Thomas Bowdler was an English doctor who wanted to get great literature into the hands of the people. The problem was, great literature was unfit for the masses, and especially for women and children. Bowdler’s father had censored Shakespeare as he read to his family, editing out the parts that were unsuitable for feminine and juvenile ears, but Bowdler worried that some fathers might not have the brains or the propriety to do the same. So Bowdler set out to clean it up, starting with Shakespeare. His sister Harriet did the actual editing, but reading filth like the unexpurgated plays of Shakespeare was unbecoming to a lady, so Thomas published her work in his own name. Thanks to the Bowdlers, it became possible to read the English language’s greatest playwright without acknowledging the existence of sex, prostitution, farts, genitalia, or other indelicate facts of life, and bowdlerise entered the language as word for censoring the unseemly parts of literature.
(Don’t blame it on Queen Victoria, by the way. She was only five years old when Thomas Bowdler died, and The Family Shakespeare was first published in the reign of George III.)
It should be noted that the Bowdlers’ effort was a popular one, and that they were not the first or the last to try to clean up literature. Disney threw history out the window to make Pocahontas (as Fox did to make Anastasia), and peopled the sometimes gruesome fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm with dancing, singing forest creatures. But Disney wasn’t the first to change the rape of Sleeping Beauty to a kiss, and it was the Grimms themselves who recast Snow White’s jealous and hateful mother as an evil stepmother.
The Bible, with its tales of gratuitous violence, adultery, and incest, has been especially prone to editing, and not just for children’s story books. Some internet forums censor perfectly good Anglo-Saxon words like ass and piss, making it impossible to accurately quote parts of the King James Version of the Bible. The translators of the New International Version, while claiming to believe in biblical inerrancy, were careful to edit it to suit Evangelical sensibilities. For instance, they couldn’t bear having Jesus say the mustard seed was the smallest of all seeds — which is obviously not true — so they changed it to “the smallest of all your seeds.” (They must have taken a lot of flack about that, because they changed it back in the 2010 edition.) A century ago, the translators of the American Standard Version frankly announced that “changes made for the sake of euphemism have been considerably increased,” so that early 20th-century Christians wouldn’t be confused by references to reins or kidneys, or scandalized by bowels or guts. The Talmud itself takes time to explain that Abraham’s wife, Sarah, wasn’t really his half-sister but his niece — which, until pretty recently in historic terms, was considered much less shocking. Even the ancient editors and redactors of the Hebrew text used euphemisms for bodily functions (see, I can use euphemisms too!) and genitalia. (Hint: It wasn’t Boaz’ “feet” that Ruth uncovered.)
So it’s not at all surprising that we’ve had two major events of bowdlerization in the news this week, or that both involved race. Race is a touchy subject in America, and discussions of race can quickly stir up anger all over the place. Talking about race pisses off black folks who think — with good reason — that white folks just don’t get it. It pisses off people of all colors who wish that racists would just get over their stupid fucking racism. And it pisses off racists, who wish people would just shut the fuck up about it. There’s no subject more susceptible to censorship d in America today than racism.
Our first news story involves a censored version of Huckleberry Finn, in which the word nigger is replaced by slave and the word Injun is replaced by Indian. This has raised all kinds of fury, from people saying Huckleberry Finn shouldn’t be taught at all, censored or not, to people saying this marks the end of free speech and the triumph of an absurd degree of political correctness.
Let me say right here that my favorite novel is The Count of Monte Cristo. I was introduced to it in tenth grade English class, and somebody edited the hell out of the version we read. I think it was stupid to edit it, but I’m grateful that my teacher managed to get at least a version of it into my hands. So I can understand where Alan Gribben — our present Bowdler — is coming from. He knows Huckleberry Finn is often challenged and often banned, that teachers and students alike are often uncomfortable discussing it, and that as a result it often isn’t taught at all. He just wants to make it possible to teach a book that is often considered the definitive Great American Novel. If you don’t know Huck Finn, you don’t know American literature.
