“Sanitizing” historical novels

This is a little off-track, but then maybe not. I’m sure many of you heard in the news how Mark Twain’s iconic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is being ‘revised’ by one publisher to remove all references to the ‘N’ word so that the novel can still be taught in schools. Here’s an excerpt to an article about it (this is a commentary, one I agree with):

Why whitewash n-word from ‘Huck Finn’?

By Jenice Armstrong
Philadelphia Daily News
Daily News Columnist

I DESPISE THE N-WORD but not so much that I think it needs to be removed from great works of literature such as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” as one publisher is doing.

The racial epithet appears a whopping 219 times in the Mark Twain classic. As a way to get more schools, particularly the ones that have banned it, to teach the historic novel, NewSouth Books has replaced the slur with the word “slave” in the edition that’s coming out next month.

Somebody better call the literature police. (You can read the whole article here)

I’m sure we’ve all experienced books that have changed, ‘evolved,’ you might say. Louisa May Alcott’s first novel, Moods, was practically cut in half when first published and then some of it was restored years later (I have both versions and have begun reading that book, more on in a future post). Then there are books that are printed in abridged versions for children (which I find very annoying – if the book was written for children in the first place, why note present the whole book?).

I’m still plowing through Gone with the Wind and can’t even imagine what that book would be like should it be ‘sanitized.” It would completely ruin the book and probably just reduce it to another love story rather than the epic and iconic historical novel that is.

Political Correctness has run amuck! It’s causing us to change the portrayal of  history from those that lived it. An honest presentation of our history is essential to preventing the repeat of past actions.

That’s my take. What do you think of this action by the publisher of Huck Finn?

8 Replies to ““Sanitizing” historical novels”

  1. I think literature captures what the author thought and said at the time — and in the times — when he or she thought and said it. To clean up the language later is changing history after it has happened.

    Do you want to learn something in school? I hope you will learn that attitudes change. (Thank heaven!)

  2. I believe the following line in the article rings truth:

    “It’s easier to substitute another great novel instead of having to explain the historical context for Twain’s use of the n-word and risk getting parents and students all worked up.”

    I’m not for re-writing a great work of fiction to avoid uncomfortable feelings in the classroom. Sometimes confronting those feelings is the only way that change toward the better can occur. A healthy dialogue can lead the way to understanding, forgiveness and growth.


  3. I have to agree that it is ridiculous to change literature- that’s like trying to ignore history. The message of the book is made all the stronger by looking at the context which it is told in.
    Pretending unpleasant things didn’t happen isn’t the way to keep them from happening again.
    Literature should be provocative and cause readers to think, analyze and respond. Sometimes a little discomfort is a part of that experience.

    1. It’s symptomatic of society in general – we want to remove all obstacles and anything that offends when in fact suffering and obstacles are essential in building strong people with good character. You take away obstacles and people become weak. I’ve often heard it said that Americans in particular are like “fatted calf” as a result.

      Taking away supposedly offensive language, I think, could actually encourage it rather than make it go away. It’s like when you tell a kid not to do something – it makes them want to do it all the more. And how do you learn not to do it if you don’t see it in its context? Plus there’s the whole thing of superimposing 21st century values on 19th century literature – truly stupid.

  4. You know, it’s rather ironic that you should post that bit about Louisa May Alcott being edited as an argument against censorship, especially given the fact that she was a member of the committee that banned Huck Finn from the shelves of the Concord Library…:)

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