Remaking literary works after the fact is nothing new, but let’s take every due caution
People have expressed much outrage, on this site and elsewhere, regarding recent decisions to revise and re-release the books of Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming. Now comes word that children’s novelist Enid Blyton is getting the sensitivity reader treatment. But editing and re-releasing past literary works is neither exclusively woke or terribly new. In fact, the practice has played an important role in preserving key works of English literature for future generations.
It is doubtful that many would have bothered to read Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales had it not been for the diligence of literary archaeologists. Composed between 1387 and 1400, this fabulous collection of short stories framed within the context of a group pilgrimage to Canterbury was composed in Middle English. Even with several undergraduate courses in Linguistics, Medieval and Old English under my belt, I find the original text dense and unfathomable. Had scholars and editors not undertaken the task of revising and updating the tales, it might well have been lost to history, depriving readers of such colorful characters as the Cook, the Knight, the Summoner and the Wife of Bath.
A little closer to our own time is the case of young adult novelist Mary Grant Bruce. A beloved figure in Australia, she composed several series of books, the most celebrated of which are the Billabong novels. Set at a remote cattle station in Victoria at the turn of the Twentieth Century, they tell the story of 12-year-old Norah Linton, a spirited tomboy who rides, helps with cattle herding and gets into all sorts of adventures in the outback with her friends. Given the period in which the books were written, references to indigenous Australians, Chinese and Black characters were raw and frankly racist by today’s standards. Careful edits to the books have ensured that young Australians will continue to enjoy Norah and her friends to this day.
Many of us grew up reading the Hardy Boys novels. Conceived by book packaging magnate Edward Stratemeyer in 1927, a series of ghostwriters under the pen name of Franklin W. Dixon wrote the novels. The early books depicted African-Americans in racist terms and the police as incompetent fools. Concerned parents flooded Stratemeyer with letters of objection, so between the years 1959 and 1973, they edited those novels to remove these blemishes. The careful work of these editors successfully preserved the Hardy Boys franchise and it continues to delight young readers 100 years later.
A successful formula for updating literary works from the past requires excellent source material combined with top tier editing. But the stakes are high and the path is perilous; failure to combine these elements effectively can mean the difference between careful mummification and putting lipstick on a corpse. The current attempt to “update” Mark Twain provides a case in point.
Novelist Percival Everett is due to release a retelling of Huckleberry Finn in March of 2024. Entitled James, the new version of the book will excise the N-word (which appears 219 times in the original text) as well as the pejorative “Injun.” The book will be the 24th from Everett, himself a black man and a Pulitzer finalist. These factors in themselves might provide a promising launch pad for the project, if only the project itself were not conceptually flawed from the outset.
As I indicted in my recent article about the Fleming re-writes, racist language and attitudes serve as shorthand for recognizing the era in which certain books take place. Even as a child of 12 reading Live and Let Die in 1978, I recognized Felix Leiter’s use of the N-word as objectionable and anachronistic–a relic of a prior era’s casual racism. Removing that word from a future edition will likely do very little in terms of affecting the novel’s quality. But it is one thing to clean up racist language from 1953. Doing so from a Civil War era novel is an altogether different prospect.
Jim, Huck Finn’s companion in the novel, is a runaway slave. Much of the story’s tension and immediacy derive from the horror of Antebellum southern culture – a culture in which bodies, as well as language, were in racist bondage. As I suggested in the Bond article, if one removes racist language from an old book, does that not suggest that perhaps such language never existed? One can barely imagine an effective portrayal of the Holocaust without the word “Juden” hissed by concentration camp guards, any more than one can envisage the pre-Civil War south without its racist discourse and vocabulary. The language in this case serves not only as shorthand for the novel’s period setting but also as a conduit for the very real brutality of a slave’s existence. Put simply, if we pretend racist language did not exist, are we then expected to pretend that racist attitudes and behavior did not exist, either.
Make no mistake: this writer wishes Mr. Everett every encouragement and success in his daunting undertaking. But while the combination of careful editing with excellent source material may be enough to satisfy sate the baying hounds of wokeness, it is likely insufficient to convey the true nature of Huck’s and Jim’s environment. As much as we owe Black Americans equality and respect, we owe the past a fair hearing. Excising gratuitous racist language is one thing. But excising that language when it is an exemplar of a very definite time and place is another. If this trend of rewriting the past is to continue, it must happen with extreme caution and due care. We owe it to the past, as much as to the future.