General Question

janbb's avatar

Should offensive terms be edited out of classic literary works?

Asked by janbb (60420points) January 4th, 2011
78 responses
“Great Question” (11points)

I just read this story on about a new edition of Huckleberry Finn that will have the terms “nigger” and “injun” edited out. “Nigger” will be replaced by the term ‘slave.” Obviously, it is an offensive term but my first reaction is that it should not be – err, whitewashed out but left in for the integrity of the work and as a departure point for discussion. Clearly, this is a provocative subject. What are your thoughts?

Observing members: 0
Composing members: 0


ragingloli's avatar

No it should not.
Those who deny history are doomed to repeat it.

zenvelo's avatar

no matter how shocking the terms, they do reflect the time in which it was written. Understanding that relationship is fundamental in understanding the relationship now.

blueiiznh's avatar

Never. I view most literature as an art form. Who are we to edit what the author intended.
If you don’t like it or find it offensive, put it down. You don’t need to tell everyone how terrible it was. It just didn’t fit what you like.
I feel the same way about music or other art forms.
You can’t apply PC points of view to some things.
fahrenheit 451 does not work either.

crisw's avatar

I think Twain himself would be appalled. The article mentions squeamish school boards as a cause of this bowdlerization- well, work on getting rid of those school boards, After all, it’s conservative school boards who push teaching creationism in the public schools, and we don’t jut roll over and give in to them.

wundayatta's avatar

Nope. They should be ashamed of themselves.

SuperMouse's avatar

I think that classic literature should be left as it is. Changing the words is censorship plain and simple.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

No. It reflects what our history is accurately. We can’t change the past.

tinyfaery's avatar

No. History is what it is. Removing such words completely erases all chance of having a teachable moment.

Coloma's avatar

No. And, all of the above reasons for ‘no.’

The story is reflective of the era in which it was written and there was no stigma attached to those terms at that time.

To edit out the original content is akin to throwing away a perfectly good apple because of one little bruise.

iamthemob's avatar

The end comment in the article about whether this is really any different than edits of “The Godfather” makes an interesting comparison, but in the end I’m still a firm no on these modifications.

Sure, there are edited and unedited versions of various movies…and a lot of the time the editing severely undermines the impact of the film overall. But television is a medium that is ubiquitous and is much of the time passive – and therefore, you end up with a lot of people stumbling on things they didn’t intend to.

Reading is clearly different – it’s an experience in immersion, and requires active participation at all times or it stops. Banning these books from libraries or from school reading lists seems ridiculous as (1) I’m sorry, any child who goes to a library and checks out Huck Finn on his or her own is awesome, and not someone we need to be worried about being “harmed” by it more than likely, and (2) in schools it would be given the context necessary to understand any contentious issues.

In either of the above situations, what is the point of editing? It’s simply cutting out one of the lessons that can be taken from the book. And do we really need to be educating our children less?

tedibear's avatar

No. I think it gives the teacher an opportunity to discuss the historic context of the use of the word. And it opens up discussion on why a particular word is now considered offensive.

Short story – When I was teaching fourth grade, I was reading a book to my class (all African-American students. I am caucasian.) that included the word nigger. (I can’t remember the book right now, but it was within the context of the time and place; not just random use.) We talked about it beforehand in terms of why and how it was used. I also reassured them that I found the term offensive and that I would never use it, especially not regarding one of my students. Not too long after we started the book, my mom died and I was gone for a week for the funeral. The substitute continued the book with my students and when she came to the word, she got mad and wouldn’t read the book to them any longer. She also “reported” me to the principal who asked me about the book. I had her come to my classroom and I had the students explain to her. She was satisfied with the answer and we finished the book.

gene116's avatar

How interesting that everyone thinks not. Editing Gone With The Wind to read “frankly my dear, I don’t give a darn” didn’t work either. Leave it be!

janbb's avatar

@tedibear Wonderful story!

I’m glad to see that so far we are all on the same page. Ironically (or not), the publisher of the new edition is NewSouth Publications.

josie's avatar

Why not print two editions-offensive, and inoffensive?
On second thought I wouldn’t bother with the trouble and expense of editing. Just burn it.

marinelife's avatar

No, no and no! These terms spark discussion with young readers about the times in which they were used.

