‘Do Not Tamper With Twain’

OSWEGO, NY – Local educators, book people and fans of Mark Twain are up in arms.

There is a word that rhymes with “trigger,” which in these politically correct times can only be referred to as “the N-word” by most people.

The word was commonplace in Twain’s time; probably still frowned upon by most, but commonplace nonetheless.

While most people find the word repugnant, they say removing it from a piece of classic American literature would be just as offensive.

Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben from Auburn University at Montgomery and publisher NewSouth Books are releasing a sanitized version of “Huckleberry Finn.”

They are substituting “slave” in place of the N-word.

While some agree the intentions are good, the overwhelming belief is it isn’t right to edit/censor history.

“That’s ridiculous. It’s something that is well-intentioned, but wrong-headed,” said Bill Reilly, owner of the river’s end book store in Oswego. “We are not in favor of censorship – in any form.”

“I personally think that it is wrong to ‘rewrite’ specific words in an author’s works and still claim that the story was written by the author,” said Dee Marie, author of the “Sons of Avalon” saga.

It would be different if they used his story as a parody; or even if they wanted to rewrite the story, as they have with Jane Austin, and state that it is a story ‘based’ on the works of an author, she added.

“But, to use Mark Twain’s works and censor specific words to make them politically correct would be plagiarism,” the local author said.

“As I watched the news the other morning, I was outraged at another American Classic being taken off the shelves. Huck Finn was first published in 1884 with its setting/time being 50 years prior to this date. This is prior to the Civil War so the N-word was commonly used and expressed both in culture and literature,” said Lisa Buske, an elementary school teacher who is also working on a book about her sister, Heidi Allen.

From an educational standpoint, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is a must read for the children of today, she said.

The vocabulary, the acceptable connotations and name calling used in the book are teaching points, she noted.

“I don’t approve of or encourage the use of this language, yet find using literature a powerful way of illustrating our progress in the United States, she said. “We have progressed from extreme name calling, prejudices and slavery to having the first African-American President of the United States.”

“This is a powerful lesson for our children and a tool to be used for challenging our children to continue this path of eliminating racism and expanding equality into our future,” she continued.

“Even though the N-word is abrasive now and PI, it is part of the history of this book. My opinion is you don’t tamper with someone’s manuscript. Period. Updating a manuscript to modern times makes it a new manuscript,” said Deborah Engelke, owner of Time and Again Books & Tea in Oswego.

A disclaimer might help solve the problem, she noted.

“Maybe an introduction using the N-word’s history and why it is not considered appropriate now. It never was, but now it has another life as ‘owned’ by the people who were dissed by it then. Black Americans often use it in their own culture and it has even found a place of endearment. A white person cannot use it without it being derogatory. This word has history, a long and complicated one. But it IS the history of this novel,” she said.

Buske agreed.

If Twain were to submit a book proposal and manuscript for Huckleberry Finn in today’s market, he’d likely accumulate an inch-thick rejection folder, she said.

“However, Twain was writing for the 1884 reader. It was a popular book and is an American Classic because of the truth and accuracy of its story and writing style,” she explained. “To modernize and transform this classic would devalue Twain’s artistry as it would remove the timely truth of the pre-Civil War era.”

“Mark Twain didn’t devote time to write this book from 1876 – 1883 to offend the readers of 2011. He had his readers (in the 1800s) in mind as he was writing. Hence the reason it is still an American Classic,” she said.

Mark Ellis is a technology teacher at Oswego County BOCES. He is also an aficionado of all things Mark Twain.

He was succinct in his initial reaction, “I hate it.”

”If we are marketing Twain in 2011; to modernize him in the marketing sense of today, the N-word probably should be removed,” he said. “Although in that case, we’re not marketing Twain. We’re marketing Twain with the parts missing.”

“Like the black family wanting to hitch a ride on the ferry boat to take ’em down river. The wife would walk up the ramp. The husband would walk up the ramp, with the leashed dog in tow. They’d leave the kids behind, but the dog … no,” he continued using part of Twain’s work to emphasize the point.

”Who knows though?  Maybe Twain with some of the parts missing could still be a viable product.  After all, Hemingway said: ‘All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,’” he added.

”Twain used the N-word. He didn’t over use it, but he did use it. If we teach Twain and we remove the N-word, we have removed a word from his mind, his time, his pen, his paper, his scripts, articles, essays … out of political correctness of 2011. We in effect erase part of the fabric of the 19th century. Do we have the right to ‘erase’ the truth? Is it our responsibility to expose it? Or don’t we even consider it?” Ellis continued.

It could be like playing blind man’s bluff, he said and offered this scenario:

OK –

It is April, 2011. I am Henry. I am being introduced to Twain with the N-word removed. I learn about Twain. I trust my teacher and I trust those who taught me that this is Twain. I never see the N-word.

It is April, 2012. I am Henry. I am reading a novel by Twain I bought at the store or took out at the library or bought on the web. I am reading it to my children at bed time. I see the N-word …


  1. If we go to changing the words in classics, are we also going to rewrite the dictionary? Where does it end? Also, is anyone aware the “N” word is in the dictionary and is defined as being a laten word? I didn’t see this myself, but was told this. Maybe I’ll look it up. Maybe a lot of people should look it up.

  2. June – you are correct. The word originated from the Latin word “niger,” which means black.
    – Steve

  3. I won’t be saddened to see the N word excluded from Mark Twain’s book. I lived during the era when it was okay to call others the ‘N’ word. And it was painful to experience. Now as a responsible adult, I despise any negative references to groups or individuals based on their race or nationality. I also do not like the ‘R’ word which is used to describe mental challenges. I don’t like negative inferences against people with dementia or other cognitive/emotional weaknesses. I really hate it when a super intelligent person mocks the intelligence of a lesser IQ. I could go on and on. I’m very offended when a person of a particular group uses negative descriptions of thesame group. That makes my skin crawl. I don’t like that stuff, and I speak out against it because it segregates and demeans. As a society we need to be kinder in the things we say, do, print, etc. So the altering of a book with not so kind words is okay by me. Please do not publish my name. As you can imagine, request is based on numerous reasons.

  4. While I too detest the use of derogatory terms to refer to any group of people, I feel that removing the N-word from Twain’s classic work would be a denial of the history behind his story. Taking away the offensive word does not change history and does not allow us to acknowledge the wrongs that were committed or the social progress that has been made since that time. I agree with Ms. Buske. This literature can and should be used as it was written to continue to educate our youth. Our children deserve to know the truth so that they can grow, learn, and lead the way so this kind of history does not repeat itself.

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