Thomas Bowdler died nearly two centuries ago, but his impulse lives on.
Bowdler was the official editor of The Family Shakespeare, in Ten Volumes; in which nothing is added to the original text; but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family. Quality family time back then involved quite a bit of elocution: parents would read aloud from the Bible and the Bard, and children would memorize and recite improving verses.
Bowdler noticed that parents were leaving out the naughty bits of Shakespeare, and made it more “acceptable,” e.g., “Out, damned spot” became “Out, crimson spot,” indicating in a mere few words the futility of such well-intentioned exercises: the three staccato words delivered in a moment of high drama by the crazed Lady Macbeth are replaced by a lame phrase conveying nothing of the power of the original.
Some might consider this one of the earlier examples of political correctness. But there were really no politics involved. In high school we were given Bowdlerized texts as well—including Shakespeare. Our ears, as supposedly tender as those of our forebears (at least in class), could not be exposed to the word “damned” either, much less the Porter’s scene in Macbeth.
The school authorities meant well, and so did Bowdler. In the former case there were complaining parents to worry about, and hence a choice of exposing us to some Shakespeare or none; in the latter, Bowdler’s emendations made Shakespeare more available to the kids as well. (Political correctness was indeed involved in Bowdler’s case, however. His sister Harriet was the actual editor of The Family Shakespeare, but at the time a woman was not supposed to know what the more scandalous passages meant.)
Now a new edition of Huckleberry Finn is coming out. It will dispense with the word “Injun,” and also with that other one:
“This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colourblind,” Gribben told Publishers Weekly. “Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”
The book will also replace the word “Injun” with the word “slave.” The word “nigger” appears 219 times in Huckleberry Finn, according to the Publishers Weekly article.
In this case politics is most definitely involved. It always is when issues of gender or “race” crop up as themes. And such verbal squeamishness is a clear sign that something more than polite sensibilities are involved. Take Lawrence Hill’s well-received The Book of Negroes, the title referring to an actual historical record. In countries with highly racialized societies—the US, New Zealand and Australia—it was re-titled Someone Knows My Name.
But is this reducible to “political correctness,” a term which itself changed radically from its original meaning* just a few years ago? I’m not so sure.
At its best, the “politically correct” impulse was an attempt to include the previously marginalized by changing our patterns of language. This was sometimes successful (dropping the suffix “-man.” as in “policeman” to recognize the presence of women in the ranks; making racist phrases like “that’s white of you” unfashionable) and sometimes clunkingly heavy-handed (trying to find substitutes for “pot calling the kettle black” because of alleged racist content).
But this attempt to build inclusiveness by exposing the hidden assumptions contained in language quickly became conflated with the age-old drive to euphemize—which does the very opposite, when you think about it. Rather than revealing, it hides. Rather than being inclusive, it evades. We watch what we say, rather than changing what we do. Fear of unpleasantness, not the desire to bring about serious social change, becomes the driving force.
Huckleberry Finn offers teachable moments, to use that well-worn cliche, not the least of which is the evolution of the n-word from a mild racializing expression to a super-charged, radioactive term, overloaded with connotation. But rather than deal with this literary artefact squarely, the editors of the new version prefer to take evasive action.
This isn’t even re-writing history, which happens all the time and is part of the discipline of history: it’s trying to wipe it out, because it’s embarrassing or potentially offensive. And this is particularly ironic given the strong anti-racist message of the text itself—Huck, after all, helps his friend Jim escape from slavery.
Certainly there have been efforts to ban the book entirely. Indeed, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has the distinction of being the fourth most banned book in the US. In 1902, the Brooklyn Public Library tossed the book out the door because, inter alia, the word “sweat” rather than “perspiration” was used.
But is the proper response to amend an author’s text to make it conform to the fashion of the day—rather like painting loincloths on the putti depicted in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel? Is it appropriate to bubblewrap literature in this manner, or, perhaps more accurately, to bubblewrap ourselves?
Try as I might—and I’m far from opposed to certain forms of so-called “political correctness”—I cannot find any justification for this move. I’m not arguing for insensitivity in a text’s use. I wouldn’t give Lady Chatterley’s Lover to kids in grade school, and it’s not because I’m a prude. And the language of Huckleberry Finn, given the racialized reality of 2011 America, must be handled with caution in some contexts.
But, hypothetically speaking, replacing the f-word with “make love” In Chatterley would be to create an entirely different text. And, by the same token, altering Twain’s text in a similar fashion is a change no less fundamental than having Huck and Tom Sawyer email each other to make the book more “relevant.” By making the book safer, the editors have in effect written a new text, and not necessarily a better one.
More generally, the world is a challenging and often offensive place, with many bumps and sharp edges. We don’t make it less so by trying to wish it away or by refusing to deal with it. We should watch our words—they are powerful instruments for good or evil—but surely not to the extent that we erase and replace texts at will to suit prevailing sensitivities.
Better, indeed, to ban such works outright, and fight the eternal censorship battles that inevitably result. Gratuitously altering the words of others seems a cheap and sneaky way of attempting to achieve the same outcome without the bother of a fight. But fight there must be, and I for one hope the damage can be undone.
[H/t Gary Dimmock]
* Once it was a Communist term referring to adherence to the party line; then it was used ironically in the ‘sixties by the left to refer to overly orthodox comrades; then Dinesh D’Souza and the boys at the Dartmouth Review got hold of it in 1986, and the rest is, er, history.