A friend in America asked me last week what I made of the new edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry
Finn that takes out the 200 occurrences of the word ‘nigger’ and replaces them with ‘slave’. The book editor’s claimed that the censorship would encourage the book back onto school curricula from which it has apparently been edged off in nervous embarrassment. Sarah Churchill, a lecturer at the University of East Anglia, specifically countered this argument in The Guardian back in January with the sensible comment that ‘the whole point of literature is to expose us to different ideas and different eras, and they won’t always be nice and benign’.

Churchill is right, as I see it, to insist that literary studies involve confronting the textual remains of the past. Pretending that Twain didn’t use the word inhibits sensitive analysis of how language shapes Twain’s treatment of race in the novel, and how it has acquired its highly offensive present-day connotations. A lesson on Huckleberry Finn could bring to light how the word fits into Huck’s discourse, what views about race its use promotes, whether they were sensational at the time, and how acceptable or not they are today. The text deserves to be bowdlerized only in those cases where the target readership or audience is incapable of such analysis; amending the book’s language makes sense for a pre-school TV adaptation. But on the whole, passing over such an awkward issue risks magnifying the misunderstanding. In this case, the discomfort makes it an even more pressing topic to discuss. It clarifies when use of the word deserves to be condemned, but a censored edition of Huck Finn prevents such dialogue. It encourages the conditions for the scary recent controversies about the word ‘niggardly’. Scarier still is that such discussion does impose a racial connotation to the word that it never originally had: I doubt any US politician has used the word in public recently.

This new edition of Huckleberry Finn reflects one viewpoint in the contemporary States. In fifty years’ time it could be taken up by scholars as evidence of cultural consciousness in early twenty-first-century North America (though making generalizations from one book would be rash). Editions of this ‘Great American Novel’ are affected by the editor’s conception of what a ‘Great America’ speaks like. The word history of ‘niggardly’ now tells its own story of racial sensitivity. Language is context-dependent, and literary studies help us to study text and context together. We learn about English language and its interactions with culture. Such study makes us more aware of the forces that exert themselves on our tongues, and gives us the mental strength to make new sounds.


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