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The following review appeared 17 January 2013 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2013 Mark Twain Forum
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The plethora of printings of these cornerstone works of Twain dictates that, when an edition warrants reviewing, it is because it offers a new perspective on these classics, by virtue of commentary providing a novel interpretation, or inclusion of unearthed material providing the scholar with an expanded historical context for the period in which it was written. The latter benefit is exemplified by the University of California editions of Mark Twain's works which are advertised as "The Only Authoritative Text," and remain the gold standard of his novels. The September 2012 publication of the NewSouth Books "Original Text Editions" (which were copyrighted in 2011) provides an additional reason for such notice. It is no secret to members of the Mark Twain Forum, as well as to readers throughout the wider universe, that Alan Gribben's NewSouth Books editions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn published in 2011, a scant two years ago, elicited reactions including praise, indignation, and even condemnation.
A detailed discussion of the bibliophilic brouhaha which accompanied the 2011 edition of these works is unnecessary, given the comprehensive review of the prior edition by Kevin Mac Donnell which appeared on the Mark Twain Forum in April 2011. The deletion of the words "nigger," "half-breed," and "Injun" in that edition, for the purpose of rendering the works more acceptable in classrooms, triggered a response ". . . in the mass media (which) has run the gamut from frowns of disapproval to hysterical personal attacks" (Mac Donnell). The most significant change in the present editions is the reinstatement of the offending words, hence the designation, "Original Text Edition." In his introduction to the two works Gribben does not use the primary offender, referring to it as the "n-word," "a linguistic corruption of 'Negro,'" and "this racial insult," a decision which may well reflect Gribben's own sensitivities in this regard, or an intentional strategy which draws attention to the word "nigger" as a prelude to a "teachable moment," an ironic strategy cited by Mac Donnell in his review, one that might have elicited a chuckle, and a rough calculation of additional sales, by Twain himself.
The texts of these newest editions are not sufficiently different from most available printings to warrant detailed discussion, except to note that the "raft chapter" which was excised from Twain's original draft of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and inserted in chapter three of Life on the Mississippi is incorporated in its originally intended sequence. Missing from both of these NewSouth Books editions are the original illustrations.
Gribben's introduction underscores their similarities, stressing his contention that they are meant to be read and studied together. Referring to both works as "Boy Books," Gribben provides a brief history of the genre, and also discusses Twain's penchant for literary burlesque, his satirical targets, and the literary "realistic movement of which Twain was a stalwart champion." The covers of both volumes, with portraits of Tom and Huck taken from illustrations by True Williams and Edward Kemble, reinforce Gribben's contention that "Mark Twain envisioned a cohesiveness between his most celebrated novels " and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is advertised on its cover as " . . . His Sequel Boy Book." Adventures of Tom Sawyer is the title of its counterpart, omitting the pesky original article which is often appended mistakenly to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but perhaps this is also a deliberate attempt to underscore their similarities. An Editor's Note in the _Huck Finn_ volume contains an assertion that the "G.G., Chief of Ordnance" in Twain's prefatory "Notice" "presumably refers to General U.S. Grant." Other scholars may agree with Lin Salamo's conclusion, contained in the California edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, that the reference is to George Griffin, butler in the Clemens's Hartford residence, whose " role as peacemaker and two incidents involving firearms . . . qualified him playfully as 'Chief of Ordnance.'" (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, UCal. Edition, 2001, p. 376).
The afterward in each of these volumes consists of two pages listing "satirical targets" by chapter, as a basis for class discussion, without amplification or explanation. These "targets," including child abuse, slavery, Walter Scott, and Sunday school exercises, were included in the previous NewSouth 2011 edition.
Gribben, in his introduction to the 2011 NewSouth Books edition, explained that his deletion of the words "nigger," "Injun," and "half-breed" from these works was motivated by a desire to find a way to get Huck and Jim into classrooms where they would otherwise be excluded. According to personal correspondence from Gribben, his original plan in 2011 was to have NewSouth Books issue two nearly-identical editions of both Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer--one edition with and one without the offending language and both versions featuring the same pagination. Different, but almost identical editions, would give students a choice of which version they prefer to read and thus maximize the probability that these works will be included in classroom syllabi. However, other publishing commitments resulted in an almost two-year delay for the NewSouth "Original Text Editions." Gribben restated the primary motivation for the simultaneous availability of the two versions of these classics:
The idea for having virtually identical texts with the exception of the racial epithets is that instructors and students can choose the version they are comfortable teaching and reading--their pagination is exactly the same. That way the discussions can center around larger issues of the book, especially the price of unthinking social conformity, rather than having that one single racial slur soak up the majority of classroom time (Gribben, 11 January 2013).
The repugnance for the word "nigger" has been, and quite predictably, will continue to be, an obstacle to teaching either of these books in a high school or middle school setting. In this one respect, teaching or reading these works will always entail extra effort, as will the confrontation with racism in any setting. The use of the word "nigger" has not, however, seemed to diminish the attraction of either of these novels for the general public. In an unscientific study of the latter proposition, this reviewer visited one of the local Barnes & Noble outlets to make a listing of the available versions of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. To my surprise, the store sells eight different versions of Huck, ranging from the 2010 paperback edition of the University of California Press "Authoritative Text" edition to a $4.95 Barnes & Noble Classics paperback, the bargain of the bunch, which included an excellent, no-holds-barred introduction by Robert O'Meally, an equally competent historical introduction, footnotes, endnotes, and a chronology of Twain's life. Equally surprising was the finding that all eight of these editions, including a 2006 hardback printing by "Sterling Children's Books," used the original text, i.e., did not excise the word "nigger." This informal case study is not, of course, dispositive with respect to the issue of choice of words, but it does suggest that, for a profit-oriented business like Barnes & Noble, the controversy is not one of particular importance. It also suggests that, contrary to Twain's assessment, classics are sometimes praised and read.
The use of the word "nigger" is not likely to disappear
from editions of either of these classics in the foreseeable future. Attempts
to eradicate its literary life, either through outright banning or a surgical
attempt to render Twain's works more palatable, are not likely to be successful.
It should be emphasized that this was never the intention of Gribben, who
has, likely thousands of times in the last two years, explained that his motivation
was to offer an alternative version of these books that increases the likelihood
they will continue to be read and studied. Gribben's return to the fray is
testimony to a determination to proselytize to all comers the continuing vitality
and importance of these masterpieces of the American literary canon.