The idea of preparing an alternative edition of Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn occurred to me last year during a lecture tour designed by librarians to remind younger readers that engrossing literature predated the Harry Potter series. What shocked me was the number of public middle and high school teachers who told me they were prohibited by their school districts from introducing students even to Tom Sawyer, let alone Huckleberry Finn.
My aim, then, became the rescue of these two novels for students, parents, and teachers who have found the works, merely owing to one repugnant racial slur, disturbing to read in our integrated public schools. I approached NewSouth Books, an independent press receptive to manuscripts dealing with Southern literature and history, civil rights, and racial tolerance. Ironically, one of the publishers' initial concerns was whether they would be able to make enough teachers and readers aware of this optional edition. Undaunted by my up-front warning that textual purists and the Mark Twain establishment were likely to disapprove of any variant version, however slightly altered, NewSouth recognized its importance to schools and readily became the publisher for an n-word-free edition.
Even before we could get the book to press, a PW reporter noticed it and wrote an article anticipating its release. Within hours my e-mail inbox began to clog up with furious objections that soon made it clear that an organized Internet campaign had taken shape. I soon shared Huck's situation as he arrived at the Phelps farm, where "in a quarter of a minute I was a kind of a hub of a wheel, as you may say—spokes made out of dogs."
Some of the responders threw the racial slur around so freely that they resembled Pap Finn on one of his drunken tears. Most, however, stepped carefully around the very term they were castigating me for excluding. The gibes of my fellow Twain scholars hurt, coming as they did from colleagues whom I had assisted in the past and whose own work I had encouraged and praised.
As the crescendo rose and newspaper pundits saw fit to weigh in—nearly always without reading the excerpt from my "Introduction" that was posted at newsouthbooks.com—three typical misconceptions became noticeable. There was a widespread impression that, in spite of the small press run planned for our edition, I would somehow cause Twain's original texts never again to be accessible to readers. Others, mainly those who had clearly never read Huckleberry Finn, insisted that by substituting "slave" for the n-word I had removed all racism from Twain's book and thereby deprived instructors of invaluable "teaching moments"—whereas, as any reader knows, it is hard to open Huckleberry Finn without encountering the institution of slavery and the unsavory racial attitudes of the 1840s. For indignant conservative columnists, this edition represented another instance of caving in to "political correctness." One editorialist predicted that I or someone else would next rewrite Moby Dick to omit all cruelty to whales.
What to make of this wave of righteous hysteria? Judging from the fury aroused in most e-mailers, many bloggers, and much of the media, one would have thought I had added the hated n-word to two famous novels rather than subtracted it. NewSouth's e-book is available now, the hardcover will soon be released, and I trust that a number of critics will be struck by the helpful erudition, affection for the novels, and respect for other scholars that this edition reflects. I have devoted my academic career to understanding and promoting Mark Twain's writings, and I still have faith that conscientious journalists, scholars, and teachers will ultimately perceive the value of this optional edition. It will not, of course, end the 40-year controversy over the n-word in Huckleberry Finn, but it might enable discussions of that book to set aside this issue for the time being and focus instead on Twain's powerful narrative, entertaining satires, and haunting messages about social conformity.
At this point I feel a little like Twain when he described (in Roughing It) how his campfire accidentally touched off a gigantic forest fire on the shore of Lake Tahoe. Unable to put it out, he decided that his only recourse was to row his boat into the lake and watch with rapt awe the magnitude of the immense conflagration he had unintentionally sparked.
Alan Gribben cofounded the Mark Twain Circle of America and teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery. Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition, which he edited, will be released February 1.