Kardamom's avatar

No I don’t think so. It might be better to have a preface in the book that lets people know ahead of time that there are some words in the book that at the time the book was written, were acceptable to use. In the spirit of non-censorship, those words and all of the words, have been retained. But sensitive readers have the choice not to read the book after knowing what they are in for.

flutherother's avatar

Nigger is an offensive racist term but we can’t pretend racism never happened. I am against changing the words of classic or any other texts but the author puts up quite a good case for his bowdlerised edition

janbb's avatar

@flutherother That is a very interesting article – thanks for posting. It does make some sense of the reason for the edition, but still the idea galls me. Sort of in a “You can’t handle the truth” way.

iamthemob's avatar

@flutherother – I feel like there is an argument, but it’s not really one the publisher appears to be making. If teachers would like to teach the book, but can’t because of concerns over sour feelings, I might support it as a possible “foot in the door” technique for getting objecting audiences and administrations to really understand what they’re depriving the students of, in order to get people to eventually read the original version.

However, this just seems to be an edition meant to be taught in these concerned administrations as if that concern should be privileged above teaching reality – a lot of which hurts. It doesn’t seem to indicate an intent to move them to a point where the edition becomes obsolete.

The potential balance that actually might be a benefit of this is that students, understanding that this is an edited edition, might go to the original on their own…that might be cool.

flutherother's avatar

@janbb @iamthemob I don’t feel comfortable with the idea myself. I can accept childrens editions of classics, using simplified language but this edition might tend to replace the original version which would clearly be wrong.

submariner's avatar

No they should not, and I might even go so far as to give that “should not” the force of law.

Many years ago, the film Brazil was shown on TV, but the network cut off the last minute or two of the ending. In so doing, they cut out the final twist at the end and drastically changed the meaning of the film. This outraged Terry Gilliam (the director) and everybody else who had an ounce of appreciation for film as an artistic medium. I recall that in the ensuing media discussion of this event, I learned that the French legal system has something called “droit morale”, which outlaws the bowdlerization of a work of art in this way—just because a network has bought the right to show a film doesn’t mean they can cut it up any way they like. I’d like to see something like that applied here. Just because Huck Finn is in the public domain doesn’t mean that publishers should be able to do whatever they want with it in order to sell more books to philistines. But I have to hedge and say “might” because I recognize that this opens up a very large can of worms, and I don’t feel like thinking through all the pros and cons of something that will never happen anyway.

crazyivan's avatar

Revising history is never a good idea.

iamthemob's avatar

I don’t think I agree on the application of droite morale. There’s a limited application already for visual arts produced after 1991 – and the problem with it is clear in that limited application. For instance, the right of integrity is the right of an author to prevent others from doing things to his work which can hurt his reputation. So the author can prevent others from distorting, mutilating or misrepresenting his work.

The problem with moral rights in art are that they give an artist the ability to, at his or her discretion, impede or even prevent such things as satire, collage, sampling, etc. It privileges the artists desire to keep a work intact over the right of others to, in essence, use it as their inspiration.

When we extend that right beyond the life of the author, who would own it? I think the fact that the art is in the public domain necessitates free and productive use of any potential kind – which means we have some dick uses too.

I also think that the bad treatment of good art brings up a lot of good questions (like this one) that help us understand what art really is, means, and should do to others as much as leaving the word “nigger” in Huck Finn can teach us a lot about our history (I’ll admit I understand the reticence about it – I can barely type it without cringing).

PS – I started typing this as a response to you, @submariner, before reading your last line. But it’s too late – I need to say it all now. So I don’t expect you to get into the pros and cons discussion. ;-) Just do note that we do have a limited form of droit morale.

lynfromnm's avatar

Clearly, what is considered inoffensive in one era or culture may be offensive in other cultures or eras. Unless we want to continually chase down that which we currently find offensive, let’s recognize that things change and that there is historical value in leaving books as they were written.

WillWorkForChocolate's avatar

No they should not. Classic literature should never be messed with. If we were to edit or burn everything that was offensive to someone, we wouldn’t have anything left at all. What about other classic works of literature like The Scarlet Letter or The Crucible? What about Lady Chatterley’s Lover? What about half of what Shakespeare wrote?

Those who want to edit or ban certain books are no better than the Nazis who burned them.

Seelix's avatar

Absolutely not. Censorship is censorship, for whatever reason.

I like @Kardamom‘s suggestion of prefacing the work with an explanation.

submariner's avatar

@iamthemob GA for getting into what I was too lazy to bring up.

I was also too lazy to check my French spelling. The correct spelling is “droit moral”.

crazyivan's avatar

The idea comes from the arrogance that our present view of morality is not only superior to that of the past, but also superior to that of the future. The notion of robbing the future of the past disgusts me.

iamthemob's avatar

@submariner – and clearly, I was too lazy to not just adopt your spelling as my own. Whatever…proper spelling is for conformists.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

No. And for that reason alone, I will not be seeing the movie.

crisw's avatar


What movie?

