As a lifelong lover of Mark Twain’s writing and his ironic humour, I came to American studies abroad assuming Twain’s work would be one of the foundation stones of most of the American Literature modules taught in Ireland. However, it has been my experience to discover that his work is regularly sidelined on third-level courses with greater preference given to other, possibly less politically or socially problematic, nineteenth-century writers. These writers—Emerson, Thoreau, or Melville, for example—seem apparently to be more representative of the period for contemporary teachers of American literature. While this relegation of my favourite nineteenth-century American author might have come as a surprise to me, it would probably not have caught the astute Sam Clemens unawares. He was more than conscious of the fact that his writing could make people uncomfortable: indeed, one might argue that he revelled in it. The well-documented banning of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), along with his own amused response to that censorship, stands testament to his disregard for the conventions of the period. When the Public Library of Concord Massachusetts announced that it would “withhold the novel from its patrons because of coarseness of language and questionable morals,” Twain’s intuitive reaction was to predict that “the expulsion would be good for 25,000 in sales” (Powers 491). He was of course proved correct in this estimation, and Huckleberry Finn became the novel with which his name is most associated, but it has always been—and remains—a contentious text.
From the civil rights period of the mid-twentieth century onward, the moral perspective of Twain’s most widely read, taught, studied, and analysed narrative has been looked at through a very different lens than the one used in 1885. While morality and coarseness are no longer the primary issues for most librarians or teachers, language remains to the fore when determining the suitability of teaching Twain’s novel in the modern classroom. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) “was among the first organizations that publicly recommended banning the book because of its use” of the N-word (MacDonnell 249). However, since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there have been numerous attempts within the United States to remove the novel from the school curriculum due to the continuous use of the provocative word and to what is seen to be the demeaning depiction of the black character, Jim.  The argument around the novel’s omission from the school syllabus has remained ongoing within the United States. By the turn of the new millennium, well-renowned scholars of the calibre of Shelly Fisher Fishkin, Alan Gribben, and Toni Morrison had for more than a quarter of a century been questioning the manner in which race is portrayed in the novel and thus taught in the classroom. Possibly the most successful of the sanitising endeavours is the NewSouth Books edition (2011) that includes both Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in one text. In this version of the narratives, the publishers decided to substitute the word ‘slave’ as a less offensive synonym for the pejorative original term used by Twain.
On first hearing of this change to the purity of the original text I felt, along with many other admirers of Twain’s work, that such an alteration was bowing to a politically correct agenda at the expense of a masterpiece of American literature. My immediate view of the sanitised version aligned with the perspective of Robert Tally, who argued that it was “a misguided attempt to clean up Huck’s, and Twain’s language,” which could only serve to interfere with the integrity of the author’s work (101). I believed, and would have reasoned, that students who were not mature enough to recognise the irony within the narration and realise that the repetitive use of the word was intended to say something about the antebellum era, along with the background and social status of the characters who used it, were probably not experienced enough to engage at an adult level with the novel. I would have further argued that the very use of the N-word in the text forced readers to examine it, both in the context of the plot and its use within present-day society. For me, the very starkness of the term invited uncomfortable discussions around issues which are often avoided both socially and within the lecture hall, and as such would serve to expand the students’ college experience. However, recent events have made me pause and reflect on my own degree of white privilege when engaging with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
The Black Lives Matter movement, along with the murder of George Floyd (May 25, 2020), has begun a world-wide debate around race which rivals the impact of the “Shot heard round the world” in 1775 (Emerson 125). This requires us to pause and consider whether it will still be possible to teach Twain’s work as the twenty-first century itself begins to come of age. The primary question which must be asked is: does teaching Mark Twain’s work, particularly Huckleberry Finn, only add further to the anguish and sense of alienation of Black students and their families? If it does, there are certainly less provocative novels that would be more appropriate for secondary school students and even undergraduates at university level. So, it seems crass to insist that students be made uncomfortable in order to maintain the status of a classic that may have outlived its relevance. In order to probe the possibilities for preserving the text, I decided to take another look at the NewSouth Books edition of Huckleberry Finn and reconsider what the editor, Alan Gribben, had to say in defence of their interference with Twain’s original work. While Gribben directs scholars of Twain’s novels to work with “non-expurgated versions” of the text, he argues that this edited version “is intended to bring new and younger readers to Twain’s masterpiece” (Tally 101). So then we have to consider, if the language in the text alienates readers from realising its true worth, might it not be better to agree to use the version which purges the novel of offense in order to allow readers access to the wealth of historical understanding which the text provides?
To that end, I have found that teaching texts like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) in conjunction with one another provides a vital link to an historical understanding of Twain’s problematic use of language in his novel. As Twain’s narrative is set during the period of Douglass’s lived experience, the Douglass text offers essential context to Twain’s plot. In the United States, teaching both texts presupposes that students at college level will have a general understanding of U.S. history; whether this supposition is correct is debatable, but the opportunity to gain this understanding would have been there for most undergraduates. I believe Twain, writing in the latter part of the turbulent nineteenth century, certainly expected that the majority of his audience would be familiar with their own recent past. Neither expectation can be assumed when discussing the novel with modern Irish or international students, however. Therefore, when introducing these works in Ireland, it is crucial to provide some historical context in order to offer a true understanding of Twain’s representation of white superiority and Black subjugation. In his introduction to the NewSouth edition of Huckleberry Finn, Gribben poses the question:
Would we rather have a novel written about the American South of the 1840s that entirely avoids the existence of slavery? Many writers in the post-Civil War period were scrupulously omitting all traces of slavery and African Americans from their books; others were starting to idealize the anti-bellum [sic] plantation system and portray slavery, now abolished, as having been more dependent on domestic loyalty than latent brutality. Twain however, elected to make slavery an integral part of his stories, and in [Adventures of Huckleberry Finn] he would render its functioning far from idyllic. (Gribben loc. 202)
In answer to Gribben’s query, I would not advocate sidestepping around the existence of a system that was abolished at great cost to the nation. Neither do I want students to lose a novel that has given pleasure to so many and provided a unique pathway for discussion on racial issues. But I certainly do not wish to give offense to a large section of our society, particularly to those in twenty-first century Ireland, a country which has only recently become truly multi-ethnic and multi-racial. Consequently, if substituting a word in a narrative of such power will open the text to more readers, then I feel we must be willing to reverse a purist opinion on authorial language and introduce the text in this new format. Twain is often reputed to have said that if you want to change the future, you must change what you’re doing in the present: so, for me, once again, Twain has the last word.
 In the novel, the first-person narrator Huck “manages to refer to Jim and all African Americans by one of the most offensive terms in the English language 213 times” (Tally 98).
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Library of America Ralph Waldo Emerson Edition (Book 2). Library of America, 1994.
Gribben, Alan, editor. Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition. NewSouth Books, 2011.
MacDonnell, Kevin, and Kent R. Rasmussen, editors. Mark Twain and Youth. Bloomsbury, 2016.
Powers, Ron. Mark Twain: A Life. Simon and Schuster, 2005.
Tally, Robert T. “Bleeping Mark Twain?: Censorship, Huckleberry Finn and the Functions of Literature.” Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice, vol. 6, no. 1, Spring 2013, pp. 97-107.