12 January 2011

Creating P.C. reading by whitewashing the classics

An interesting issue has arisen

Publisher to release versions of 'Huck Finn' and 'Tom Sawyer' without the N-word, prompting strong but mixed reaction.
The internet is abuzz with reaction to a publisher’s controversial decision to replace the N-word with “slave” in Mark Twain’s classic novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in an effort not to offend readers.

You probably remember that Agatha Christie’s TEN LITTLE NIGGERS became TEN LITTLE INDIANS which always seemed to me to be a very strange choice, and now it is the much more sanitized AND THEN THERE WERE NONE.

The interesting thing was that in the Agatha Christie novel the "niggers" in question were ten soldier boy figurines on the dining room table. As the book evolved and people were murdered the figurines disappeared. The title of the book was based, as you will remember, on a nursery rhyme.

I remember (you probably don’t, being mainly much younger than this geriatric) reading Joseph Conrad’s THE NIGGER OF THE NARCISSUS.
Should we hunt down all books with similarly offensive titles?

But the Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer books are to be reprinted using “slave” instead of the n-word.
The count is apparently 219 times
Is this madness? What do you think?

What would the Australian equivalent be? Is it better to replace politically/socially offensive words with more sanitized ones, or should we be teaching our students to recognize the offensiveness, but also to understand how the author was reflecting common usage at that time?

The current, politically correct, not the original version, of the rhyme goes:

Ten little Soldier boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.
Nine little Soldier boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight.
Eight little Soldier boys traveling in Devon;
One said he'd stay there and then there were seven.
Seven little Soldier boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.
Six little Soldier boys playing with a hive;
A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.
Five little Soldier boys going in for law;
One got in Chancery and then there were four.
Four little Soldier boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.
Three little Soldier boys walking in the zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.
Two Little Soldier boys sitting in the sun;
One got frizzled up and then there was one.
One little Soldier boy left all alone;
He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.


Margot Kinberg said...

Kerrie - You raise such an important question! I believe that books reflect the times in which they are written. Sometimes, removing a politically-incorrect word takes away from the flavour of the times and makes the book less authentic. Admittedly, there are books that have expressed things I found offensive, but I feel pretty strongly that censoring books is a very "slippery slope," so I am very, very wary of any attempt to change the wording in a book....

Bernadette in Australia said...

I sometimes feel like I don't have a right to comment on this issue because, generally, I'm not directly affected by it (though you can find some pretty derogatory words for women in older books).

But if I did have the right to comment I'd say we should leave things alone. There are a number of reasons for this, not least of which I think it does us well to remember what we've come from, the changes we have made to our society etc. How can you remember that collectively if we wipe all evidence of it? I also don't happen to think anyone has a right to go through life not being offended. Lots of stuff offends me (most of what's on commercial television, the lyrics to many rap songs which talk about women as b*tches etc) but what I do is avoid those things.

kathy d. said...

This is so complicated it makes my head reel.

Over here in the states, this has been a topic of discussion on tv, until the terrible shootings in Tucson.

I have never read "Huckleberry Finn," nor anything else with heavy doses of racist words. I won't. Nor would I be able to deal with anything with heavy anti-Semitism, having Jewish relatives. And I'll only put up with sexist terminology to a point. If it's too much, I won't read it.

I think it's up to those who would be offended by the language to decide, that it's not for me to say anything.

Yes, it's very important to teach the history, especially in the U.S., but there are other ways.

Expecting children who are affected by the offensive language to hear or read this word 219 times doesn't seem right.

Educators here, especially African Americans, have said it's damaging to children, that it affects and hurts them.

I would put that as paramount, and stay out of the decision-making, and defer to those who are affected.

Kerrie said...

I did read a blog post just recently about how politically incorrect Agatha Christie could be sometimes - the person was referring to traces of anti-Semitism in her later Poirot novels

Jose Ignacio Escribano said...

We cannot ignore our past, whether we like it or not. I'm totally against any changes towards what it is claim today to be politically correct. We need to educate our children in the past and teach them to avoid past mistakes, but we cannot change the past.

kathy d. said...

I'm not in any way telling adults what to read, but I do think there are boundaries with children.

Many schools in the U.S. do not have "Huckleberry Finn" in their curriculum because of the offensive language.

There are many stories here of children and parents being upset, of children being sent to the hallways while certain books are read by the class, etc., then the children feel worse. It's complicated and fraught with controversy.

Anyway, about Agatha Christie, honestly, years ago, I read many Hercule Poirot books until I thought that her writing did have anti-Semitic and other biases towards immigrants, and others, so I stopped reading her books.

And I've read more recently about her views of Jewish people on the Internet, so I can't get past that, out of respect for family members.

I have a tough set of expectations in my own reading as do many of my friends, but I recognize individual taste in reading, and that everyone has their own likes and dislikes and boundaries.

Kerrie Smith said...

I think kathy it comes down to whether the author expresses her views through her characters. i.e. is HP Agatha Christie's mouthpiece. Given what she herself said about him, I doubt that he is. But he may be a reflection of views of some of the population at the time- there would be some readers who would identify with him. As you know I am reading my way through her work in publication order in the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge and so far I haven't come across the anti-Semitic threads, but then I am only up to 1937!

kathy d. said...

I did an internet search on Agatha Christie, and found some references to "anti-Semitism and xenophobia" in her earlier works.

A few bloggers listed page numbers in "And Then There Were None," which had negative portrayals of Jewish characters.

That's what I know.

Kerrie said...

Raises some interesting questions kathy. AND THEN THERE WERE NONE was published in 1939 when Britain is on the brink of war.
Seriously though Shakespeare has some pretty negative portrayals of Jewish charcaters (Shylock was the prime example) but we haven't stopped reading Shakespeare.
Is it because the thoughts are being expressed by Poirot?

kathy d. said...

I don't know who is expressing the thoughts. I would have to research this.

But I did know about the derivation of the title of that book, and I didn't want to read it anyway because I stay away from books which use certain words or concepts. That's me, my limits, how I was brought up.

But if I find out more, will blog in.

C.B. James said...

I think the poem you quote illustrates my feelings about this quite well. Changing the word nigger to "soldier boys" has not hurt the poem much. I think "soldiers" would improve the rhythm, but that's a quibble.

Doing the same is not going to hurt Huckleberry Finn, either. And if you think it will hurt the book, you can still get a copy closer to the original.

Nan said...

Not ever should words in books be changed! Better to have an essay in the front of the book explaining that this is just the way it was then. Better for teachers and parents to have conversations with kids talking about the past. And you know what, there is always going to be something which is offensive to someone. Where does it stop if this horror begins?


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