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Literature and Censorship? Never the Twain should meet…

January 7th, 2011 by Peter

The great American writer Mark Twain said once that “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter”. Here was a man who understood the power of word usage, it’s something in the craft of the writer that they know the importance of words. Hemingway drafted and redrafted the last sentence to A Farewell to Arms over forty times, why? Because he recognised the power of getting words right.

It has been in the news today that a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer has been censored. Nowhere on the cover of the book does it say that you are purchasing a censored edition, it’s more than possible that people will buy this book and not even realise that they’re reading something that is not only heavily censored but that would also be directly against the wishes of the author. How can I speak for Mark Twain, you ask? I don’t need to, though anyone who has written will know that they want their original story to remain, Mark Twain had words on the matter himself and they were not pleasant. When a mistake was made in the printing of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court he said of the typesetter “I telegraphed orders to have him shot without giving him time to pray”. Those are not the words of a man who would later want his work to be heavily changed in an act of cringe-worthy literary vandalism.

The words nigger and injun have been removed from the texts and replaced with slave and Indian. How can this be? The word nigger appears 219 times in Huck Finn because a major theme of the book is racism, if you remove that word then you strip the book of its power. It’s an absurd attempt to white wash out of history something that people should know.  If you find the word so offensive that you can’t read the book then here is a solution – don’t read the book. It really is that simple. Don’t change it, don’t mess with what someone created and don’t try and whitewash history so it doesn’t look so ghastly. The book is portraying history and real social attitudes and when it comes to history what we do not remember we are doomed to relive. If society finds Huckleberry Finn so offensive then it’s a sad indictment upon our insistence on political correctness and the desire to live in our comfort zones; if society finds the book offensive that shows all the more why we need it in it’s raw and undiluted form. It is offensive because parts of history are offensive and because racism is offensive and I don’t think we as a society should forget that.

The word does jar me and it’s certainly not a word I would use. I am taken aback a bit everytime I read it; it crops up a lot in old books in much the same way that anti-semitism does. It makes me stop and think, especially when it’s an author I love. I think about why they’re using the word and what the social attitudes were at the time. I think about what is says about society a hundred years ago and what it says about society now. I think about how far we have come from the time that those books were written in the same way that hearing it in a hip-hop song makes me think about how far we have still to go. The word stings; the word should sting.

As a child I would read children’s versions of classics but they were never marketed as the real deal. They were an introduction aimed at readers not yet old enough to read the length or language of the real deal. I loved those books. I think such books are a great way of introducing young readers to classic texts and hopefully encouraging them to read the real thing as they grow, but censoring words to protect modern sensibilities is an entirely different matter. This is not simplifying a text to be read by a younger audience, it’s changing a text to try and hide the truth of history.

What gives anyone the write to change someone’s work in this way? Surely the final copy of an author’s work is sacrosanct? You have the right not to read what offends you, if you’re a parent you have the responsibility not to let your child read what you think is bad for them, but who has the right to change and publish in this way? The author crafts what they want their novel to be, they choose their words carefully and they do so for good reasons and while the reader has a right to decide whether they read those words or not surely that does not give any person to change the work and publish it as though it were the original. We have the freedom to choose whether we read a person’s work but that does not give us the freedom to change it.

I’m firmly of the opinion that to censor literature in this way is a negative thing. What are your opinions on the matter?

Links:

NYTimes Books: Light Out, Huck, They Still Want to Sivilize You

NYTimes debate: Do Word Changes Alter ‘Huckleberry Finn’?

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