The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter — it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
— Mark Twain in letter to George Bainton, Oct. 15, 1888
Samuel Clemens was notoriously persnickety about using just the right word when he wrote. But a new version of "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "Tom Sawyer" is to be published excising certain offensive language.
Most of the news stories describing this bowdlerization, including The Associated Press, refer only to the “N-word” and not the offensive word that appears more than 220 times in the two books. They had no such compunction when it came to naming the character “Injun Joe,” which in rewrite becomes Indian Joe.
Twain scholar Alan Gribben plans to republish the books with the offending word replaced by the word “slave.”
I find the expurgation silly, but do not share the lather of others who appear offended to the core at the trifling with Twain’s genius. If it gets the gist of books into the hands of more readers, so be it. The original is extant.
In his biography, “Inventing Mark Twain: The Lives of Samuel Langhorne Clemens,” Andrew Hoffman describes the racial morality of Twain himself and how he worked this theme into his books.
Twain’s Huck Finn was an evolving and conflicted character, as Hoffman points out.
When asked if anyone was hurt in a steamboat explosion, Finn replies, “No’m. Killed a nigger.”
But when it comes to friend Jim’s freedom slavery he faces a moral dilemma, because his society has no problem with keeping people as property.
When Finn determines to steal Jim out of slavery, Hoffman writes, “At first, readers cheer Huck along, relieved that he is willing to accept eternal damnation rather than accede to a power structure he abhors. But savvy readers then recognize that, despite the virtue of Huck’s choice, he still believes in a moral system that recognizes some people as the property of others. Believing that Jim belongs to someone, he resolves to steal him; and not only to steal, but then to perform any other immoralities that occur to him, since the act of stealing Jim is already morally culpable. Mark Twain, morally hovering over the scene, applauds Huck’s moral growth, but by qualifying the reasoning by which Huck makes his choice he also cautions readers to recognize how paltry a step it really is. To accept Huck’s ideology, Twain seems to say, only replaces one immorality with another only slightly better.”
Like replacing one word with another.
For no particular reason, here is Hal Holbrook as Twain: