Sanctity of Published Work

Unlike writers who work for the stage, screen or television, published authors have the security of knowing that their books will forever remain the same, the purest form of expression untouched by others.

Until now.

We are living at a time when certain groups have sprung up who serve as surrogate word police, alerting publishers of words or images from past books that should be changed to reflect today’s sensibilities.

First there was the cleansing of Dr. Seuss books in 2021 whose books have sold more than 700 million copies.  The estate of Ted Geisel (Seuss) expunged six of his 60 books due to racial stereotypes.  The only way to find them is at a library or by buying overpriced used books.

People easily forget that during the time when these artifacts were created, they were acceptable in that society.  When understanding history, one is supposed to see it through the eyes of those who lived during that time period, not the present time.

The most recent children’s author under attack (by the way, why children’s literature is the epicenter of such scrutiny is anyone’s guess) is Roald Dahl, another popular author with more than 300 million books sold.

Among the hundreds of changes, Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the boy who gorged himself on chocolate and ended up falling into a river of chocolate, will no longer be described as “fat” but “enormous.”  By the way, “fat” and “enormous” are not exact synonyms. 

Also, the Oompa-Loompas will be called “small people” instead of “small men.”

What triggered this whitewashing of Dahl was Netflix which owns some of his titles and is interested in dramatizing them for their streaming service.  That’s when Inclusive Minds, one of the word police groups, combed through Dahl’s works and found offensive material.

The group emphatically denies on their website that they “do not edit or rewrite text,” yet this is exactly what results from their findings..  Such irony is one Dahl would have relished if he were alive today.

Unlike the Dr. Seuss situation, a compromise was recently announced by Puffin who publishes Dahl’s books.   Due to the intense pressure of notable people like author Salman Rushdie, who himself has been a victim of censorship, and U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who said that “works of literature [should be] preserved and not airbrushed,” Puffin will continue publishing the original versions as well as the censored version.

This reminds me of what happened back in 2011, when a version of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published with the N-word replaced with the word “slave.”  The earthquake of such a controversy rippled through op-ed pieces across the country.  However, the original version was never threatened, and continues being published today.

If there is material in a book from the past, the wrong way to deal with it is to erase it as if it never existed.  Instead, use the offensive material as teachable moments.

That’s what I did when teaching Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.  The villainous thief Fagin is a Jewish stereotype.  Dickens mostly ignores using his name, dehumanizing him by referring to him as the Jew.  A Jewish acquaintance of Dickens pointed this out to him and so, on his own volition, he went back and removed most of those references.

Sharing this story with my students opens up an opportunity to discuss anti-Semitism.  However, we still read, study and discuss his important novel which mainly focuses on society turning a blind eye to childhood poverty—an issue that still resonates nearly 200 years later.

When I taught literature, I would get my students excited at the notion that Charles Dickens is talking to them from 150 years ago.  This is how he saw his world, a vision that was captured and forever sealed.  There are no video or audio recordings of his voice.  The vocabulary and sentence structure represent his voice.

And now strangers from another century want to alter author’s voices.

I was watching an old Dick Cavett show with Groucho Marx from 1971. The two were talking about the word “lady” and how inappropriate some felt it was, especially those in the Women’s Liberation movement.  “Woman” was considered a more appropriate word to use. 

Today, however, “woman” has become a dirty word for some, to be replaced with “they” to eliminate any whiff of gender.  Who knows what people will think of “they” come 2073? 

If one must examine every artifact from the past and judge it on current trends, then put a disclaimer next to the item, but leave the original work alone, as is. 

I see much to criticize in our culture today.  Let’s work on fixing the way we live now.

One can’t change the past, but one can change the present.  That’s where the focus needs to be.