Our office is all too familiar with "Huck Finn" censorship and "adaptations." The book was banned from some library shelves beginning with its first publication in 1885. Then it was for "vulgarity"; now it is more likely to be targeted because of the "N-word." The Philadelphia Public Schools introduced a sanitized version in 1963. "Huck Finn" holds spot No. 14 on our list of the 100 most challenged books from 2000 to 2009.
The act of expurgation denies access to the complete work and the entire spectrum of ideas that the work is intended to express. Expurgation based on the premise that certain portions of a work may be harmful to minors is equally a violation of the Library Bill of Rights.But there are even larger problems when the censored book holds such a well-deserved spot as a classic novel.
"Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" was written by one of the most prolific and insightful writers and observers of the 19th and 20th century American scene. Mark Twain was not afraid to highlight all of his country's strengths and foibles. He used the N-word deliberately -- and not because he was a racist.
We know he wasn't if we read the book thoughtfully and if we understand his personal abhorrence of racism. He gave scholarship funds to support one of Yale's first African-American law school students for that very reason. I recall my many visits to the Mark Twain Home and Museum in Hartford, Conn., where he wrote "Huck Finn." His Nook Farm neighborhood was home to many social progressives of the time, including Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Children deserve to know this and they deserve to understand why Twain used the N-word. As he states in an explanatory note to "Huck Finn" (the book is written in the Missouri rural dialect of the time): "The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guess-work; but pains-takingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech."
If one reads the book carefully, in all its humor and irony, it becomes clear that Twain is attacking the failures of Reconstruction and showing the dark aftermath of slavery and the Civil War. And children too can understand this if they are introduced to the book by supportive teachers, librarians and parents.
In my view, this latest effort to censor "Huck Finn" only underscores a lack of confidence in Americans' ability to think for ourselves and to grapple with difficult and painful issues. In our well-meaning efforts to protect children from an increasingly chaotic world, we are stifling their ability to confront uncomfortable issues and to work them out in a safe, supportive environment of the home, school or library. We are indeed missing a teachable moment.
"Huck Finn" does not create racist children, nor does it create low self-esteem. On the contrary, it offers an opportunity for readers to encounter a time in the United States when people were struggling for a new society that could overcome the hardships of slavery and make room for all people of all ethnicities.
What a sadness that children are now going to read a sanitized version of a book that doesn't deserve to have the same title as its original.
Barbara Jones is director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom.