond of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (and of Sam Clemens in general), and so I was rather taken aback to hear that NewSouth Books intends to release an expurgated edition of both novels in February. This bowdlerisation will specifically remove the words "nigger" and "injun" from the text.

I hadn't read Huckleberry Finn until recently, and although I was initially alarmed by the language, I grew to welcome the bracing and gritty realism. I came away from the book with an appreciation for the subversiveness with which the author used the hated word, and I have a hard time believing that the altered text of the forthcoming edition will be help future readers appreciate the story. Jim's struggle against racism, and Huckleberry's internal conflict over helping Jim escape (which he initially and heartbreakingly thinks of as "stealing") can't help but grip the reader, and the way Clemens interwove the racist language of the time into Finn's internal monologue really drives these struggles home.

But don't listen to me: this fellow explains the intricacies of the case much better than I do. And I agree with him.

And I could be wrong. I have never, to my knowledge, been called anything worse than a "limey". What do you think?

Edit: Tom the Dancing Bug weighs in.


  1. So I'm torn on the subject. On the one hand, oh you can't go messing with a classic! You take all the meaning out! Yada yada. But on the other hand, I've often felt that many books that I have hated, I would've loved if they were "retranslated" into modern english. Most of the books I read in English class, in fact. So, I don't know how I feel about this, but I'm not as against it as the internet seems to be

  2. I definitely don't think of it as being on a level with Ray Comfort's Origin, but it seems to me to be more about censorship and whitewashing than about making the book accessible. At the same time, I recognise that I may be taking the desecration of a book that I dearly love a little too personally... ;)

  3. To explain a bit more: although the language of the novels (especially Huckleberry Finn) may be challenging for younger readers, as it is in period voice, this isn't what is being changed (from what I've read): it's just the two words (and perhaps a few more curses). From the first article above, Thomas Wortham says, "a book like Professor Gribben has imagined doesn't challenge children [and their teachers] to ask, 'Why would a child like Huck use such reprehensible language?'" It seems that way to me.