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Tweaking Twain OK as long as original version still available, WUSTL professor says

No different than children’s version of the Bible or Shakespeare

Changing words in Mark Twain’s classic book Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is fine as long as the original version still is easily available for readers, says Gerald L. Early, PhD, the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters in Arts & Sciences and director of the Center for the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis.

Gerald Early

Early

A new edition of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, scheduled to be published in February by NewSouth Books, substitutes the word “slave” for the “n-word” and “Indian” for “injun” throughout the book.

The publisher has been accused of censorship and altering a classic of American literature for the sake of political correctness. Early argues that this is just another case of tinkering with texts in order to create a version that best serves its audience.

“We change texts all the time,” Early says. “For instance, we make children’s versions of the Bible, Homer and Shakespeare.

“We have abridged versions of many books for all sorts of reasons. Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus tales have been revised, rewritten, the dialect changed for modern readers.”

Early says that removing the “n-word” from Huckleberry Finn is just that kind of abridgement.

“People do not have to accept it, and they can show their displeasure by simply not buying and reading this abridgment,” he says.

“Many times abridgments are made that are unwise or unwarranted or unjustified. Sometimes not. Let the public decide in this instance, as it does in all others.”

Early, a professor of English, of African and African-American studies, and of American culture studies, is a noted essayist and American culture critic.

He is the author of several books, including The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature and Modern American Culture, which won the 1994 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, and This Is Where I Came In: Black America in the 1960s. Other works are One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture; Daughters: On Family and Fatherhood; and Tuxedo Junction: Essays on American Culture.

Early also is editor of numerous volumes, including The Muhammad Ali Reader and The Sammy Davis, Jr. Reader. He served as a consultant on four of Ken Burns’ documentary films: Baseball, Jazz, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson and The War, and appeared in the first three as an on-air analyst.
 

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Gerald L. Early
Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters
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