Editing literature and the N-word Questions

As usual, The Daily Show addresses the Mark Twain controversy well.


You’ve probably heard about someone wanting to take the works of Mark Twain and republish them, replacing the word N@$$%! with the word “slave”. I think this is pretty lame as I have previously indicated.

Yet, while I’m not crazy about the word, I’m less bothered by it when it’s 1) used in historic context or 2) to make a particular point. Film critic Roger Ebert got into some hot water using the word recently. He didn’t bother me, but some of the comments I’ve seen in response to his use – “well, he has a N@##%! wife” – seems to justify my general antipathy for the word.

Should Huck Finn and other works of Mark Twain be edited to remove a word current sensibilities might find offensive? If so, how should such a book be labeled?

When, if ever, are racially charged words acceptable? There’s a John Lennon song that I believe is making a larger point of social commentary.

As usual, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart addresses this well. NSFW, if the use of N@##$! might get you fired.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

4 thoughts on “Editing literature and the N-word Questions”

  1. I would agree to a point. For me profanity and derogatory terms are like spices their over use tends to spoil the dish. What I don’t understand is its’ use when two young blacks meet. With its’ overuse the word becomes almost meaningless. Seems that racially charged words can only be used by those at whom they were directed. I can insult my own race or ethnic background but don’t let anyone else try that.
    No, you can’t and shouldn’t change history. It was what it was no matter how bad or good. Yet the right seems content on doing just that and by doing so does a great disservice to the learning process.

  2. The word is offensive and shouldn’t be used in today’s society, and never again. However, I do think it’s foolish to go back and edit Twain’s work.

    Not sure if it’s acceptable, but in certain contexts like fiction, it can be excused (I think). For instance, I just finished reading a book that was published in 2005, but takes place during World War II in a racially divided city. The N-word was used, though less then five times. Given where it was placed in the story, and that once or twice was used by a character that was black, and in a manner that was trying to make (what seemed to me) a good point to another character, I think it was acceptable. Other would have to judge that, not me. Even though I am white, I get uncomfortable when I hear/read the N-word. However, in this book, I didn’t feel that way due to what the story seemed to be getting across.

  3. Hi Roger,
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  4. Back in the 1970s you could use the N Word is you used it ironically or critically. A prime example being John Lennon’s “Woman Is The N—-r Of The World. When was the last time you heard that on the radio?

    More than a hundred years ago the great author Joseph Conrad wrote a novel “The N—-r Of The Narcissus.” You are more than likely to find most of Conrad’s work at Barnes and Noble, but that one never seems to be in stock. I found an old copy in a used bookstore and read it this summer. Holy cow, what a book. Read it if you can find it, you will not be disappointed. (Or, if you want to create a ruckus, walk into Barnes and Noble and loudly request the book by name.)

    In the introduction I read how Conrad fought the publisher over the title, he insisted on that word. Without spoiling the story, I will say that the n—-r referred to in the title is actually a stand in for one of the most important people you’ve ever heard of. That’s how Conrad got away with the title and the character, who the other characters refer to as “The N—-r.”

    I suppose I can live without John Lennon’s song, but no way do I want to lose Joseph Conrad’s book. You can’t take that word out of the story without destroying it.

    When I was a kid “damn” was a dirty word and “f–k” automatically got you arrested. And “n—-r” was offensive but okay in proper context. So in 50 years how will these three words be regarded?

    I agree with Lenny Bruce on this. In the end, they’re just words.

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