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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Huckleberry Finn and a Certain Word

Yeah, I know, the internet has pretty much covered this one already. Most sane people, who somehow seem to be too busy to run for school boards, don’t like the idea of sanitizing perhaps the pre-eminent American novel just so as to avoid offending our modern sensitivities. It is truly sad that as the structural institutions of our society are so afraid of serious discussion that they would purge the historical record to refrain from it.

Let me then, just say this, since, as an ardent admirer of Twain I feel it would be wrong to stay silent: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not a novel marred by its use of racial epithets. The inclusion of the “n-word” is not done through some blind insensitivity. Rather, the novel is enhanced by the considered, though frequent, use of the word. Its prominence, more than being a matter of accuracy, also serves the story perfectly.

Huck Finn, despite all his other divergences from society, is at the beginning of the novel still locked in the same mindset as the rest of his world, that blacks are lesser human beings and therefore justifiably kept as slaves. It takes an extraordinary set of circumstances before he can begin to break through this imposed mindset and finally see Jim as a real person.

Twain uses the n-word to establish the pernicious nature of the world of the novel, the way society can ensnare even the best of us in its prejudices. Taking the epithets out of the mouths of Twain’s people lessens the power of the narrative. It’s just wrong.

It’s not hard to guess what Twain himself would have thought of such an edition of his work. One of his most famous and truest quotes says: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.”

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