This guest post is written by Kate Harveston, a writer and political activist from Pennsylvania. She blogs about culture and politics, and the various ways that those elements act upon each other. For more of her work, you can follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her blog, Only Slightly Biased.
It’s no secret some written and artistic material can be insensitive. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer are great examples of this. Though written in such a way as to shine a light on racism, the truth of their history is unsettling to all of us.
In both books, the “N-word” is thrown around constantly — both from the mouths of bad characters and from those who we’re supposed to identify with. There’s no question the language is offensive, but is its use worth preservation to tell Twain’s stories?
We can’t ignore history, and it should come as no surprise that Twain’s works were realistic in many ways — from their depiction of child abuse to the reprehensible treatment of African-Americans. If we ignore that history, are we ignoring how far we’ve come? Or are we — like Tom Sawyer — white-washing something we’d rather be untrue?
Regardless of your answer, it’s happening.
In modern printings and digital copies of Twain’s books, the language is being altered so it’s friendlier to younger audiences. Some teachers report they’ve long omitted the offensive words to save their students the embarrassment and pain of revisiting such times. Is that protection misplaced, though? Most scholars consider Twain’s novels to be books pretending to be children’s novels that are actually about the evils of racism.
When the racism is removed, what is left of the novel’s ambition? This example leads to bigger questions: Should we really be altering such prominent and renowned examples of literature, or should we be preserving them as their writers intended? And what does that mean for other, culturally important texts?
New age or original: That is the question
When it comes to fictional content like Mark Twain’s novels, the argument is important, sure, but it’s not disruptive. However, what does this precedent set for religious texts, such as the Bible? There have been many controversial aspects of the Bible — from stoning and killing disobedient children to telling women to submit to the husbands.
As we continue to evolve as a society, more aspects of the Bible become problematic. For the LGBT+ community, the treatment of gay people and the insistence on certain gender classification transforms what many feel is a book about love and forgiveness into a book about hate.
For groups like the Southern Baptists — who are millions strong — scrubbing non-inclusive language is more than just offensive — it goes against everything they believe in. For years, they have condemned Bible translations and interpretations that employ gender-inclusive language.
That probably explains why recent translations of their denomination-approved Bible are causing quite the stir. Some in the group have even taken it upon themselves to revise and release their own editions of the Bible, which include more gender-neutral language, such as “humans” and “people” in place of the Greek word anthropos, which is traditionally translated as man.
Before we debate whether this is an affront to modern religion, consider that religious texts such as the Bible have been revised, restructured and translated numerous times over the centuries. This is not the first time these important texts have been altered. But it does beg the question: Do we change art to fit culture?
Does the kind of text matter?
In the case of Mark Twain’s novels, the issue is racism and offensive language. With the Southern Baptist approved-Bible, it’s the use of gender-inclusive language. Are there other texts out there, waiting to be scrubbed clean? Given the right crowd, absolutely. But again, the answer to the question of whether this content — offensive or otherwise —should be altered, is not so easy to answer.
It’s a question that has been brewing for decades now. Does changing the offending language alter the material enough that it becomes something entirely different? Are we bastardizing classic literature and sacred texts to be more politically correct?
In the case of the Bible and religious texts, that may be a relevant problem. In the case of Mark Twain’s books, however, that argument changes entirely. Does a fictional book need racist language to convey a message, especially when it’s being read to younger audiences who are both impressionable and sensitive? If it’s a message about racism, then yes.
A cultural divide
Twain is no John-the- Beloved, so should we be treating these issues the same? The effect may be the same — removing questionable material changes the writer’s intent. What’s interesting about this phenomenon is how this conversation will divide by culture lines.
Liberals vehemently against censoring a text like Huck Finn may feel it’s time for the Bible to have a revision. Likewise, strict scripture-reading Christians may be fine with a cleaner version of Twain’s works, but they are less inclined to revamp what, for them, has been a holy text. The jury is still out on how this will play in the court of cultural opinion, but it will surely be an interesting discussion in coming years.