Rupert Cornwell: Deletions that cut the potential for vital debate

The sanitised version of Huckleberry Finn soon to be issued by an Alabama-based publisher is further proof that on matters of race at least, Thomas Bowdler is alive and well and living in the United States.

The word "nigger" appears 219 times in one of the best-loved works of all American literature, first published in 1884. Since then however the word has become the ultimate unmentionable in proper society, an epithet as dirty or dirtier than the foulest obscenities. In the press and on television, it is invariably denoted merely as "the N-word".

Like it or not, however, the word is around. High-school teachers may do their utmost to keep the book out of the curriculum. But their sensitive charges are likely to hear the infamous word in the play-yard during breaks.

How much better, surely, for the book to be taught in its unexpurgated form. That way, students could explore the social changes that made a word that raised few eyebrows in the 19th century quite unusable at the start of the 21st.

In the process, other truths might be easier to acknowledge. A year ago, the Senate majority leader Harry Reid was forced into a grovelling apology when he was quoted in a book on the 2008 campaign as saying that Barack Obama could be elected because "he was a light-skinned negro with no negro dialect, unless he chose to have one". Only in a Bowdlerised society could the statement of self-evident fact be construed as racism.