Booker T. Washington


The cover of the first edition of Adventures o...

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The recent decision to rewrite Mark Twain’s, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, must have him more than turning over in his grave—he must be spinning in his grave. It is an American classic and has been called the first great American novel. In fact, the great 20th century American novelist, Ernest Hemingway wrote: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

It is a well-constructed story of life before the Civil War and a young boy’s adventures with a runaway slave and his conviction in doing the right thing even though it goes against popular belief. The whole controversy with Huckleberry Finn is over one word—the “N” word. The “N” word is objectionable in today’s society but at the time it was written it was a very acceptable word. To rewrite an American classic to remove one word distorts history and facts. What is even worse, it is changing the work of an artist. Would we repaint the works of Picasso or Salvador Dali to make the paintings conform to today’s realism? Would we change the works of Bach, Beethoven, or Handel and put their classics to rap to appeal to today’s teenagers? Would we clothe the Venus de Milo or Michelangelo’s David?

Many of these works and more were controversial when they were first presented to the world but they were expressions of the artist. An artist works from a vision and feels compelled to toil in his art to express that vision. The life of an artist is not easy because to be a good artist, whether the art is in music, dance, performing arts, painting, or literature, one must bare one’s soul. True art comes from deep within and it is always intimidating to expose one’s vulnerabilities.

A writer crafts his words carefully. A writer chooses words that not only tell a story but also paint a picture and create music to the ear with the rhythm of the sentences. A writer chooses every word with awareness and constructs each paragraph so it will best express her thoughts clearly and concisely. A writer is aware of the connotations of words, that is, what emotions the words will create in her readers.

William Shakespeare is considered, perhaps, the best writer of all times; however, the archaic language is sometimes difficult to understand. Does this mean we need to rewrite his works also, dumb it down so today’s audience can better understand it? Perhaps we should just remove all classic literature from the library shelves and replace them with Cliff Notes. For those not familiar with Cliff Notes it is a series of books summarizing the classics in literature. The books are excellent for study guides but if one relies on them exclusively one misses the beauty of the writer’s words. A book should be read not just for its plot line but for the journey the author takes you on. If plot line is all you want just read an outline or the chapter titles.

It would be a shame to lose the beauty of Shakespeare’s words such as:

  • What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
  • Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.
  • Having nothing, nothing can he lose.
  • If music be the food of love, play on.
  • Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.

I agree that Twain’s use of the “N” word is very offensive in today’s world but the book must be read with regard as to how it was intended when the book was written. It was a word commonly associated with the slaves; it is only because of the bloodshed during the Civil War and the fight for civil rights that the word has taken on a negative connotation. I am not advocating use of the word in today’s society, merely requesting we respect Mark Twain’s craft.

Twain was actually very liberal and forward thinking for his time. He was a supporter of abolition and emancipation and argued that non-whites did not receive justice in the United States. He was also known to pay for at least one African-American to attend Yale University Law School and for another to attend a southern university to become a minister. He was also apparently friends with Booker T. Washington who often joined Twain and Standard Oil executive, Henry Rogers, on Rogers’ boat the Kanawha. So, do not judge Twain for his use of the “N” word; I am sure when he wrote Huckleberry Finn he did not intentionally slander all African-Americans.

Samuel Clemens may roll over in his grave over this controversy but I am sure that Mark Twain, the writer, is spinning in his grave. Proof of this is Twain’s own description of the need for choosing the right word:

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—‘tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”