January 05, 2011

Warning: Lark's Vomit

I am as against bowdlerizing Huckleberry Finn as anyone could be, but all the hullabaloo over this particular edition is bizarre: publishers have been silently doing precisely this in school and textbook editions of that book, and many others, for decades. It's the "silently" that is most disturbing. At least with the hullabaloo, the reader stands a chance of learning that what he or she is reading is not the actual original text. Like the confection known as Ram's Bladder Cup, books like The New Expurgated Adventures of Huckleberry Finn really ought to bear a great big red label reading: WARNING LARK'S VOMIT. But failing that, a publicity campaign boasting about the lark's vomit, in the New York Times and so forth, is something like the next best thing. I mean, at least they're not trying to hide it.

So that's basically my bowdlerization position: it's all bad, but silent bad is far worse than hullabaloo bad.

The last time this came up on this blog in the comments to this post on banned books, I quoted an article on school materials originally found here but now no longer on the web as far as I can tell:

In accord with these policies, publishers eliminate or change offending passages regardless of the purpose or meaning those passages have in the original work. McGraw-Hill, for example, changes "nigger" to "Negro" in Huckleberry Finn (grade 9), Allyn and Bacon removes "piccanin" from Nadine Gordimer's Train from Rhodesia (grade 12), and Ginn removes the first and fifth stanzas from Richard Wright's Hokku poems(grade 7). Sometimes both right-wing and left-wing pressures affect the same literary work. In Patricia Zettner's story A Perfect Day for Ice Cream, for example, various publishers eliminate the reference to Gloria Steinem and the word pest that a child applies to a sibling because home-and-family conservatives find militant feminism and portrayals of family conflict unacceptable, but these publishers delete the phrase Kamikaze ball as well, because it could be interpreted as ethnic derogation. Since California's liberal textbook guidelines also discourage the use of materials that promote foods of low nutritive value, the publishers have changed the title of the story to A Perfect Day and edited out the trip to the ice cream parlor. Similarly, publishers have corrected the language of Mark Twain's characters in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, yielding to conservative pressure to remove poor grammar from textbooks to avoid encouraging students to use such grammar themselves, and have substituted children for boys in response to liberal pressure for sexually neutral language and the removal of any suggestion that girls have inactive or supporting roles in relation to boys…

It's too bad the article is no longer there, because I remember the rest of it being as interesting as that bit. Do we, through our pedagogic surrogates, really assemble the great, timeless works of literature solely in order to cross out the bits that fail to support our competing, ephemeral, petty agendas and prejudices? Damn, it looks like we do. NewSouth Books has got nothing on us, really, and maybe we should get off our high horse about it.

Also of note is this recent examination of successive phases of silent bowdlerization in two editions of Dr. Doolittle and three of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Until reading this piece, I'd had no idea that the Oompa-Loompas were originally African Pygmies, and that this had been silently changed in the 1973 edition I must have read as a kid. I'm not saying it's a change for the worse, and I can certainly see why it was done -- but it does irritate me that I had no way of knowing about it, and that they (publishers, teachers, librarians) never gave any thought to the possibility that it was something I might, as a young reader, want to know. That's where the whole thing starts to feel a little creepy and slippery-slopey and 1984-y and social engineering-y. You want to be able to trust that the book you have in your hand is the real thing, not something altered for your own good by authority figures with the best of intentions. If they have altered it in furtherance of whatever agenda they might have, they should tell you.

It is no coincidence that so many examples of this silent bowdlerization come from children's lit. It reflects the fact that so many of us, even some of us who pride ourselves on being on the side of the angels when it comes to kids and the Joy of Reading, nevertheless tend not to take young readers seriously as readers. We just assume that they'll take whatever we give them without wondering what it is or where it came from, without the means to discover what it is or where it came from; and we pat ourselves on the back for doing it, for disguising the truth in a good cause. That sucks. I mean, we shouldn't be doing that, really. It is the opposite of education, and inimical to the very idea of literature. It's an abuse of trust.

What I'm trying to say, I suppose, is this: everyone has a right to know about the lark's vomit, even kids.

Posted by Dr. Frank at January 5, 2011 08:18 AM | TrackBack

yup. I was talking to students in my college course on young adult lit about A Separate Peace. A lot of them had to read it in HS and they all complained that it was one of the drippiest, most sentimental books they ever encountered. I said, well, at least it has the homoerotic thing going for it. Their jaws dropped. At first I thought they were bad readers, but then another prof. pointed out that they had probably read the expurgated version, which is standardized in the state of Ohio. It completely explained the disconnect. So yeah--thanks for sharing this.

Posted by: Jen Dutton at January 5, 2011 01:52 PM

I seem to recall that Ray Bradburry in the introduction to one edition of Farenheit 451 or another talked about how he wrote the book as a reaction to censorship of his stories in school textbooks (and how, ironically enough, Farenheit 451 was also expurgated for some time). Don't take my word for it, though...it's been about 15 years since I read it.

Posted by: Dirk at January 5, 2011 02:21 PM

this is also why it's useless to read the bible. so many editors it's hardly intelligible and certainly not as entertaining as early editions were. i saw an exhibit at the Getty last month of historical bibles and they contained stories of great heroes like Alexander and Caesar. in the bible. it was spectacular to a non believer like me. of course, that's all been expurgated in the modern text.

you're right, we need a labeling law to protect us from senseless censorship. now all you can do is hope to find an early edition or at least read the copyright page of each book closely and see what edition you have in your hands. like Children's Illustrated Classics, which are bastards of another ilk. sad, but true.

Posted by: kelley at January 5, 2011 03:43 PM

because home-and-family conservatives find [...] portrayals of family conflict unacceptable


That's news to me, though I suppose I'm not a "home and family conservative". On the other hand, I sure read enough of what conservatives say to admit I've never heard one suggest that portrayals of family conflict are unacceptable.

