An excerpt from the editor's introduction to Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition

by Dr. Alan Gribben

Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth EditionThe NewSouth Edition of Mark Twain’s most celebrated novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), departs from standard reprintings in significant ways. To begin with, this edition reconnects Twain’s paired stories in order to restore the cohesiveness he originally envisioned. These works have customarily been separated by publishers, libraries, and bookstores, with Tom Sawyer relegated to “Juvenile” or “Young Adult” catalogs and Huckleberry Finn elevated to “Adult” lists, as though they have almost no relationship to each other. Severance of the two books has proceeded despite evidence that Twain wrote the opening chapters of Huckleberry Finn soon after completing the manuscript for Tom Sawyer, and the fact that Huckleberry Finn announces in the sequel’s very first sentence, “You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.’” Moreover, characters and settings are shared by both novels.

Twain even attempted to ensure that sample copies of Tom Sawyer were carried by the door-to-door salesmen who “canvassed” neighborhoods and farmlands to take orders for Huckleberry Finn as it neared publication. (For nearly thirty years Mark Twain’s works were sold only through these “subscription” agents and could not be obtained in retail bookstores, a lucrative but somewhat disreputable practice for an author of his stature.) Twain recommended to his publisher that customers purchasing both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn be given a reduced price on the set. However, since Twain had left the press that brought out Tom Sawyer in 1876—and was rebelliously publishing Huckleberry Finn under the imprint of his own company—tangled negotiations with his previous firm prevented this joint sale of the volumes.

Owing to difficulties in resolving plot developments and to other interruptions, the sequel to Tom Sawyer was delayed for eight long years. The hitches in Twain’s composition of Huckleberry Finn arose from a basic plot dilemma: somehow the author had to move a fleeing boy and a runaway slave farther and farther south on the Mississippi River below St. Louis—in other words, down to the part of the river with which Mark Twain had become familiar as a steamboat pilot. Yet logically the slave (and therefore his helper, Huckleberry Finn) should want to head north toward the “free” states where chattel slavery had already been abolished by the 1840s, the decade in which Twain’s novel takes place. Twain solved part of this predicament by having Huck and Jim become lost in a dense fog and drift past the Ohio River inlet that led north.

The second inspiration took longer to occur to Twain, but eventually he came up with the idea of having the raft on which Huck and Jim had lived so contentedly be commandeered by two rapscallions who, in a mockery of European titles, grandly style themselves the “King” and the “Duke.” That solution put Twain over the largest hurdle and he then managed to wrap up the novel by reintroducing Tom Sawyer, thus returning to the “boy book” playacting which had characterized Tom Sawyer and carried over into the early chapters of Huckleberry Finn. These serial stages of development meant that the volume was not published in the United States until 1885. By that time even Twain’s most loyal readers had trouble thinking of the books as forming a seamless story, with the result that customers usually elected to order Huckleberry Finn in a green cover rather than the available blue cloth that would have matched the cover of the earlier Tom Sawyer.

I. The NewSouth Edition

Far more controversial than this reuniting of Twain’s boy books will be the editor’s decision to eliminate two racial slurs that have increasingly formed a barrier to these works for teachers, students, and general readers. The editor thus hopes to introduce both books to a wider readership than they can currently enjoy. Twain, it should be remembered, was endeavoring to accurately depict the prevailing social attitudes along the Mississippi River Valley during the 1840s by repeatedly employing in both novels a linguistic corruption of “Negro” in reference to African American slaves, and by tagging the villain in Tom Sawyer with a deprecating racial label for Native Americans. Although Twain’s adult narrator of Tom Sawyer is himself careful to use the then-respectful terms “colored” and “negro” in Chapter 1, the boys refer to slaves four times with the pejorative n-word. In Twain’s later book, Huckleberry Finn, these barely educated boys and the uneducated adult characters in Missouri and Arkansas casually toss about this same racial insult a total of 218 times (with the novel’s table of contents adding another instance).

The n-word possessed, then as now, demeaning implications more vile than almost any insult that can be applied to other racial groups. There is no equivalent slur in the English language. As a result, with every passing decade this affront appears to gain rather than lose its impact. Even at the level of college and graduate school, students are capable of resenting textual encounters with this racial appellative. In the 1870s and 1880s, of course, Twain scarcely had to concern himself about the feelings of African American or Native American readers. These population groups were too occupied with trying, in the one case, to recover from the degradation of slavery and the institution of Jim Crow segregation policies, and, in the other case, to survive the onslaught of settlers and buffalo-hunters who had decimated their ways of life, than to bother about objectionable vocabulary choices in two popular books.

