COLUMBIA — MU English professor Thomas Quirk on Tuesday defended an effort to sanitize Mark Twain's masterpiece as an honest attempt to bring the author to more readers.
The Twain scholar was addressing a controversy stirred by Auburn University Professor Alan Gribben, who has revised "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
Gribben, a faculty member at Auburn's Montgomery campus, and NewSouth Books plan to release an edition this month that replaces the N-word with “slave.”
Quirk called Gribben a first-rate scholar and said his endeavor was an “authentic gesture” to return the book to public schools where it has been banned.
Quirk's lecture, "The Sanitizing of Huck Finn," was a Black History Month event held in MU's Gentry Hall.
Other Twain scholars thought Gribben had gone over to the “dark side,” Quirk said. He noted that the book is in the public domain and everyone has the right to revise it.
Quirk said that he agrees with Gribben that the novel overuses the N-word and that it is often modified in translation. The book has been printed in dozens of languages, he said, without including the offensive term.
Quirk said he also sympathizes with grade school teachers who have to teach it, calling it a “tough book.”
“At what age do children develop a capacity for irony?” Quirk asked. “Whatever that magical age should be, 'Huck Finn' should not be taught before that time."
The committee that scheduled Black History Month speakers decided that asking Quirk to discuss “Huck Finn” would be timely, said co-chair Peggy Placier.
The issue is especially relevant to people who teach, said Placier, an associate professor in MU’s College of Education.
“The intention of Gribben is to make this work acceptable so they can use it in public schools,” she said.
Despite the objective, she said she believes changing Twain’s work “still does damage to the authorial voice and the historical reality” of the text.
Quirk seemed to be trying to work through the contradiction himself.
He said he would not use the sanitized version in his classroom, as a college professor.
Furthermore, if he were a middle school teacher, he said he would not assign either the sanitized or the original version. The book is too difficult for young readers to comprehend, he said.
"It's not a book for boys, but it's a book for adults who used to be boys," Quirk said, quoting Twain.
One truth about Twain’s work transcends the controversy, he said.
“People throughout the world really love this book."