"Nigger" or "Slave": Why Labels Matter for Jim (and Twain) in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

By Smith, Cassander L. | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

"Nigger" or "Slave": Why Labels Matter for Jim (and Twain) in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn


Smith, Cassander L., Papers on Language & Literature


In early 2011 NewSouth Books, under the guidance of Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben, published what the company deemed a more reader-friendly edition of Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn bound in one volume. Hoping to soothe the sensibilities of readers who historically have been offended by the novels' ubiquitous use of racial epithets, specifically "injun" and "nigger," editors replaced the offensive words with "Indian" and "slave," respectively. (1) The company's decision set off a firestorm of criticism, especially from those in the academy, who criticized the diction change as the worst form of censorship. (2) Their most severe criticism was targeted at the changes in Huck Finn. "Nigger" appears more than 200 times in the novel ("Injun" appears in Tom Sawyer more than 80). Critics objected mostly on ethical grounds, expounding on the theoretical and discursive consequences of taking editorial liberties with the texts. They bemoaned the lost opportunities for readers to engage in provocative discussions about the role of racism in American history. Gribben, in his introduction to the edition, argues that the move makes Twain's work more accessible for a general readership. He notes that the NewSouth Books edition does not supplant previous editions but provides an alternative for teachers who do not assign the texts because of their students' modern-day sensibilities. (3)

Scholars' concerns are especially pronounced with regards to Huck Finn where Twain employs both "nigger" and "slave" but in different contexts. The character Jim, to whom racial epithets are most often attached, remains a "nigger" at the end of the novel but not a "slave." As problematic as this edition might be, however, it is also fortuitous as it provides a motivating occasion for us to reconsider Huck Finn and the function of Jim as both a "nigger" and a "slave" in the novel. In all the criticism leveled against NewSouth Books and Gribben's well-intentioned revision of an American classic, there has been little discussion of what the diction change actually means specifically for the one character most affected by it because Gribben, his critics, and even current scholarship about the novel all have made the same critical assumption--that Jim is crucial only as he relates to Huck and objectifies American social mores. Most readings of Jim position him as a stock character who serves two purposes: he is a foil for Huck, designed to bring him closer to his own humanity, and he is an illustration of the kinds of social maneuvers African Americans adopted to navigate a larger hostile world. Most critics have determined that Jim's defining feature is the mask he wears, through which he wits his way to freedom. (4)

Because Jim has been deemed a literary device Twain creates for the sake of Huck and social critique, an Africanist presence to use Toni Morrison's terminology, it is not difficult to understand Gribben's decision. He can defend the change on the grounds that doing so does not affect the novel or Huck's character in any fundamental ways. Whether Jim is called a slave or a nigger, Huck is still brought to the central moral dilemma in chapter thirty-one--a choice of whether to help Jim escape or abide by fugitive slave laws. It is still a realist text centered on a central character's conflict between his own moral center and social dictates. It is still a critique of slavery and racism; even if "nigger" is excised from the novel, Huck and the other characters maintain their racist mentalities that manifest in ways beyond the labels they attach to Jim. Reading Jim a slave, even, the novel still presents teachable moments--provoking conversations about slavery, its moral dilemmas for the country, and its historical consequences. If we continue to view Jim as a foil for Huck, a static character who functions more as symbol than actual human being, not much is lost in referring to him only as a slave. …

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