Happy birthday, Sam Clemens -- the old boy turned 150 day before yesterday -- and how do you like your present? It's a new edition of that book for which you professed such great affection, "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," except it is not really the novel you wrote at all. Instead it has been "edited" by a fellow named Charles Neider, with results described by his publisher, Doubleday, as "a major publishing event, bringing back to American literature, at last, a masterful novel truer to its spirit and vision than ever before."

It seems that Charles Neider and Doubleday have a clearer view of the novel's "spirit and vision" than did its author, so we should be grateful to both for doing him, and us, the favor of editing the book into a form that Mark Twain himself doubtless would prefer to the original if only he were around to read it. Surely he would be thrilled to learn that the helpful Neider has inserted some 5,700 words that Twain himself chose not to include in the novel, and has eliminated some 8,300 words that Twain, presumably in moments of weakness and self-indulgence, chose to put into it. Can anyone have even a moment's question that Twain would be beside himself with joy?

Well, on second thought perhaps he would not, for Neider has made two major alterations in the novel; the first is marginally justifiable, but the second is preposterous and insolent. He has restored to its original place in the narrative the famous "raft chapter," and he has eliminated much of the material toward the end of the book in which Tom Sawyer reappears. The result is that, even though Neider has rewritten only two words in the text, "Huck Finn" is no longer Twain's novel but a collaboration -- entered into, on Twain's part, quite involuntarily -- between Twain and Neider; perhaps this explains why a large photograph of Neider appears on the dust jacket of what had previously been assumed to be Twain's novel.

The "raft chapter" was removed from the novel-in-progress by Twain and inserted in "Life on the Mississippi"; he did this, Justin Kaplan notes in "Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain," to "pad out his river book," and he chose not to reinsert it in "Huck Finn" when that novel was at last completed. It is hardly "possibly the finest chapter" of the original manuscript, as Neider claims it to be, but it is consistent with the rest of the novel and Neider has managed to shoehorn it into the narrative in a plausible manner. That Twain himself very specifically told the publisher of "Huck Finn" he did not want the chapter back in the novel because it had already appeared elsewhere is not exactly beside the point -- though Neider labors hard in his introduction to make it seem so -- but there is at least a case of sorts for considering it part of the original manuscript and reinserting it in place.

But the elimination of the Tom Sawyer material is another matter altogether. This has nothing to do with what academics like to call "the author's intentions" and everything to do with chutzpah. "For a long, long time," Neider writes, "readers and critics have been complaining that the concluding section of the great novel, beginning with Tom Sawyer's reappearance in the book, is a great falling off." He then quotes Ernest Hemingway: "If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating." Lionel Trilling: "Only one mistake has been charged against it, that it concludes with Tom Sawyer's elaborate, too elaborate, game of Jim's escape." T. S. Eliot: "Readers sometimes deplore the fact that the story descends to the level of 'Tom Sawyer' from the moment that Tom himself reappears."

Thus armed with heavy critical artillery, Neider whacks away mercilessly at six of the novel's chapters, eliminating one entirely; "something sinks in me," he sighs as he slices, "when I consider such creative failures in an otherwise great novel." Then he boldly turns to face the opposition, deftly dropping a heavy name as he does so: "No doubt I shall receive my share of brickbats for daring to edit a classic. On the other hand is it possible, as Saul Bellow remarked to me recently, that the throwers of brickbats are growing weaker?"

Did Bellow know, one can't help wondering, that his words would be used in a lame effort to justify Neider's hatchet job on "Huckleberry Finn"? Did he, winner of a Nobel Prize for fiction and passionate defender of the rights of writers and artists, have any idea that his name would be cited in defense of a shameless assault against the work of a defenseless writer? Or was this just a bit of idle cocktail chatter, uttered in all innocence, that eventually found its way into an unlikely and inappropriate place?

Whatever the case, it remains that what Neider has done to the concluding chapters of "Huckleberry Finn" is despoliation: He has violated Mark Twain's book. He has cut these 8,300 works from Twain's great novel not because they were originally written against Twain's will, or because he has discovered a note in Twain's handwriting expressing dissatisfaction with them; Charles Neider has cut these 8,300 words from "Huckleberry Finn" for the simple and single reason that Charles Neider does not like them. Doubleday, in its wisdom, has not merely published his cannibalized "Huck Finn," but has the gall to call the result "truer to its spirit and vision than ever before."

It quite takes one's breath away, doesn't it? In this bizarre view of literature, readers and critics are free not merely to express their opinions but to tinker with books to their own satisfaction. This means, for example, that since I quite thoroughly dislike all the military, philosophical and historical digressions in "War and Peace," I am entitled to toss them all aside, trim the novel down to its basic narrative, and peddle the result to whatever publisher concurs with me in this opinion. To hell with Tolstoy: The old fool didn't have the foggiest idea what he was doing. But I do, and I am going to do it for him.

And I'm not about to stop there. Most of Faulkner's "A Fable" strikes me as twaddle, but there's a long section about a miraculous racing horse that's first-rate; I'll throw all the rest away, publish the racing story as a novella, and call it "A Fable." Why, that's what Faulkner really meant to do, you know, he just never got around to it. Then there's the matter of the double ending in "The French Lieutenant's Woman." Can't have that; I'll choose one, chuck the other. And then . . . and then I shall turn my attentions to three novels called "Naked Eye," "The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones" and "The White Citadel." Their author is a fellow named Charles Neider. Surely he will be grateful.