Fiction — print. Penguin Classics, 2002. Originally published 1884. 368 pgs. Library copy.
GoodReads tells me that I’ve tried reading this book a total of three times — once in June 2009, once in November 2010, and now again in June 2012. The first time I tried reading the novel in print form; the second time I nearly reached the end by listening to the audiobook before giving up to a less than engaging narrator. This is the first time I’ve actually finished the novel.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the tale, Twain’s classic novel follows the slightly feral Huckleberry Finn as he runs away from the Widow Douglas, an elderly woman trying to “civilize” the boy, with Jim, an escaping slave headed for freedom.
Having never read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, I was concerned that I would become lost as soon as I started the novel since this is technically the sequel to Tom Sawyer. Our narrator, Huck, spend the first few chapters catching the reader up on his adventures and life story as established in the previous novel.
Twain’s novel has attracted a lot of controversy for its word choice. In 2011, a publisher released an edited version of this novel with the word “nigger” replaced with “slave”. Having never read the book, I felt uncomfortable commenting on the controversy at the time, although I do have strong feelings about censorship. Now that I’ve read the novel, I’d like to take a moment to comment on the decision, which I believe to be misguided for two reasons.
One, replacing “nigger” with “slave” regardless of who the narrator is referring to consigns men and women held in slavery and those free to the same status. Jim’s journey is degraded because, even if he was to escape slavery in Missouri, he would still be a “slave” when he reaches the free states.
Secondly, using the word “slave” makes it appear as those racism only exists when and where slavery exists. Yet, we all know that this is untrue — racism existed in the North and still exists today even though (institutionalized) slavery does not. Using “slave” confines racism to a time and place, absolving any guilt on the part of non-Southerners and changing the applicability to modern day readers.
Note: I alternated between reading this book in print and in audio. I am unable to include the cover of the audiobook because it was given to me by an organization who produces audiobooks for people with reading impairments.