J. KARL MILLER: Revision of 'Huckleberry Finn' has little public approval

Wednesday, January 26, 2011 | 3:58 p.m. CST; updated 8:25 p.m. CST, Wednesday, January 26, 2011

COLUMBIA — When I first learned Mark Twain expert Alan Gribben removed all instances of the "n-word" from "Huckleberry Finn," my reactionary right-wing persona took over, and I denounced this edit of Twain's classic as another example of political correctness run amok. The substitution of "slave" for the offensive term is an overdose of literary nonsense.

Having read most — if not all — of Twain's works to include several perusals of the infamous "Huckleberry Finn," I recognize, as do most, the purpose of his methodology. By using satire to poke fun at the pretentious prejudice of the time, he portrayed the runaway slave, Jim, as the hero — the only character capable of grasping the absurdity of intolerance.

On the other hand, since the book has all but ceased to exist in school curricula, it is relegated to optional reading lists or banned. According to the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom,  "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is among the most challenged books of the 21st century due to racism. Should I not give the literary revisionists their due? Is there merit in correcting gender, religious, racial and general political incorrectness in our literature?

Take for example William Gray's and Zerna Sharp's "Dick and Jane" readers. They were used to teach children to read from the 1930s through the 1970s. Who can forget the opening lines "See Dick. See Dick run. Run Dick run?" Why was Dick first, not only in the book's title but also the first to be recognized in action? I ask you, is that not an egregious example of gender inequality and repression?

Another of the classics ripe for removal of offensive personal incivility is Rudyard Kipling's "Gunga Din," perhaps the most famous of his barracks room ballads. Much like Twain's Jim, the ragged Regimental bhisti (native water boy) Gunga Din, despite his low station in life, was the hero of the poem.

The invective endured by Din was offensive to a fault. "Limpin' lump o' brick dust," "squidgy nosed old idol" and "'eathen" were among the less than endearing and obvious racial epithets hurled at the Harijan (untouchable) but intrepid Hindu water bearer. Would it not be more respectful to substitute the British descriptive of that era "Worthy Oriental Gentleman" for the demeaning rhetoric?

Advocates of increased gun control and opponents of the Second Amendment's right to bear arms could ask the editors to look to Zane Grey as fertile ground. While no longer widely read, editing nonviolent amendments into his romantic but often gun-play-filled novels of the Old West could promote a kinder, gentler experience for the reader.

Two of Grey's prominent gunfighters, Jim Lassiter of "Riders of the Purple Sage" and Buckley Duane of "The Lone Star Ranger," are good candidates for pacification. Instead of dispatching the villains by way of the quicker draw and well-aimed shots from Sam Colt's equalizer, why not edit the scenario to disarm the varmints through dialogue and diplomacy? At the very least, shoot the guns from Tull's and Poggin's hands as did Gene and Roy?

Shakespeare and Disney share some guilt in the fields of political correctness and diversity. "Othello," the "dark Moor," is susceptible to interpretation for racial and/or religious intolerance. And, Snow White's companions, the Seven Dwarfs, should be more correctly described as "vertically challenged diamond miners."

The allure and/or attraction of literary and historical revisions and moral relativism to some is too readily available. If they offend one's sense of morality, diversity, sensitivity or intellectual superiority, simply remove or alter that which offends. The problem is in convincing the public.

Judging from the mostly negative reception to Mr Gribben's editing of "Huckleberry Finn," reality fortunately rules — for now.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at

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Michael Williams January 26, 2011 | 8:07 p.m.

why not edit the scenario to disarm the varmints through dialogue and diplomacy?

I'm still laffin' at this statement.
It's never the validity of the "message"; it's "We just didn't use the right words and you didn't let us talk long enuf. Why, we can even bring a stump back to life if you let us try, and if you give us enuf time!"

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop January 26, 2011 | 8:13 p.m.

I'm sure the SPCA, PETA, et al will no longer allow the dissection of frogs in science because of the obvious violence.

Really, have these idiots seen what passes for entertainment on TV these days?

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop January 26, 2011 | 8:15 p.m.

Colonel, if we get a GOP president in 2012, perhaps we could recommend R. Lee Ermey as Sec. of Ed?

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 26, 2011 | 8:56 p.m.



Last thing I want is my surgeon's education limited to a computerized slide show.

I'd rather prefer a few dogs, pigs, etc., bite the dust, first.

(Report Comment)
John Bliss January 27, 2011 | 10:45 a.m.

Colonel, Too Funny!! I however question one area near to your heart, the DI's at USMC boot camp! It would be a riot trying to see them be PC while training!! About the dwarfs, I have worked along side with them at a factory, they prefer the term: "little people"! Honest Sir, would I lie to you? I told them I would call them by their given names, nothing else. That worked. You know me, and I have always hated the use of that "N" word, however, in literature, it seems fitting for that time and place. It is always WRONG to change someone else's works. Thanks for the article Sir!

(Report Comment)
Gregg Bush January 29, 2011 | 5:53 p.m.

I, like you, find historical revisionism loathsome even if it is fiction that is being revised. It would be like an American history book without the Missouri Compromise, the Trail of Tears, or the valor at Normandy. It may still be a great read but would lack the texture - the reality - of our collective past.
However, I don't think it's your "reactionary right-wing persona" that brought you to this conclusion. I suggest that it is your high regard for tradition. Though, that may be a distinction without a difference.
My conclusion derives from my own experience. As a published writer and produced playwright, I know the feeling of agonizing over every word - making sure none is out of place.
Finally, if you have not read Twain's The War is my favorite, and I commend it to you.
The good news in all of this: American's have come a long way from using such a vile word in polite, casual conversation.

(Report Comment)
Kevin Gamble March 9, 2011 | 4:57 p.m.

I agree with you - let us pile up as many explanations, caveats, forewords/afterwords as we want, but leave the original work of art alone.

I'd suggest that the changes in meaning, usage, and cultural significance of words over time are not barriers to understanding, but key components of understanding. It's not how the words Twain used relate to our time that are significant to the meaning of his work, but how they related to his own time. Lose his words, and we lose the context for how he expressed his ideas.

Twain's a national treasure. One can only hope that attempts to revise/censor his work are motivated, at heart, by a desire to maintain a place for his work in education. But better to keep reality as it was and explain it than try to pretend it's something it wasn't.

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