Huck Finn said the N-word…. but I wasn’t sure I would be able to.

by Jotter girl on April 25, 2011


I had the idea to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn to my two 10 year old boys.  I thought sharing a classic piece of literature would be good for them so I downloaded Tom Sawyer onto my Kindle.  It’s been sitting in Kindle-ville for over a month because I’ve been wrestling with reading the N-word.

You are probably familiar with the current controversy over the censoring of Mark Twain’s books.  The publisher, New South, has taken out the “N-word” and replaced it with “slave”.  There have been other changes too, such as “Injun Joe” to “Indian Joe” and “half-breed” becomes “half-blood”.  All of this in an effort not to offend readers.  Turns out, that readers on both sides are offended and many articles have been written with varied opinions being tossed about.

I was pretty sure I knew what my opinion was and then began to think about reading the original text to my boys.  I wondered if I would stumble over the word nigger because in our real world, I find the term to be deeply offensive.  I began to plan in my head the discussion my boys and I would have regarding the N-word and worried that I might not be able to impress upon them just how the word stings me on an emotional level.  I wasn’t sure I could translate those feelings into words that would make them understand.

After doing a bit of research, I found the following quote from Mark Twain.

“the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter.”

It was at this point that I knew I needed to read my boys the original text.  The more I thought about it, the more I disagreed with the new censored publishing.  Changing art to suit our moral compass is, in my opinion wrong.

Knowing that the content of the Twain books would need some discussion and explanation on my part, I decided to check out a few parental guidance websites to find the recommended age for reading these books.  Twelve years old seemed to be the consensus but after a little more research, I came across this response from Twain himself in answer to a librarian’s inquiry about the banning of his book at the Brooklyn Library in NY.

“I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote ‘Tom Sawyer’ & ‘Huck Finn’ for adults exclusively, & it always distressed me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them.”

There was the answer I was looking for.  While I may not shield my boys from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn until they are grown up, I think I will wait a few years before sharing it with them.  As far as the N-word goes, I may stumble over it and feel uncomfortable saying it, but I intend to read them exactly what Twain wrote.

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