When Samuel L. Clemens (who would adopt the pen name “Mark Twain” in 1863) was growing up in Hannibal, Missouri, his views on slavery were in keeping with those of his fellow villagers. In a letter written when he was seventeen, for instance, Sam Clemens alluded to the “infernal abolitionists” (August 23, 1853). But as an adult he courted and married (in 1870) a woman whose New York State family had vehemently opposed slavery long before the Civil War. Twain would ultimately make a 180-degree turnabout from his younger attitudes, so much so that in 1874 he wrote a profoundly touching account—“A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It”—of how the slave system had cruelly split up African American families. A similar impulse led Twain to portray Huckleberry Finn (in Twain’s summation in one of his notebooks) as a boy with “a sound heart and a deformed conscience”—that is to say, as someone reared amid such pervasive prejudice that he had a hard time seeing through its premises. This conception has become a heavier and heavier burden for the book to carry since the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s erased many racial impediments and sensitized succeeding generations of Americans to the manner in which language can affect thinking.

We may applaud Twain’s ability as a prominent American literary realist to record the speech of a particular region during a specific historical era, but abusive racial insults that bear distinct connotations of permanent inferiority nonetheless repulse modern-day readers. Twain’s two books do not deserve ever to join that list of literary “classics” he once humorously defined as those “which people praise and don’t read,” yet the long-lofty status of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn has come under question in recent decades. In this connection, it seems relevant to remember that Twain habitually read aloud his day’s writings to an audience gathered on the porch of his summer retreat overlooking Elmira, New York, watching and listening for reactions to each manuscript page. He likewise took cues about adjusting his tone from lecture platform appearances, which provided him with direct responses to his diction. As a notoriously commercial writer who watched for every opportunity to enlarge the mass market for his works, he presumably would have been quick to adapt his language if he could have foreseen how today’s audiences recoil at racial slurs in a culturally altered country.

The Editor’s Story

Through a succession of firsthand experiences, this editor gradually concluded that an epithet-free edition of Twain’s books is necessary today. For nearly forty years I have led college classes, bookstore forums, and library reading groups in detailed discussions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in California, Texas, New York, and Alabama, and I always recoiled from uttering the racial slurs spoken by numerous characters, including Tom and Huck. I invariably substituted the word “slave” for Twain’s ubiquitous n-word whenever I read any passages aloud. Students and audience members seemed to prefer this expedient, and I could detect a visible sense of relief each time, as though a nagging problem with the text had been addressed. Indeed, numerous communities currently ban Huckleberry Finn as required reading in public schools owing to its offensive racial language and have quietly moved the title to voluntary reading lists. The American Library Association lists the novel as one of the most frequently challenged books across the nation.

Over the years I have noted valiant and judicious defenses of the prevalence of the n-word in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as proposed by eminent writers, editors, and scholars, including those of Michael Patrick Hearn, Nat Hentoff, Randall Kennedy, and Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua. Hearn, for example, correctly notes that “Huck says it out of habit, not malice” (22). Apologists quite validly encourage readers to intuit the irony behind Huck’s ignorance and to focus instead on Twain’s larger satiric goals. Nonetheless, Langston Hughes made a forceful, lasting argument for omitting this incendiary word from all literature, from however well-intentioned an author. “Ironically or seriously, of necessity for the sake of realism, or impishly for the sake of comedy, it doesn’t matter,” explained Hughes. African Americans, Hughes wrote, “do not like it in any book or play whatsoever, be the book or play ever so sympathetic. . . . They still do not like it” (268–269).

During the 1980s, educator John H. Wallace unleashed a fierce and protracted dispute by denouncing Huckleberry Finn as “the most grotesque example of racist trash ever written.” In 1984 I had to walk past a picket line of African American parents outside a scholarly conference in Pennsylvania that was commemorating, among other achievements in American humor, the upcoming centenary anniversary of Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. James S. Leonard, then the editor of the newsletter for the Mark Twain Circle of America, conceded in 2001 that the racist language and unflattering stereotypes of slaves in Huckleberry Finn can constitute “real problems” in certain classroom settings. Another scholar, Jonathan Arac, has urged that students be prompted to read other, more unequivocally abolitionist works rather than this one novel that has been consecrated as the mandatory literary statement about American slavery. The once-incontestable belief that the reading of this book at multiple levels of schooling ought to be essential for every American citizen’s education is cracking around the edges.

My personal turning point on the journey toward this present NewSouth Edition was a lecture tour I undertook in Alabama in 2009. I had written the introduction for an edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer designed to interest younger readers in older American literature. The volume was published by NewSouth Books for a consortium of Alabama libraries in connection with the “Big Read,” an initiative sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. As I traveled around the state and spoke about the novel to reading groups of adults and teenagers in small towns like Valley, Dadeville, Prattville, Eufaula, Wetumpka, and Talladega, and in larger cities like Montgomery and Birmingham, I followed my customary habit of substituting the word “slave” when reading the characters’ dialogue aloud. In several towns I was taken aside after my talk by earnest middle and high school teachers who lamented the fact that they no longer felt justified in assigning either of Twain’s boy books because of the hurtful n-word. Here was further proof that this single debasing label is overwhelming every other consideration about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, whereas what these novels have to offer readers hardly depends upon that one indefensible slur.

