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Kevin Mac Donnell <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 13 Jan 2011 10:53:41 -0600
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There's no end to the arguments over word substitutions. Sometimes Twain objected, but despite his grumblings he allowed it many times when Livy or Howells suggested it, or when a publisher wanted a change, or after he tried it on a lecture audience, or when he thought it would damage sales, or harm the commercial value of his trademark. We might like to think we are textual purist and consider Twain one too, but he wasn't. He might have grumbled, but he cashed every royalty check.

I think the more interesting question is how this edition differs from previous editions intended for young readers. Neider left out the "evasion" chapters which disrupts the narrative and destroys a major theme (the return of Tom Sawyer to the story to remind us how far Huck Finn has set aside childish things, lost his innocence, left behind his boyhood itself, rejected romanticism in general, etc.). John Wallace thought the book was racist and did much more than substitute words, effectively erasing the satire from a work whose strength IS its satire. Other heavily edited editions for kids have furthered the Disneyfication of Twain's image.

But Al Gribben's edition does none of that. The notion of tinkering with a work of art may be disturbing, and "slave" may not be the ideal substitute (is there one?), but this edition may do something no previous edition has done before. It may call the bluff of the self-appointed critics (parents, school boards, media pundits, etc.) who have objected to this book in the past because they took the mere presence of the word "nigger" as proof the book was racist. It calls their bluff. To what will they object now? And those who objected to the book because they found the presence of that word hurtful, can now read (or teach) the book without the hurt. The net result may be that the book reaches kids who otherwise would never be able to read it. It may not be in the form we'd like, but they will get the book with all the chapters intact and none of the satire erased. Although every subscriber in this Forum is presumeably a reader, let's remember that for many kids, if they don't read a work of great literature in school at some point, they very likely will never seek it out on their own and read it. Even among us habitual readers, how many great works of literature have you read that you were not first exposed to in school? In fact, I'd venture a guess that kids who read this edited version of Huck Finn in school will be more likely to seek out an unedited version later on and read it on their own, than kids who never read it in school. This edited version has not replaced every other edition of Huck Finn, although from the hysteria and chatter, you'd  think it had. Life will go on.

In the meantime, Huck Finn has been constantly in the media, right on the heels of the AUTOBIOGRAPHY, and not in a bad way, but presented as a great work of literature. Op-eds in the Times, and skits on Colbert Report and the Daily Show are just preaching to the choir, but the coverage has spread wider and deeper into the culture than that, and I can't help but think the book is now getting read more than ever before as a result --in the unedited version at this point. Does anyone know the amazon sales rankings for all editions of HF pre and post flap-doodle? Or likewise, pre/post sales rankings for Twain's complete works on the Kindle?   

Mac Donnell Rare Books
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