Only a few short months after Mark Twain’s autobiography began to be published in full for the first time (and became an unexpected best-seller), one of the most famous controversies spawned by his most well-known book is also being revisited. Twain scholar Alan Gribben is producing an expurgated version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn with offensive words such as “nigger” and “Injun” replaced by less offensive alternatives.

Gribben explained that he felt people (including his own daughter) were being too offended by the use of these words to be able to enjoy the books.

“After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach this novel, and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can’t do it anymore. In the new classroom, it’s really not acceptable.” Gribben became determined to offer an alternative for grade school classrooms and “general readers” that would allow them to appreciate and enjoy all the book has to offer. “For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs,” he said.

Gribben noted that he fully expected the usual sorts of controversy to arise from the decision, and already a number of people have spoken up condemning the new edition. Of course, as Gribben himself points out, there are plenty of other sources out there for people to read the original version, so it’s not as if he is preventing it from being seen.

But perhaps the final word on Huck Finn censorship was had by none other than Twain himself, in the last few years of his life. A supervisor from the children’s department of the Brooklyn Public Library wanted to ban the books due to their “coarseness, deceitfulness and mischievous practices.” The head librarian wrote to Twain asking him to defend the books, and Twain wrote back:

I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote Tom Sawyer & Huck Finn for adults exclusively, & it always distressed me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean. I know this by my own experience, & to this day I cherish an unappeased bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again on this side of the grave. Ask that young lady – she will tell you so.

It’s hard to say whether Twain would find this new development more amusing or annoying. I can’t help thinking he’d be tickled at the fuss over a word that wasn’t even controversial when he wrote it—but he’d probably also be annoyed that someone else was taking it upon himself to change his works, since if Twain had his way they would still be under copyright.

(Found via Daemon’s Books.)


  1. What’s distressing is that teachers don’t see this as an opportunity to bring these words out in the open, discuss them, and thereby remove the stigma from them. We shouldn’t be rewriting the book… we should be explaining to students why it was written the way it was.

    But no… another opportunity, and a significant part of history, lost…

  2. Why do people feel the need to read books written when the culture and language were not identical to current times if the difference offends them? The was recent brouhaha from an American Indian over Brave New World’s “Savage” and saying it was derogatory. Or, from a middle school teacher in Washington DC, who taught her class of largely Hispanic students about Aztec history but didn’t tell the human sacrifice parts because the horrible knowledge of past bad deeds might injure their ethnic pride. It’s all such nonsense.

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