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Controversy over the “great American novel”

Dana Greer and Kayla Blasek, writer

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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic American novel about a boy who journeys down the Mississippi River with his African-American friend Jim during the mid-1800s. It fits the criteria for high school English class perfectly, except for one small problem; the n-word is used a total of 219 times, along with other racial slurs and comments.

In 2009 Huck Finn ranked at number fourteen on the American Library Association’s list of most frequently challenged books. Many schools around America have banned this book for the use of derogatory language, but Perkiomen Valley has not.

In a recent poll taken at Perkiomen Valley High School, 75% of the 45 children surveyed said that the n-word was okay for usage in the book because it has an educational purpose. The other 25% thought it should be replaced with the word slave, or taken away completely because the n-word is offensive no matter how it is used.

A sophomore student, DJ Lesher, who had recently read the book said, “The n-word is very important to the satire and moral of the story Twain was going for, but I think he wrote it for adults and not for impressionable teens to analyze in English class.”

Another scholar was so offended that he decided to publish a new version of the book where the n-word was replaced with “slave,” and “Injun” with “Indian.” Alan Gribben, a professor at Auburn University, was quoted by Julie Bosman about why he had proposed the idea of the new version of Huck Finn.

“I found myself right out of graduate school at Berkeley not wanting to pronounce the word [n-word] when I would teach either ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘Tom Sawyer,’ ” he said. “And I don’t think I’m alone.”

Gribben definitely doesn’t stand alone, but there are many who stand in opposition to him. One of these challengers is Peter Messent, author and professor at Nottingham University. Messent wrote a blog pertaining to Gribben’s new version of Huck Finn.

“Perhaps it is a book that needs careful handling by teachers at high school and even university level as they put it in its larger discursive context, explain how the irony works, and the enormous harm that racist language can do,” Messent wrote. “But to tamper with the author’s words because of the sensibilities of present-day readers is unacceptable. The minute you do this, the minute this stops being the book that Twain wrote.”

Twain once made the statement: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Twain knew well what he was writing, and he used an offensive word deliberately to create satire. Now, because of this, the book can be used to teach satire or influence racism, but it is up to the reader to decide what the connotation of the n-word in Huck Finn is.

 

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Controversy over the “great American novel”