By now, I am sure everyone has heard the news about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I’ve never been in the business of retelling stories that have already been told. If you want background on this particular story then click on the link above. The simple question is whether books from the past should be altered to become palatable to our modern sensibilities. Reading the story brought me back to funny thing that happened when I was a teenager.
Like many of you, my parents required that I work during the summer once I was old enough. It was probably less about the money than the idea that idle hands are the devil’s workshop. So, I worked in this district where he worked doing various odd jobs. One of those jobs was to help clean out a library that had obviously not been cleaned in at least a decade. This became apparent when I ran into a copy of Little Black Sambo. The older readers may remember this childhood book. It had long been banned by the time I found it.
Ironically, it is my sensibilities as a historian that are more offended that my sensibilities as a writer. I have toyed with the idea of writing of novel and that idea contains some potentially objectionable material. It’s a long story. Hell, it would be a novel right? Still, it is the whitewashing of history that is more objectionable. When you alter words and phrases to make stories more palatable you slowly erode the fabric of our past. A part of our present identity is always linked to our past. When you sterilize that past you remove an opportunity to learn from it.
All 10th grade English students read To Kill a Mockingbird. Could you imagine sterilizing that book as well? The whole book is about race relations from the period. I just imagine Boo Radley being transformed through therapy and a healthy prescription of Zoloft? All characters in the great novels of the past gives us a glimpse of the public’s understanding of the issues of the day and those that fall outside the norm. Besides, those characters often represent something more and many of those colorful terms that we currently find loathsome also represented something more. Sometimes we should be disturbed. Sometimes we should be shaken. Great works of fiction should leave us with an uneasy feeling at times. Otherwise, we would all read those novels with Fabio on the cover.
All writers dream of writing something with that kind of social significance. All writers dream of writing something that captures a piece of the very fabric of our culture. Religious or not, it would give us a piece of immortality. Naturally, writing a series of books about baseball statistics isn’t going to get that done. Very few people can do that. The last thing they deserve is some zealot changing their words to make it more palatable to current conventions and sensibilities. Those great writers deserve better than that. Even us average writers deserve better than that.