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Poor Huck

Published February 12. 2011 09:00AM

There was steam coming out of the top of my head this week. I learned that someone wants to change some of the wording in Mark Twain's classic novel "Huckleberry Finn."

Now, that book has been around for a very long time and millions of readers have enjoyed the story. Why in heaven would someone decide that in 2011 there needed to be a change in the book?

Oh, I know why! We're all so darned concerned with political correctness today - that's why. Because Twain used the "n" word (which was an accepted term in those days), some thin-skinned readers thought he needed a late spanking. They want to change the offending "n" word to the word 'slave.'

This entire incident bothers me on a few levels. First, as a former English teacher, I have a deep appreciation for authors and their work. Putting words on paper is a talent. Writing something like "Huckleberry Finn" goes beyond talent. It borders on genius.

Secondly, as a writer myself, I get palpitations when a reader questions my choice of words or gives me grief about a term I've used. You might think I'm overly sensitive, but I'm just a woman who gave birth to a piece of writing. We writers tend to think of our work as children - and we become Mama Grizzlies when our offspring are attacked.

Third, and most annoying, books are pieces of history. They are written at a specific time in a specific place and for a specific reason. When Twain wrote "Huckleberry Finn" in 1884, he intended the book to be a statement against racism and prejudice. The fact that Huck learns that the slave Jim is a kind, warm, friendly individual goes a long way to dispel stereotypes about blacks in that age.

Changing the "n" word to satisfy someone's current annoyance with that word is not a good enough reason to fiddle with history. Period.

What's next? Will some flaming critic decide that "Gone with the Wind" perpetuates the stereotype of slave treatment in the South? Will a political hack tear apart Ben Franklin's "Poor Richard's Almanac" because of its tongue-in-cheek attitude toward the world?

Personally, I believe that all books should be left the way the author intended. If you don't like something inside the book, put it down and don't read it. If the use of the "n" word is so appalling to you, then start with folks like Chris Rock who use the term as a comedic riff. Don't attack Huck Finn and let Chris Rock remain.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was Mark Twain's real name. He was a gold miner, a newspaper reporter, and a Mississippi riverboat pilot. He heard the leadsmen on the paddle steamers calling out the depths of the river in knots, or 'marks' on a line hanging over the side. Mark 'twain' indicated the second knot, which was two fathoms or twelve feet deep - the safe depth of water for a steamboat.

Clemens lived from 1835 to 1910. He saw the Civil War up close and personal. He understood racism and wanted his novel to reflect a humanitarian attitude. He would be twisting and turning in his grave to know that someone thought his words needed fixing.

I'll try to stay calm. Now that I've written this column, the steam isn't pouring out of my head as much. But, if I hear about another attempt to change words in a published book, I'll probably explode.


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