Five years ago, Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben approached NewSouth Books (based in Montgomery, Ala.) about releasing a special joint edition of Twain’s classic novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The book, he proposed, would remove all instances of the racial slur nigger, which occurs more than 200 times in the original text.
After hearing Gribben’s pitch, Suzanna La Rosa, cofounder and publisher of the press, headed directly into her office and printed a contract for Gribben within five minutes, for what would become Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition. “I told him it doesn’t normally work this way,” La Rosa said, but she was intrigued by the chance to offer a new edition of the American classics, which are often left out of high school curricula due to the language. “It was the original banned book, and it was being banned again because of the language Twain used,” La Rosa said. “We felt we needed to go ahead without the hurtful epithets, for reasons of compassion, and also because we believed, as [Gribben] did, that these books were at the fundamental foundation of American literature.”
Though La Rosa said she knew the amended edition “would find a home out there,” sales did not come quickly, despite an avalanche of publicity and controversy following PW’s January 2011 story about NewSouth’s plans for the book’s publication. “There were definitely negative responses saying it was censorship, and people who didn’t understand the rationale in releasing this edition,” La Rosa noted. “But there were so many positive responses from people who understood the need for this.”
After the immediate controversy about the book—which, in addition to removing the offensive language, restored a chapter left out by Twain’s original publisher—settled down, sales weren’t what the press expected. “We didn’t see the orders right away, at least not the kind you’d expect after international discussion of the edition,” La Rosa said. It’s only in recent years that NewSouth has seen an increase in orders, as the original text continues to be banned in schools. “It’s starting to be adopted in a major way by high schools,” La Rosa added. To date, NewSouth has sold around 20,000 copies of the edition, a number La Rosa anticipates will grow. “The book has taken root and the orders will follow,” she said.
Norton also recently contacted NewSouth about including an excerpt from Gribben’s introduction to the edition in an upcoming anthology. “His intro is beautiful, very heartfelt, and gives a critical statement of why this book needed to be written,” La Rosa said. “I’m very happy to see that it’s found its niche and is respected.”
NewSouth releases approximately 20 titles each year, predominantly nonfiction. Its most recent release, Forsaken, by North Carolina-based author Ross Howell Jr., explores the South’s racial identity. The novel, set in Virginia in 1912, offers a fictionalized version of real-life events. “It’s a heart-wrenching novel that really describes the experiences of the black folks and the white folks who were victims of Jim Crow,” La Rosa said.
The publisher is also expanding the bookstore attached to its editorial offices. The store opened several years ago primarily as a space for community gatherings, but NewSouth now hopes to replace Capitol Books & News, which was also in Montgomery but closed at the end of 2015. Currently, NewSouth mostly sells used books in its 1,800-sq.-ft. space, but La Rosa said it plans to increase the number of new books it offers this year.