The Cleaning Up of Huckleberry Finn

When I was teaching at the College of New Rochelle, a student I’ll call Kate decided to write her term paper about censorship in literature. Kate was a recent immigrant and had not learned the intricacies of Freedom of Speech. She felt certain books should be banned if they contained offensive material. “We need to protect children from being influenced by someone’s hateful agenda,” Kate said.

“But,” I countered, wanting to give her something to think about, “what if the writer is not being hateful? What if the language or thoughts are the reflection of the writer’s era?”  I was thinking, of course, of the 4th most banned book: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, removed from libraries and schools across the country for its liberal use of the “N” word, which was common in Twain’s day, the mid-1800s. I told Kate she was welcome to take any position on the topic as long as she was able to back up her assertions with credible evidence.

As it turns out, Kate’s debate is still front page news. New South Books published a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn replacing the “N” word with slave and the word injun with Indian. Is this preemptive censorship of an author who cannot defend himself wrong? Or is it a good thing, bringing the book to thousands more people who would never have read it, either because they find the words offensive or because the book wouldn’t otherwise have been taught in their school. The censorship of Huckleberry Finn has always been confusing to me. This is a time out of time situation: a word that was used regularly when the story was written is now regarded as vulgar and offensive. In my novel a character uses the word flapper to refer to a woman from the 1920s. A hundred and fifty years from now will that be a bad word? Who knows. Rather than banning Huckleberry Finn, couldn’t the teacher or maybe even a preface provide an explanation?

Censorship of content is slightly different. Take for example the young adult title Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, about a teenage girl who is raped and is so traumatized by the experience, she takes a kind of vow of silence rather than give voice to the horrific act. Last year a preacher in Republic, Missouri, tried to start a movement to ban this book and several others because of “near pornographic elements.” (Oh, the irony of a preacher in Republic silencing a book about a girl who is silenced.)

In 1973 Kurt Vonnegut’s opus Slaughterhouse Five was banned and burned in Drake, NC.  (Side note: if you think that this sort of thing only happens in small, backwater towns, know this – Slaughterhouse Five was banned in several cities in Long Island in 1980.) Vonnegut wrote a letter to the head of the Drake school board Charles McCarthy. I imagine if Vonnegut were alive he would still feel the same way. Here is an excerpt of that letter:

If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own. If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the eduction of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books–books you hadn’t even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.

In the end, I’m happy to say that Kate changed her mind about banning Huckleberry Finn.  She wrote her paper in support of the First Amdendment right to free speech and against censorship. But something that she included about other dubious prose gave me pause: how do free speech supporters reconcile things used for ill will like KKK pamphlets, how to make a dirty bomb websites, and anti semite rhetoric?

One could answer with Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s quote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Or that the above examples are generally only sought out by people predisposed to that way of thinking. Let’s take it a step further. Amazon recently listed someone’s self published guide to pedophelia (which they eventually removed after much backlash). And then there is a newly passed law banning “crush” videos, which are the intentional inflicting of actual harm on animals for personal gain (owning to the real statistics that many violent offenders get their start on animals), but which many First Amendment activists believe infringes on free speech.

I’ve always believed myself to be firmly in the anti-censorship camp, concerned over any restrictions that might erode this basic right, however subtly. But now I find myself wavering. Do guides to pedophelia and animal “crush” videos need to be available to people? Is it beneficial on any level to have this information in the world? Or, as Vonnegut wrote, do we need to allow all ideas to circulate freely, not merely our own? What do you think?

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2 comments

  1. I’m wavering on this idea of total free speech. Hate speech, especially those that incite violence , and guides to pedophilia should be banned. I am not white, and I’m an immigrant.

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