Modernizing vs Censoring: Where’s the line?

Hello folks — yes I am back and feeling much better, thanks! Looking forward to a new, improved year – this time hopefully without the bike and car accidents that plagued 2010.

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What do we do with a “classic” work when the connotation of some of the language shifts over time?

Take Shakespeare, for example. Take high school English, for example. Many students in the Anglo-American world are required to read something by Shakespeare in their high school English curriculum. Few of them actually read the whole original text, at least not without a “translation” into more modern English nearby. Many watch film adaptations along with reading a given play. While I’m sure there is some controversy among Shakespeare purists, one of the widely-celebrated teachable aspects of Shakespeare’s plays is the adaptability of the stories to multiple contexts, despite the inaccessibility of the now-esoteric original language.

What about a more recent example, though, in which the language is still intelligible, but the cultural context has changed, making some formerly “acceptable” language now gravely offensive? Yes, I’m talking about Huck Finn, and the current debate over the suitability of NewSouth Books’ new edition of the Twain classics The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, which has been either modernized or censored, depending on whom you ask.

I have to admit, I’m not as thoroughly offended by this new edition as I feel like I’m expected to be.

I know that schools can go to ridiculous extents to sanitize works in an attempt to keep them palatable to some faction of their community. (How well do I know this? I played Sandy in a Grade 9 production of Grease in which we had to cut out all smoking, sex/pregnancy, and dropping out of school – leaving basically no plot, just girl meets boy and oh yeah a nice car.) On the other hand, I also know that words can feel violent and contribute to an environment of harassment and oppression, and as a member of a group with a lot of white-skin privilege I’m not ready to jump on a bandwagon that says we should make our students – especially students of colour – read the n-word over & over in an assigned book – especially if assigned by a white teacher.

Ideally, Huck Finn would always be taught in the classroom by a compassionate and brilliant Twain scholar with incredible historical insight and the ability to guide students through the nuances of a novel that documents some terrible, violent elements of US history. But in reality, we all know that’s not always the case.

Schools, just like other institutions in society, often perpetrate the experience of violence and oppression upon participants (in this case students). Teachers are just as likely to be racist and sexist and homophobic as anyone else. I’m not sold on the necessity for schools to require the original exact n-word-inclusive Twain wording, when they so often offer abridged, translated or otherwise modernized versions of other works. If a particular school/system wants to take a stand on only assigning original wording of literary texts, more power to them. If that’s something they feel strongly about, there are many such editions of Huck Finn available, and hopefully the adoption of such principles would inspire lots of discussion of the historical context of every non-contemporary text.

In sum, I think the question of “sanitizing” or “updating” the language of a work depends greatly on what the purpose of one’s use of said classic is. Is it to introduce students to the classic text or the works of that author? Grant them some sort of cultural literacy? Understand what makes the texts we have deemed “great” work? Serve as an entre into greater discussions of history, culture, and the big questions? Produce literary scholars and critics? Ideally, school assignments would do all of these, but at core I think a lot would be happy to settle for doing a good job of the first couple or so. If teachers are unable to use (or appropriately use) the original text, and if a more palatable edition makes that possible, so be it — as long as it is obvious that the revised editions are not the original, and the original is widely available.

As an immigrant library student, I was fascinated at exploring Canadian culture through children’s literature. One text (or rather, texts) that really captured my interest was Beatrice Culleton Mosionier’s In Search of April Raintree. I really wrestled with her decision to create a revised version for use in schools. I searched and searched for evidence of coercion, of censorship, in this revision, but everything I could find indicated that Mosionier was perfectly okay with it. Her current website (linked above)  proudly lists the three different editions of April Raintree, with their different intended audiences. Researching April Raintree really made me question my ability, as a white, Western, school-type-literate person, to understand what textual authenticity meant in cultural context that weren’t my own. And that’s okay.

Now, Mark Twain/Samuel Clements was white, and isn’t alive anymore to give or decline approval of new editions of his works. But the story of this revision isn’t so much about his cultural context as that of kids of colour who are being assigned to read Huck Finn today. I haven’t yet come across many African-American voices sounding in on this controversy, but I’d be really interested to hear various cultural interpretations of this revision, because the one or two I’ve been seeing don’t seem to be coming from this perspective.

And the line between “bad” censorship of a text and “good” modernizing for accessibility…well, I think it moves depending on where you’re standing.

-Greyson

ETA- NewSouth has responded in the comments of PW, and links to the book’s introduction,which discusses the controversy about the language change.

ETA #2 (Jan 6) – The NY Times has hosted a series of “debaters” writing to discuss this revised edition. Among the voices there, I recommend Paul Butler’s Why Read that Book?, who expressed the kind of sentiment I was intending to get at, but in a more concise and eloquent manner. I also recommend reading Thomas Glave’s Obscuring the Past, even though he doesn’t agree with what I wrote above.

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1 Comment

Filed under censorship, inclusion/exclusion, publishing, racism

One response to “Modernizing vs Censoring: Where’s the line?

  1. Deb Thomas

    I was interested in “Twain scholar” Gribben’s assertion that the word “nigger” has caused so much controversy that it is getting in the way of the story being seen for what it is. However, I wonder if the word “slave” – with he has replaced “nigger” – is that much less loaded for people of colour.
    I was concerned about the tampering with the original text but Devon’s points about other such “tamperings” – ie. that it can work if it is clear it is a revised edition and the original is still available – are well-taken.
    I admit I would much rather see the original text used and discussed in the context of it’s times but, like Devon, I’m white and therefore can’t know what kind of sting either word has for black students. I too would like to hear from African-Americans and Black Canadians on this issue!

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