Twain tweeking receives mixed reaction in Callaway

Even though Mark Twain warned that “persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted,” in his book “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” readers have found both motive and controversy.

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Mark Twain

Mary Sasser uses multiple selections from Mark Twain novels in her American Literature class at Fulton High School. In a couple of weeks, the juniors will be assigned “Huck Finn” to read and Sasser will discuss the book with them in class. She said she doesn’t ever recall a student or parent having an issue with the book or it causing any controversy.

However, that is exactly what a new version of Twain’s classic is stirring up when it was announced recently that a combined version of “Huck Finn” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” will be published next month minus the n-word.

Alan Gribben, a Twain scholar and English professor from Alabama, is working with NewSouth Books to replace the n-word in the novels with the word “slave,” change “Injun Joe” to “Indian Joe,” and switch “half-breed” to “half-blood.”

Martin Northway, a regional historian and self-alleged fan of Twain, said, “I think Twain would really be offended by this.”

Northway, of Fulton, said he has researched Twain’s life and doesn’t see the censoring of Twain’s novels as doing the author any “favors.”

“I think (Gribben) is well-intentioned, but I certainly have to wonder about the wisdom of what he’s doing,” Northway said. “When it comes to a book that is as challenging as ‘Huck Finn,’ we need to find a way to deal with it.”

But not everyone agrees that changing the wording is a bad idea.

Jack McBride, president of the Fulton chapter of NAACP, said he agrees with the decision to take out the n-word from the books.

“I strongly support the changes ... of any words, book or materials that are offensive to any race,” he said.

McBride said he understands the hesitancy of some to alter original works, “but this is a different day, and this is a different time, too. And I support the change.”

Gribben told The Associated Press that he was making the change from the n-word to slave because he had found it more acceptable to audiences and wanted teachers to use “Huck Finn” in class without feeling uncomfortable. The n-word is used 219 times in the book and four times in “Tom Sawyer.”

“It’s such a shame that one word should be a barrier between a marvelous reading experience and a lot of readers,” Gribben stated.

Sasser said she hasn’t ever felt uncomfortable with the language in “Huck Finn” when using it in class, but she doesn’t just throw the novel out there either.

“I think it takes a special kind of introduction ... you set it up in the framework of the time in which it was written,” she said.

Given the option of using the new version of the novel or the original for class study, Sasser said she would choose the original.

“I would like to stick to the author’s words. They are what he wrote, and there’s a reason he did what he did,” she said.

Kimberly Medsker, a high school English teacher at New Bloomfield, said Twain’s books are on the school’s required reading list.

“My personal belief is that the word in its proper literary content adds to the time period and issues in the story. To change it would be insulting to the writer and to the potential reader,” she said.

Suzanne Lackman, principal at New Bloomfield, said that as a former English teacher herself, she agrees with Medsker and doesn’t think the novels should be changed.

Mary Lynn Battles, South Callaway Schools superintendent, said in the 29 years she’s been in education, she never remembers any student or parent complaining about Twain’s books.

“I think we’ve really lost our sight, lost our vision when we want to take apart literary works that have had such historical significance,” Battles said. “Mark Twain was a wonderful writer and certainly wrote in the vernacular of his day.”

“We need to read things such as Mark Twain ... in the context that they were in and not try to read things into them.”

Henry Sweets, curator of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal, said the museum offers workshops to educate teachers on how to discuss potentially sensitive issues in Twain’s books with their classes.

“A well-informed teacher who can discuss the issue and show why these terms have become offensive and can lead a discussion of the irony and satire that appears through the book can make it a very good experience for the students,” Sweets said.

The museum curator said he thinks Twain would want “Huck Finn” left the way he published it.

“The book is certainly an anti-racism work of the first degree and to start changing the words in it starts changing the effectiveness of the book,” Sweets said.

Doyne McKenzie is a collections manager who oversees the buying and removing of books for all the libraries within Daniel Boone Regional Library’s system, including the Callaway County Public Library. She said she’s never heard of anyone coming to the library about an issue with either “Huck Finn” or “Tom Sawyer” and the library has multiple copies of both.

McKenzie said it’s possible that the library would purchase a copy of the new version of the novels, although it wouldn’t “throw out” the old versions.

“We do respond to requests, and probably will buy a copy or two if we did get a request,” she said.

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