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Reworking the Classics

I have been much enamored of the “new” trend in books where the classics are “reworked.” This probably isn’t new, but it’s become popular through titles like Jane Slayer, Little Vampire Women, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Android Karenina. I have no problem with these titles as they are (generally) an homage to the original work. I enjoy reading the original and then reading the re-imagined piece and enjoying where the author paralleled the original work, and where they deviated. I enjoy the dichotomy of the two works and it’s just fun to see what twisted imaginations people have.

What bothers me are actions like this that aren’t done as an homage or a light-hearted nod towards the book. This February, NewSouth Books is planning on releasing Huckleberry Finn in an edition with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but with one notable exception: the “n” word. All 200+ references to the term will be removed, effectively sanitizing the book to make it less uncomfortable to read. NewSouth Books defends their decision to promote the book by stating that the omission of such a hurtful word will “help the works find new readers.”

Fine. Reach new readers now, and in fifteen, twenty, or forty years down the road, when the curriculum fails to remind students that the words being used are replacements for the original words selected and used by Mark Twain? Then what? Once the precedent is set, what happens when words are being changed in other classic texts, or entire scenes being rewritten for the comfort of the reader? What if Humboldt never actually seduces his nymphette? What if Holden never spoke of anything remotely sexual or vulgar? What if a brilliant mind like Salman Rushdie never published the Satanic Verses because of his fear of living under fatwa? Or because of such pressures, rewrote it? What then? What excuses are we willing to make to put a reader at ease, to remove the challenge that reading provokes, killing conversation, education, discussion and (hopefully, some level of) enlightenment about a world other than their own? We’re already circling the drain when it comes to culture, why not flush again with more instances like this to see if we can actually make it all the way down this time!

While I understand the reason behind the desire to pull such an incendiary word from the text to spare readers of different ethnicity and heritage from feeling the sting of such a loaded word, doing so is a reprehensible change to a classic text and smacks of censorship. To remove a word from the text that makes it uncomfortable to read opens the door to similar and more dramatic acts of revisionism. Yes, it’s an ugly word, and yes, it has hundreds of years of negative history attached to each syllable, however, that’s not an excuse to remove it. The educated among us should be championing the discomfort in a an effort to open a discussion that lacks rancor. It’s an invitation to understand a world that NONE of us could possibly have been a part of and can only understand through the words those that have come before us left in their wake. The ugly, offensive slur portrays the depths of the disparity between the classes and races in the context of the story and in the way the story was received then and received now. What is the value of literature if we seek to sanitize the experience and take out the parts that make us squeamish? What is the point of all the time and energy a writer spends telling the truth as they see it in the context of their experience and shares it with the world? What will we ever learn and how will we progress if we allow ourselves to set this precedent and example for future generations?

There isn’t much I can do with this except stomp my feet and yell where I think my voice will add to the noise, even if it is ignored. If it ever comes down to it and I have kids of my own, they will read the unsanitized version and I will do my best to teach them about the book, the time the story came from, why the story had such an impact, and why it’s still sparking controversy. I will teach them about censorship in the most unbiased way possible and hope they are able to understand why it’s wrong without influencing their decision.

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