In 1888, Mark Twain wrote that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. He chose his words carefully. He said what he meant, and he meant what he said.
Now, NewSouth Books in Alabama has decided to help him out a bit. The publisher is issuing a combined volume of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in which the word “nigger” is being replaced with the word “slave.” Enough already.
The word is heinous, and no person of goodwill would use it today except in a discussion of racism and how it has manifested itself over time. But if we start changing literature, and we start changing the historical record, we run the risk of forgetting the long, ugly history of racism. We run the risk of saying, in small ways, that things weren’t really so bad. We lose evidence that can be used to help stop us when we start backsliding into unacceptable behavior. And in this case, we gravely harm the work of a great American writer.
NewSouth Books is a small fish, and the press run on this edition is only 7,500 copies. But these ideas sometimes take wing. Let’s stop this one before it takes off.
Thanks for visiting. While you’re here, please look around the site. You can subscribe via e-mail or RSS feed. The tools to do so are at the top of the right-hand column. To share or retweet the entry, use the buttons below. You can follow me on Twitter: @peterfaur