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@crisw Huck Finn

Coloma's avatar

Meh…I am very PC but, there is a limit.

Seriously, nothing to go ballistic about, just words, reflective of the times, and I don’t think hearing them a few times during a movie is going to corrupt anyone or create a race war.

I make jokes about MYSELF all the time, blonde jokes, left handed jokes, ADHD jokes, I mean REALLY….nothing to get high blood pressure over IMO.

I say lighten up. ;-)

DominicX's avatar

Absolutely not. Leave books alone. I am 100% against censorship of this kind.

Jeruba's avatar

No, no, no.


Coloma's avatar

And well, ya know…mules pulling river barges might offend the animal rights peeps too.

And, you know, it might start a trend of buying bullwhips.

“Get up there ya old bag o’ bones’

global_nomad's avatar

Absolutely not. And honestly, I’m confused as to why the “N” Word is seen as more offensive then is the fact that a piece of American history is being denied by being removed from such an important work of American literature. Because erasing racism isn’t offensive at all.

YARNLADY's avatar

I would rather see a page added to the front that explains the reasoning for the words used. I recently saw this on a DVD of Tom and Jerry cartoons, where an explanation for leaving them as is was explained by Whoopi Goldberg.

stardust's avatar

No! This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard today.

TheCool95's avatar

No, it reflects the attitude and thoughts of people at that time. Many people dont know that there were many books,movies,and even plays that came out at that time with racist memrobilla in it. Fact: orginally Agtha christies novel “And then there were none” was orginally named “Ten little niggers”.

Seelix's avatar

@TheCool95 – It should be noted that And Then There Were None was renamed only a few months after its original publication, while Agatha Christie was very much alive. If it’s done with the author’s consent, that’s one thing, but censorship of classic works whose authors are long gone is quite another.

anartist's avatar

No. No. No.
The book became a classic because of what it was and how it was written.
The offensiveness of terminology waxes and wanes with changes in language usage.
Bowdlerization is an insult to the intelligence of the reader and damages the work.

TexasDude's avatar

Not just no, but hell fucking no.

People need to quit wringing their hands and crying over shit and stop fucking around with great works of literature.

Coloma's avatar


Now THAT’S a statement! ;-)

Finally! Someone who isn’t walking on eggshells every minute…gah! lol

littlebeck30's avatar

no, i think that tinkering with old literary works destroys the power of that work. It is a document of a historical period

TexasDude's avatar

@Coloma, thank you, dear.

Supacase's avatar

No! This is just another way of changing history. If this becomes common practice and unedited versions become rare, at some point people are going to forget that it was edited at all. There will be less recorded history about racism at the time, making it easier to pretend it wasn’t much of an issue. Doing this to other books will become misleading in other areas. It is a very bad idea.

Smashley's avatar

Well, fuck that.

Coloma's avatar

Oh oh…the little bastard leads the pack now…how ‘bout a rousing group ” FUCK THAT SHIT!”
I’m not going to a Peruvian soccer game with you dude!

TexasDude's avatar

@Supacase, There will be less recorded history about racism at the time, making it easier to pretend it wasn’t much of an issue.

Ironically enough, backfiring on the apparent intentions of the would-be censors.

bolwerk's avatar

Hell, they should be edited into many of them to make them more interesting.

perspicacious's avatar

Of course no.

ETpro's avatar

Definitely NO! History is vital to our understanding of who we are today. Knowing our history is the best insurance against repeating past mistakes.

Coloma's avatar


So ‘they’ say. But, the war machine is as well oiled as ever. ;-)

ETpro's avatar

@Coloma So it would seem.

augustlan's avatar

[mod says] This is our Question of the Day!

Iquitoz's avatar

No. And this is not the first edition of “Huckleberry Finn” to be censored in this manner. Rather old news brought up again, which is good. Wonder how or if (F)alse (o)r e(x) ante News covered the story.

tigerlilly2's avatar

@TheCool95 Really? I thought it was originally Ten Little Indians haha how about that? But no, they absolutely shouldn’t change it. My grandmother was a Tsalagi woman (cherokee) and she nor I would take offense to reading the word ‘Ingen’ in a book that is such a classic piece of literature. People just want something to be squeamish about.

kenmc's avatar

This world is ridiculous. Seriously, between this and gay rights, I’m facepalming all over.

ShanEnri's avatar

I just have to say one thing! I agree with everyone else and if you think about who it offends and realize they call each other nigger all the time. Is it offensive because a white man wrote it? It’s ridiculous how stuck in the past most people are and that is where the offense lies. The ones it offends are still living in that particular time period! So no don’t change a thing!

iamthemob's avatar

@ShanEnri – I think it might have been better just to agree…this has nothing to do with the fact that Mark Twain was white, as literature from a black perspective using the word “nigger” would more than likely draw the same controversy.