Word Exchanges

My understanding about this situation crystallized into a definite resolve. Unquestionably both novels can be enjoyed just as deeply and authentically if readers are not obliged to confront the n-word on so many pages. Consequently in this edition I have translated each usage of the n-word to read “slave” instead, since the term “slave” is closest in meaning and implication. Although the text loses some of the caustic sting that the n-word carries, that price seems small compared to the revolting effect that the more offensive word has on contemporary readers. Moreover, slavery is recognized globally as an affront to humanity.

I believe that a significant number of school teachers, college instructors, and general readers will welcome the option of an edition of Twain’s fused novels that spares the reader from a racial slur that never seems to lose its vitriol. At the same time, without detracting from the quality of rendering medical details in his works. Despite occasional efforts of rap and hip hop musicians to appropriate the term, and well-meaning but usually futile (from my own experience) endeavors by classroom teachers to inoculate their students against it by using Huckleberry Finn as a springboard to discuss its etymology and cultural history, the n-word remains inarguably the most inflammatory word in the English language. The synonym “slave” expresses the cultural racism that Twain sought to convey, as in Huck Finn’s report to Aunt Sally Phelps in Chapter 32 that a steamboat explosion had “killed a slave,” to which she responds heartlessly, “Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”

The word “slave” also usefully reminds readers of the historical fact that ten percent of the Missouri population in 1850 consisted of African American slaves. In the contiguous state of Arkansas (where the latter part of Huckleberry Finn is set) the percentage was twenty-six, and that percentage rose drastically in the Dal of seventeen miscellaneous usages of the I-word have similarly been altered in both novels. For the same reasons the eight references in Tom Sawyer to “half-breed” have been converted to “half-blood,” which is less disrespectful and has even taken on a degree of panache since J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005).

The Raftsmen Episode in Huckleberry Finn

One other editorial choice had to be determined. Scholars have vigorously debated whether a lengthy passage in the manuscript of Huckleberry Finn that Twain first published in Chapter 3 of Life on the Mississippi (1883) to illustrate the rawness of early river days should be reinserted into the novel from which it was extracted. In this adventure Huck swims to a large raft and listens while “a mighty rough looking lot” of raftsmen drink, argue, sing, dance, and swap yarns. They discover Huck in his hiding place, threaten to “paint him a sky blue all over from head to heel,” but let him go with a stern warning. Mark Twain later agreed to delete the episode from Huckleberry Finn for fear that the public might think he was duplicating “old matter” (Twain’s words) in his new book and because the publisher pointed out that Huckleberry Finn was larger than Tom Sawyer, weakening the argument that they were companion volumes.

The author went along with his publisher’s suggestion on April 22, 1884, so obligingly (“Yes, I think the raft chapter can be left wholly out”) that most subsequent editions of the novel have followed suit. The NewSouth Edition incorporates the raftsmen passage into Chapter 16 as Twain originally wrote it in his original manuscript of Huckleberry Finn and as published in the American edition of Life on the Mississippi. This episode, with its strutting, pugnacious braggarts and its chilling ghost tale about a child’s murder, contains some of Mark Twain’s best writing. Its restoration here enables readers to savor more of Twain’s contributions to the then-reigning “Local Color” school of fiction that prized vivid descriptions of an area’s vocations and peculiarities.

Textual Emendations

With the exception of the changes in racial denotations (and in two archaic references to skin color) and the insertion of the raftsmen passage, the texts of both novels otherwise follow the wording of the first American edition. Issues about questionable punctuation were resolved by consulting facsimiles of Twain’s manuscripts. The editor has silently modernized certain eccentricities of nineteenth-century punctuation and spelling, and has given American spellings preference over British spellings. Obvious typographical errors introduced by the printers and inconsistent spellings have been corrected. Mark Twain occasionally added footnotes to his own books; here these are placed within the text and indicated by { } brackets.

Alternative Editions

It goes without saying that textual purists will object strenuously to these editorial alterations of an author’s final manuscript. However, literally dozens of other editions are available for those readers who prefer Twain’s original phrasing. Those standard editions will always exist. Even better, a facsimile of Twain’s holograph (i.e., handwritten) manuscript of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has been published in a two-volume edition (1982), and Twain’s holograph manuscript of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is now viewable in a CD issued in 2003 by the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library.

This NewSouth Edition of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn is emphatically not intended for academic scholars. Those individuals should consult instead the authoritative edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1980) and the magisterial edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (2003) that have been issued in The Works of Mark Twain series by the Mark Twain Project at Berkeley. Scholars can also turn to Michael Patrick Hearn’s meticulous and resourceful edition, The Annotated Huckleberry Finn (2001).

Dr. Alan Gribben co-founded the Mark Twain Circle of America, compiled Mark Twain’s Library: A Reconstruction, and recently co-edited Mark Twain on the Move: A Travel Reader. Gribben has written numerous essays about Mark Twain’s life and image. He teaches on the English faculty of Auburn University at Montgomery. Learn more about Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition at

Introduction copyright @ 2011 by Alan Gribben