To enter the debate now is kind of like starting a marathon at the back of the pack, but I am going to weigh in anyway. I was quite surprised to see the new “sanitized” edition of Huck Finn featured on the NBC Nightly News, and I was even more surprised when I realized that NewSouth Books published it and that Dr. Alan Gribben had put it together. To make this clear up front, before I begin commenting: I worked for NewSouth Books from 2001 until 2003, and I knew Alan Gribben first as the head of the English department at Auburn University at Montgomery when I got my degree there and later when we published his daughter’s YA novel at NewSouth. So even though I have no relation to the Huck Finn project, I do know the people involved . . . though not Mark Twain.
I have mixed emotions about this new edition of the novel. While I am philosophically opposed to censorship, knowing both Randall Williams, the editor at NewSouth Books, and Dr. Gribben, I seriously doubt that censorship was their intention, although what they did is censorship in a way. Admitting that I have only a barely surface knowledge of the situation, it is reported that they have removed all instances of an offensive term and replaced all instances with a less offensive term. I don’t believe that they were trying to “bury” the N-word, as the NAACP tried to do in 2007 (even going so far as holding a mock funeral). While I am also against altering literary works from the author’s original, I am an editor – and this is what editors do; we alter authors’ work for the purpose of improving them. I will also acknowledge that the change made by Gribben might increase the audience for the book and might increase the willingness of some teachers to include on their syllabi.
The question for me is: which element of the situation should supersede the other, the philosophical or the realistic? Philosophically, changing or censoring an author’s work is wrong, especially since Twain is not alive to approve the change. Realistically, this alteration is having or could have very good effects: this publication already has people talking about both race and censorship, which are important matters to discuss openly, and this great work’s readership might increase.
Most people who will discuss this subject will not know either Randall Williams or Alan Gribben, but I do. I can assure anyone that they are good, educated and intelligent men who are not trying to endorse censorship or deceit. I have not spoken to either of them about their intentions or goals, since I just heard this story yesterday. We’ll see how it plays out. What I do know is there are news sources all over the world posting Op-Ed pieces with some strong opinions.