Mark Twain said that the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
In "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Samuel Clemens believed that the right word to describe the attitudes of pre-Civil War white Southerners toward black slaves was "nigger," and he unleashed it no less than 218 times in his manuscript.
The storm he conjured up in writing the novel electrified the Jim Crow South and scorches the earth to this day.
Throughout his life, Twain's writing was so revolutionary and dangerous that many editors refused to print his most provocative pieces. His family begged him to stop bringing controversy upon them, and he instructed publishers not to print thousands of pages that he wrote until he was long buried.
Now, 100 years after his death, the censors are still furiously trampling on his tomb, and opportunists are "improving" his writing while he's not around to burn them with a cigar.
In recent weeks, New York City Councilman Charles Barron called to have Huck Finn banned, and the publisher NewSouth announced that it wanted to spare him the trouble by releasing a new version without the "hurtful" language.
The publisher didn't mean removing the realistic depiction of a society that would enslave a man, chase him and a runaway boy down a river, and place a bounty on them. NewSouth meant it would not show Americans using the "N-word."
This is whitewashing history, and great literature, past the point of incoherence.
But even Tom Sawyer knew that whitewashing can be profitable.
Auburn University Professor Alan Gribben, the assassin behind the NewSouth edition, said, "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."
Notice that Gribben did not say "students." That's because Gribben was referring only to the consumers that matter - the people who would buy his book.
Economist James Koch has described textbooks as a "broken market," because the "primary individuals who choose college textbooks (faculty) are not the people that pay for those textbooks (students)."
Since the textbook market is largely unregulated, he called it "oligopolistic," in his 2005 report.
Simba Information, a market analyst for the media and publishing industry, estimated the sales of pre-K to grade-12 textbooks at $8.3 billion in 2010.
Gribben's Bowdlerized Hxck Fxnn already has received the type of publicity it's impossible to buy. The announcement generated hundreds of articles overnight, welcome responses from some prestigious news outlets, and enough controversy from detractors to fuel at least one reprinting.
There will always be people too uncomfortable with America's racial history to touch the real thing. Just ask the professor.
Gribben said that in giving lectures on "Huck Finn" in several states, "I always recoiled from uttering the racial slurs spoken by numerous characters."
Schoolteachers have always had to address their discomfort, and their students' feelings, through classroom discussions of all the issues involved here.
Gribben prefers to cut the offensive language instead.