(Especially since such conservatives are almost always Christians, and the Bible's full of family conflict, but also because none of them seem to be of the opinion that pretending conflict never happens is somehow helpful for promoting family life...)

But I suppose the MLA has little direct contact with "conservatives" as a group, so hey.

Kelley: Those must have been pretty early or fairly late, since the church fathers never had such tales of "heroes" in any of the accepted Canons, and that was pretty early.

I suppose some of that might have slipped in during the Renaissance, say, but that's more like people adding chapters to Huck Finn than removing material...

(Or are you referring to the aside mentions of Alexander in the apocrypha?

Caesar is, of course, mentioned, though not Julius.)

Posted by: Sigivald at January 5, 2011 08:19 PM

The point of that passage is that efforts to "clean up" literature for schools have come from both the right and the left. I don't see how anyone could deny that. The "liberal"/"conservative" terminology for the dichotomy, though, is particularly inapt here, as, whatever else might be said about this activity, it is not "liberal" in any sense. "California's liberal textbook guidelines" means illiberal guidelines that cater to the censoring desires of people who feel as though they are "liberal" culturally. Otherwise, that sentence makes little sense.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at January 5, 2011 08:43 PM

Since the students can download the original text of Twain's works at gutenberg.org, and will probably do so to have a searchable and "copyable" version for writing their reports, this bowlderization won't have much of an effect anyway.

Posted by: Bill at January 6, 2011 02:02 AM

Schools lie to children about the past constantly, though it is usually to defame it. I know, I do it for a living.

Posted by: josh at January 6, 2011 08:11 PM

Yes, Josh, I know that's true, and that is kind of my point. I think this revised text is a dumb idea and I don't approve of it, but complaining about it alone -- as everyone seems to be doing -- is like condemning a handful of sand for treason against the beach. At least, as I say, this particular one admits what it's doing.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at January 6, 2011 08:25 PM

You hear of this happening to Lovecraft all the time, though I haven't personally bumped into all that many neutered collections. (Did recently hear an audio version of "Rats in the Walls" where the Orson Wells-sounding reader kept calling the narrator's cat "Mr. Blackman".)

In fact, I've read more apologetic editorial prefaces that discuss the reasons why the anthologist chose to NOT censored the man's work than actual censored works.

I suppose it IS really, really super-brave to not do the wrong thing, and so deserving of praise that you should let everyone know.

Now that I'm thinking about it... Not really sure what this has to do, really, with the discussion at hand.

Hell. Already typed it.

I know things. I'm smart.

Posted by: CKS at January 6, 2011 08:47 PM

Dr. Frank,
Altering, or "recycling" stories is a good thing. I think modernizing classics helps make the story more tangible in the classroom and in modern culture. The past editions still exist. I think where the editor goes wrong is in the title. It should be called something different, as it is not what Twain wrote but rather, what the editor "recycled". It isn't appropriate to through the n-word around in a classroom these days. It is also inappropriate to read about blow jobs in a classroom, which is why ultimate modern YA is banned from literature lists: they stray beyond literary boundaries of comfort and appropriateness for the classroom.

Posted by: Exna at January 7, 2011 05:13 AM

Well, obviously, I disagree rather strongly with that, Exna. I don't doubt that the book in question presents problems as a class text (and they may well be insurmountable) but I can't see how mechanically plugging in euphemisms solves them. Next thing you know, you're banning "ice cream" and "boys." Or rather, that's not the next thing, that's the status quo. Our culture is euphemism-happy (censorship is just a form of ... recycling!) Complaining about this edition of Huck Finn isn't going to change that, of course, but I still think it's bad.

Wouldn't you be kind of irritated if you'd read and studied a book like a Separate Peace, only to learn later that you hadn't read it at all, but rather a politically-correct version with the book's defining features edited out by state bureaucrats? (As Jen describes, comment #1?) Adapting things to make them easier to discuss -- I can't see the value in it at all, and if it is not divulged it's something like educational malpractice.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at January 7, 2011 07:36 AM

"It is also inappropriate to read about blow jobs in a classroom"

I know that wasn't your entire point, but I just wanted to comment that the times they are a-changin'. When I was in high school we read the diary of a teenage runaway who becomes a prostitute. Blow jobs were the least of it. I'm pretty surprised that kids don't read anything at all racy these days.

On to my point:
'Nigger' may not be appropriate to throw about these days, but removing it from literature is tantamount to rewriting history. Your kids will eventually hear that word, more than likely on the playground outside the classroom where you think it's inappropriate to teach it. Maybe seeing it used in context will be an important lesson for the kids to understand the historical and social implications of the word, and why they shouldn't be crass enough to use it.

We live in a very sad world where classics have to be modernized to be appealing to entitled, half-wit children and sanitized to appeal to their moralistic parents. We live in a dangerous world where we shape representations of history and culture to reflect current mores.

These kinds of actions simply teach kids to think in black and white terms, because they're never challenged to engage that which lies in the grey. Let's give kids and teens the benefit of the doubt -- they are not sensitive creatures in need of protection, but thinking beings who need complex stimulation to nurture their cognitive and social development. If one has a problem with the use of the word 'nigger' in Huck Finn, then perhaps the solution is to be an adequate parent or teacher and to sit down and talk with one's child and discuss the issue after they read the book.

Yes, the original is still available, but how many kids will be aware of the original? Just as we are unaware that the Oompah Loompahs in CCATCF were originally African Pygmies... How many kids will read the santized version in school, only to never bother to look up another version, because hey, they already read it?

It seems that some people really miss the point of books and reading.

Posted by: anon at January 8, 2011 05:31 AM