It’s been a busy week at NewSouth Books, where publishers Suzanne La Rosa and Randall Williams have fielded hundreds of calls, and many more e-mails, from news outlets and readers concerning their publication of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Since Monday, when PW first reported the publisher’s plans to release Twain’s most celebrated and challenged works without the “hurtful epithets” that have caused it to be dropped from school curricula, the story has generated enormous interest in both new and old media outlets—on Tuesday night, the report from ABC’s Diane Sawyer focused more on the Twitter debate than the who or why of the story.
The outcry following PW’s story, much of it negative and all of it highly charged, has surprised but not discouraged La Rosa and NewSouth, who anticipated the controversy, if not the volume. “I have not been off the phone all day, it’s just been insane,” she told PW, while ignoring a call on the other line. “I hope this is good for Twain, and it probably isn’t bad for NewSouth.” La Rosa told PW that, in the wake of all the attention, NewSouth plans to increase their print run from the initial 7,500 to 10,000.
In the meantime, editor Alan Gribben has spoken with a long list of international news outlets, including NBC and CBS (who both included interviews with Dr. Gribben in their national newscasts), the Associated Press, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Times of London, CNN, and NPR. The story merited late-night nods from both Jay Leno and Stephen Colbert, and has made its way into the satirical faux-news source The Onion.
Much of the pushback has been harsh. The New York Times, who ran a news story and hosted an authors’ discussion on their “Room for Debate” blog, also ran an editorial on Wednesday titled “That’s Not Twain,” in which they state that “there is no way to ‘clean up’ Twain without doing irreparable harm to the truth of his work.”
There have been pockets of support for the stated purpose of the new edition, spelled out in Gribben’s detailed introduction to the volume (available online at NewSouth’s Web site), which is to reach schools where the novels are no longer acceptable: Dave Rosenthal at the Baltimore Sun agrees that “this word is so weighted that it gets in the way of a true discussion of the merits”; MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann admitted that he was “of two minds” about the decision: “I despise censorship, and on the other hand, It’s madness that Huckleberry Finn is essentially off-limits to anybody until college or later.”
Yet, the National Council of Teachers of English calls it censorship. Spokesperson Millie Davis, director of the NCTE’s communications division and its anti-censorship program, argues that neither Gribben nor NewSouth have any hard data backing their claim that Huckleberry Finn is going untaught: “I have no idea how often it is or isn’t taught nowadays,” she told PW, although the book often turns up on the list of most banned and/or challenged books. Davis, who for years taught Huckleberry Finn in an all African-American high school, advocates teaching the original text correctly or not teaching it at all: “It’s a text that requires sensitivity to teach, but also requires a lot of background. And you would never read this book aloud in class.” Davis also reiterates that Huck Finn is not appropriate for students until at least the tenth grade: “It’s not a book you’d be teaching your fifth graders, and it’s certainly not a book you pull off the shelf, put in a kid’s hand and say ‘Read it, we’ll talk about it tomorrow.’ ”