The Unspeakable, in Its Jammies

by Michael Chabon

Hey, remember the guy in the university town who thought it was a good idea to go through Huckleberry Finn and replace the word "nigger" with something less offensive? Not the dude at Auburn. The other one. The one writing this sentence.

Tom Sawyer was bedtime reading for me and my two youngest kids (son and daughter, 7 and 9) at the start of last summer. Of course we all loved it. It has some slow bits, and some prolonged bouts of humor (Tom's lovesickness, his punctilio about make-believe) that have to have felt at least a little labored even back in 1876, when it often took weeks or even months for a punchline to arrive. But it's exciting and funny and often surprisingly tender, even capital-R Romantic, and the classic bits—the fence, the Bible study tickets, the cave, the murder—appear to have lost none of their power to delight and scare children who dwell in a world of childhood so alien from that of Tom and Huck, half-feral in their liberty, alongside whom my own children seem like dogs in a run, no longer even straining at their cable.

Reading Tom Sawyer occupied the entire summer, and during that time I don't remember wrestling at all with the question of what to say, out loud, with my actual lips and tongue, when my eyes arrived at that strange little word. A cursory search of Google Books suggests that it makes a total of only 10 appearances in the entire book, which is, after all, not told by a backcountry boy in his own dialect but narrated, with a great deal of mock-decorum, in the third person. Ten is probably fairly close to the number of times that I have said "nigger" in my life, never once without some kind of ironizing or sterilizing quotation marks of tone fitted carefully around it, and, somewhat humiliatingly given the choice made by Professor Gribben of Auburn, which I heartily and firmly, piling on, condemn for its cowardice, mealy-mouthedness, and all-consuming fallaciousness, I recall that in those fleeting spots where I encountered the word I would substitute, without missing a beat or losing any literal meaning, "slave." It was no big thing. The kids had no idea that a switcheroo had been run on them. But then we finished Tom Sawyer, and they had loved it, and most especially the character of Huckleberry Finn, so much that they begged me to carry on to the eponymous sequel, starting the very next night.

"I don't know," I said. "It's a little bit more of a grownup book."

It had been at least 15 years since I'd last read it, and my memories of it were pretty vague. I was kind of repeating the conventional wisdom. (Which turned out, in my view, to be questionable—huge stretches of Huckleberry Finn don't feel all that different, apart from the narrative voice, from Tom Sawyer, especially toward the end after Tom and his punctilio make their annoying return. The Duke and Dauphin, and the feuding families, complicate the book in ways that my kids needed help to understand. And then there are a few incredibly profound passages, above all the famous one in which Huck wrestles with the situational evil of absolute good as he determines to help Jim get free). But I knew—half-recollected, half-intuited—that there was some thorniness, that something in the book was going to bedevil bedtime.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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