03 January 2011

The Slave Jim and Indian Joe

The John F. Blair company is about to publish an edition of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn that:

  • refers to Huck’s companion as “the slave Jim,” leaving out the “n word,” since that has such a powerful negative effect on today’s readers.
  • refers to Tom’s bête noire as “Indian Joe,” for a parallel reason.
  • substitutes “half-blood” for “half-breed” when discussing Joe. The editor says the replacement term is “less disrespectful and has even taken on some panache since J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005).”
Alan Gribben’s introduction (PDF download) explains:
This NewSouth Edition of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn is emphatically not designed for academic scholars studying Twain’s precise texts. I simply came to believe that a significant number of school teachers, college instructors, and general readers might welcome the option of an edition of Twain’s paired novels that spares the reader all contact with a word that never seems to lose its vitriol, despite the occasional efforts of rap and hip hop musicians to re-appropriate it and the well-meaning but usually futile (from my own personal experience) endeavors by classroom teachers to inoculate their students against the “n” word by using Huckleberry Finn as a springboard to discuss its etymology and cultural history.
Gribben points out that Twain himself was a commercial writer, keenly sensitive to his audience’s reactions (even if he didn’t always try to comfort them). And that there are plenty of other editions with the original language, should a reader or teacher wish that.

Indeed, I think the fate of this approach will be determined in the commercial marketplace. If people wish a slightly bowdlerized edition of these two novels, they can buy this book, and it will remain in print. If not enough people do, this text will fade away.

Gribben is to be commended for declaring and discussing his choice up front and giving us the choice. I’m happy with the editions I have—but the words being changed have never been applied to me.

(Thanks to Bookshelves of Doom and Book Haven.)

No comments: