Dear Mr. Bowdler; or Cleaning Up Huck Finn

(This posting originally appeared on The Melt-Ink Pot)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last week, you’ve probably heard that there’s a new edition of “Huckleberry Finn” being published that has been “sanitized for your protection.” Most notably, the “N-word” has been replaced with the word, “slave” (though there are supposed to be some other changes as well.)

The more I thought about this, the more it bothered me. I couldn’t figure out why, until I looked at it from a writer’s perspective.

“Huckleberry Finn” is written from a first-person perspective of the title character. In other words, this is the world as Huck Finn sees it, and the only way we get to know Huck himself is through his “voice”. The words he chooses tell us volumes about his background, his social class, his level of education, and his age. By changing his vocabulary to words that are supposedly less demeaning and offensive, the publishers are changing the voice, and therefore his character.

As an author (even an unpublished one), I hate the thought that someone could do something similar to my stories once I’m no longer around to defend them. An author puts a great deal of effort into creating the most subtle of nuances for their characters. Changing a character’s voice would be like touching up the Mona Lisa with neon-paints, because those old-fashioned color schemes, while true to their day, are too dark for modern audiences.

It’s not a new problem, of course. In the early 1800’s, Thomas Bowdler decided that Shakespeare was too racy and improper for his wife and children to read aloud — heavens forfend that passages such as, “Out, damned spot!” be uttered by a lady of refinement. So he published an edition that met his moral standards. It met with the approval of many morally-inclined people in its day, but was Lady Macbeth ever the same afterwards?

My other concern is that, having decided to make these changes to Huckleberry Finn, what work of literature will the sanitizers decide to go after next? Certainly there are a lot of works from the past that do not measure up to today’s standards of political correctness, and not even always the ones you’d suspect. But where do we draw the line?

Case in point: One of my favorite authors is Gene Stratton-Porter, an early-twentieth-century author whose books usually combine a strong love of nature with elements of romance and coming of age. They’re sweet and uplifting and generally wholesome reading. Except for “Her Father’s Daughter“–which combines these same elements with a large helping of anti-Japanese paranoia! (The link takes you to a free Kindle download on I’d like to think that we’re more enlightened about such things now. But does that mean that the anti-Japanese parts of the novel should be excised so as to avoid contaminating young minds? Or should they, like the racist terms used in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” be allowed to remain so that we can study them, learn from them, and try not to repeat our mistakes?

And what of contemporary novels and works of literature? Many books today contain language that some consider offensive. Should it be cleaned up so that those who don’t wish to read those sorts of words don’t have to, or would it change the stories so as to make them unrecognizeable? To use another metaphor, what if you cleaned all of the swear words and potentially offensive content out of a Kevin Smith film. Would there be anything left?

I guess when presented with questions such as these, I have to come down on the side of protecting the author’s original intention. Because it’s a very short trip from “sanitizing” to censorship, and I, for one, don’t want anyone to tell me what kinds of characters and situations I can have in my stories, or to have someone “fix” them for me later.

What’s your take?


About sheilamcclune

Aspiring author, sharing the tidbits I've learned along the way.
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2 Responses to Dear Mr. Bowdler; or Cleaning Up Huck Finn

  1. Anonymous says:

    This is all about limiting Free Speech. After all, censorship is everywhere. The gov’t (and their big business cronies) censor free speech, shut down dissent and ban the book “America Deceived II”. Free speech for all, especially Mark Twain.Last link (before Google Books bans it also]:

  2. Marie says:

    Reading this just after your post about the holidays, I'd add the Little House books to the ones that contain a context so very different from ours. As much as I liked them as a child, I'm no longer sure I could read them to a small child of mine.

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