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The Sanitation of Mark Twain

Posted By Kent Oliver, Immediate Past President, Friday, July 20, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Mark Twain’s book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, first published in 1884, is one of America’s literary masterpieces. A recent edition conceived by Alan Gribben, professor of English at Auburn University and Twain scholar, has been edited to remove racially charged words. This edition clearly subverts the intent of the author: depicting life on the Mississippi River in the 1800s. It contributes to a disturbing trend in our society to dumb down controversial ideas, subjects and language in our literature. An exhaustive list of titles and topics demonstrating this practice may be found at

Because of its language and surface racism, Huck Finn has often been the target of book challenges and bannings. Ironically, the book is highly regarded in part because of its undeniable anti-racism message. Any deviation from the original is a desecration of the author’s work and original intent. Mr. Twain himself was very particular about the words he used and why. According to an oft- used quote by the author, "the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Possibly foreseeing a challenge to his "right words” such as Professor Gribben’s, Twain was famously concerned over copyright laws and desired to control his works, including his autobiography, beyond the grave.

While there is certainly a place for comfortable literature that entertains, the appeal and great impact of Huck Finn today lies in the fact it does not always make us feel comfortable—not with late-1800s America or with that of 2011. Its power is in the use of uncomfortable words and an insight into a time period that gives us pause for serious reflection.

The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom and the Freedom to Read Foundation, along with thousands of librarians and information professionals, support the premise that the most dangerous idea is the suppressed idea. As a society we should be committed to the right of unrestricted access to information and ideas, regardless of the viewpoints of the author or the reader. Without this commitment we run the risk of rewriting history as well as great literature. Students have heard the words; let them read and understand the ideas that go with them.

This article by FTRF President Kent Oliver was initially printed in the May 2011 issue of Costco Connection, Costco’ s monthly newsletter, as part of a Point/Counterpoint. Read the entire issue. Reprinted with permission.

Tags:  Huckleberry Finn  Kent Oliver  Mark Twain  racism 

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