Twain classics to drop racial slur

A new edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer will replace the n-word with "slave" in an effort to boost acceptance of the books.

A new edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer will replace the n-word with "slave" in an effort to boost acceptance of the books.

Mark Twain's classics are frequently challenged because of the use of the racial slur and appeared as recently as 2007 on the American Library Association's list of most banned books.

NewSouth Books in Alabama is to publish a combined volume of the books in February that will make the alteration.

"It's such a shame that one word should be a barrier between a marvellous reading experience and a lot of readers," said Twain scholar Alan Gribben, who is working with the publisher on the new versions.

There is a risk that a new generation may miss out on reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer because of sensitivity about the use of the "n-word," Gribben said.

The word appears 219 times in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and four times in Tom Sawyer, he said.

Twain, whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, was very particular about selecting words and once wrote that "the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter."

'Wrong-headed' change

Not everyone is happy with the decision to alter Twain, considered an American master of language.

Rob Morrison, an English professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., called the changes "wrong-headed."

"I don't believe that we can solve racism by pretending that word wasn't used during this time," he said in an interview with CBC News.

"If that word makes you uncomfortable — it should make you uncomfortable  and the best way to solve that discomfort is to talk about it."

Morrison said he would be happy to see Twain's classics taught to children in Grades 7 and 8 (about age 11-13).

"They have heard that word," he said. "What they maybe haven't heard is an intelligent discussion of the word and what it meant at the time."

That kind of discussion takes good, committed teaching, he said, but if youngsters never hear racism discussed, they risk thinking that it is culturally acceptable, especially now that rappers have appropriated the word.

Gribben acknowledged he has received a flood of email accusing him of desecrating the novels, but says the emails, in which people resort to euphemism rather than use the offensive word, prove how uncomfortable modern readers are with the word.

He said he has experimented with changing the word at live readings and found that audiences accepted the change.

Schools should have the option of choosing a book that substitutes "slave" for the racial slur, he said.

Twain published Huckleberry Finn in 1885, and it is set in pre-Civil War days when the character Jim was still in the grips of slavery. Twain set out to depict a southern U.S. of the past and Jim, a close friend of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, is frequently referred to with a racial slur.

With files from The Associated Press