But Gribben’s efforts are misdirected. Nigger is an offensive word, and ought to be have been recognized as such a long time before it was. When you take the word out of Huckleberry Finn, you’re trying to sanitize a book that’s really all about racism. You can’t pretty up Huck Finn. It’s an ugly story; it’s meant to be an ugly story. But it’s also a story of redemption. Huck is an ignorant racist, brought up believing that the social order prevailing in antebellum America was good and right and godly. The book shows Huck’s gradual enlightenment, as he slowly and haltingly comes to the realization that Jim is a man, a full-fledged man with dignity and rights that supersede the conventional morality Huck has been taught. Huck learns that he has to embrace compassion instead of conventionality, that it’s better to be “wrong” than to betray his only real friend. And then he backslides again as soon as his idiot friend Tom Sawyer shows up, forgets all about Jim’s dignity and the debt he owes to Jim, and has to learn the lesson all over again. The first time I read Huckleberry Finn, I wanted to strangle Tom Sawyer. But I think you’re supposed to want to strangle him. If Twain wants you to be impatient with social convention, he also wants you to see that it’s not enough to be unconventional. Tom Sawyer can thumb his nose at convention, but he’s still a racist jerk. Huck has to get past convention and rebellion. He has to overcome peer pressure and superficial camaraderie. He has to learn that it’s not enough to be a rebel. The rebel has to have integrity and heart, too.
One could argue that there’s still plenty of racism in Huckleberry Finn, even without the word nigger. True enough. But I think it’s a mistake to tone down the racism in the book. Huckleberry Finn ought to make you uncomfortable. It ought to piss you off. It ought to turn you into a radical.
There aren’t many teachers who have the guts to teach it that way, though, or many local school boards that would let them if they did, so we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. This isn’t the day I’m going to talk about what I think of education in America, or waste my time responding to jackasses who make comments like this:
You know black people are just way to sensitive. You don’t hear Jewish people crying the way blacks do and they have been pursicuted for thousands of years. I think black people forget it was the stronger blacks who sold the weaker into slavery and it was white folks who fought to free them. NUFF SAID!
Jesus! we’ve got a long way to go in this country before we’re civilized. And that leads me right to our Bowdlers in the House of Representatives. If you want proof that the United States of America is profoundly dysfunctional, you need look no further than the fact that we’re still electing Republicans to public office.
The Republican Party has sworn undying loyalty to the worst forms of idolatry and superstition in religion, economics, and law, and one of their most adored idols is the Constitution of the United States, as interpreted according to what they imagine to be the original intent of the founders. So when Republican members of the House decided to make a gesture to please their Tea Party faction, what could have been more appropriate than reading the Constitution aloud on the House floor?
Except they didn’t read it. They skipped some parts, apparently by accident, and I’m not even going to pretend to be surprised they didn’t notice.
More importantly, they intentionally read an expurgated version. They refused to read the entire Constitution, choosing instead to read it “as amended.” That is, they ignored the folly of Prohibition, and more importantly they ignored the blatant injustice of the original document, in which a slave was counted as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of apportionment. That didn’t mean black people got three-fifths of the representation white people got. It meant slave states got extra credit in Congress for holding people in bondage. They got to count three-fifths of their slaves toward apportionment, as if they were in some way representing those slaves in Congress. That’s not the kind of thing Republicans, especially their Tea Party branch, like to dwell on. It’s hard to pretend that the Constitution is some kind of divinely inspired document, or that we ought to be forever bound by the founders’ “original intent,” when it’s obvious to anybody with a functioning brain and some semblance of a conscience that the Constitution has furthered injustice as well as justice, and that the original intent of the founders was morally repugnant.
That’s not what the Tea Party wants to hear.
Recently I quoted Zora Neale Hurston saying that mystery is the essence of religion, but that’s not always true. The essence of the Republican civil religion is denial, and I mean both willful lies and willful ignorance. The fact that about half the voters in the U.S. support a party that deals with racism and injustice by denying their existence is a problem for America, and it’s a hell of a lot more serious than whatever we decide to do about Huckleberry Finn.
They don’t just preach their religion; they practice it, too: One Day In, and the GOP is already disenfranchising People of Color.