A new sanitized edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will be published in a $24.95 hardcover next month, and according to Publishers Weekly it “eliminates the ‘n’ word” (h/t: Abe Greenwald at Contentions).
Alan Gribben of Auburn University, editor of the squeamish new version, says that the word nigger, which appears over two hundred times in the novel, will be replaced by the word slave. I am trying to imagine the scene in which Huck, pretending to be his friend Tom, is greeted by Aunt Sally. She asks why he was delayed. Did the steamboat “get aground”? Huck explains:
“Good gracious! anybody hurt?”
“No’m. Killed a slave.”
Not only textual purists. What is far more horrifying to contemplate is how anyone who studies the novel in “the new classroom,” where Gribben says the author’s intended version is “really not acceptable,” can possibly hope to understand Huckleberry Finn. Twain’s point in the novel is that human “sivilization” (including the institution of slavery) is little more than legalized violence. The only true freedom lies outside “sivilization” altogether, which is why, in the last sentences of the book, Huck decides to “light out for the [Indian] Territory ahead of the rest”—that is, decides to flee human contact altogether.
Man, as Twain wrote in an essay published posthumously in Letters from the Earth, is “the lowest animal.” But white men in the South considered black men to be subhuman. Just that is what the word nigger signifies. To Twain, such a slur is the highest conceivable praise. To be beneath humanity is to be an animal that, unlike man, does not go forth in cold blood and with calm pulse to exterminate its kind.
And which character in the novel does this describe? Which character risks capture and reenslavement to stand by his friend, who is wounded in the stylish and romantic pretense of “steal[ing] that nigger out of slavery”? Although Tom Sawyer holds the copyright on the word moral in the novel, the only character who exhibits the qualities that moralists contend they prize is Jim. For a misanthrope like Twain, Jim is admirable precisely because he is not a man but, um, er, a slave. (If you can’t hear that the word nigger secures Twain’s anthropology, to a degree that “slave” fails to, then you probably should read the book in “the new classroom” under a teacher like Alan Gribben who prefers current moral fashions to the impervious and troublesome facts of literature from the past.)
Hemingway’s Sun Also Rises is surely next. Robert Cohn is described as acting “superior and Jewish.” The new edition will describe him, I guess, as superior and religious.
 To substitute the word slave is untrue to Twain’s entire way of thinking. “Man is the only slave,” Twain wrote around 1896. “And he is the only animal who enslaves. He has always been a slave in one form or another, and has always held other slaves in bondage under him in one way or another” (Letters from the Earth, ed. Bernard DeVoto [Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett, 1963], p. 179). To call Jim a slave is to fail to distinguish him from the other men in the novel.