I’m not positive who “they” are, but I’m pretty sure you mean black people. Whether or not they use the term with each other, it’s derogatory nature is because it was used by white people to demean them. So…using it is in many ways a diffusing strategy, and doesn’t diminish the effect when used against a black person.

And you’ve also reduced the group of people offended by the term too much. I’m white. I find it completely offensive. Anyone reading it should really find it offensive. Whether it’s offensive isn’t the important part – it’s whether that warrants changing the work and the potential impact of that work because it’s offensive.

RareDenver's avatar

No, no no and no.

Thank you, bollocks and goodnight

josie's avatar

@iamthemob If you are white, why does it offend you? Nobody ever called you that as an expression of disdain. I am white and the word nigger does not offend me. However, I am well aware that it offends others, so that is enough for me. I personally will not use the term in the presence of anybody who might be offended by it, out of respect for their feelings.
But Mark Twain is dead. The only thing left of him are his words. You may like them, you may not, but none of you actually wrote those words.
He did.
So what is the big deal?
Is it that once upon a time, an American writer used the word nigger, which was acceptable, but now no legitimate writer or speaker uses it, for one reason or another? Well that happens to be true. So are we compelled to pretend that modern standards should be projected into the past?
Good luck! You can’t accomplish that.
All this proves is that once upon a time, a word was used more commonly, or with less courtesy, than it is today. What is the big surprise that customs change? Once women could not vote. Now they can. Are we not allowed to remember a time when they could not vote?
Once, according to the Constitution, slaves and Indians were to be counted differently in the American census. Now, that has changed. Should we edit the Constition, besides the fact that it has been legally ammended?
History is what it is. You can’t change it by ignoring it. There are lots of things that people wrote, and they are not popular anymore, but they are a part of the human evolution.
Should we edit Mein Kampf?
Shoud we edit Deuteronomy?
Should we Westerners demand that passages in the Koran that seem to legitimize our murder be edited out of editions published in the US, Canada, England, France etc.?
I am actually gratified to read that the comments support not trying to change history. What other choice is there anyway?

SavoirFaire's avatar

No, I would not support editing anything out of classic literary works or of literary works in general (except for the purposes of creating abridged versions, which is an entirely separate issue). One argument given in the article linked by @flutherother by the editor of the edition in question is that his version makes the book appropriate for “grade school classrooms.” But if the book is not appropriate for such students in the original, why teach it to them? Instead, teach the book at the appropriate level. And if schools are never educating their students to the point where it would be appropriate, then that seems like a problem with the schools rather than the students.

iamthemob's avatar


This is a little more of a semantic difference than anything else – my point is that the term is, objectively, and offensive one. Finding it offensive should be the default position. Whether I’m the one it’s meant to personally offend isn’t really at issue with such words.

I am uncertain as to whether those questions came up because of my last post, or were directed at me, or are simply a statement of how you feel about the issue regardless. Regardless, we totally agree on the problems that this new edition brings up.

josie's avatar

I think maybe I was a little on edge when I wrote the comment. It really isn’t you, as much as its the fact that I get annoyed when people in the present try to reshape the past into something that it isn’t.
A guy writes a book. Some people even regard it as a great book. Certainly the author is regarded as one of America’s greats. He uses the word “nigger”. Then he dies. Years pass, and the word’s social status in the language changes.
It is still there, to be sure, and commonly used at that, just in a different context..
So now somebody decides in the present that they can sort of modify the past to suit their delicate sensibilities. Thus, out comes the eraser, and they capriciously change a classic.
I hate that. I can’t help it.
Because I am sure that the next step is to tear whole chapters out of books. And then finally, as I said, to burn them.
Not good.
Anyway, sorry if I dogged you a little. It was nothing personal. I owe you one.

iamthemob's avatar

@josie – you don’t owe me anything. I’m not going to feel dogged unless I actually am if at all possible, and I didn’t assume it was directed at me (well, I assumed but knew that it was only an assumption until I asked). I think this is just the type of thing people should react passionately about – the attempt to stop us from getting real truth. How am I going to fault you for, therefore, reacting passionately? ;-)

flo's avatar

My understanding is that one author is going to put out a version of the book without those words (they will be replaced by slave etc.) But it seems to have been talked about in the media that the classic book by the original author will be banned or phased out or something. And that got many people outraged for nothing. The same thing about the song by Dire Straights, noone said anything about banning the whole song, just edit the f word for gays.

flo (13313points)“Great Answer” (1points)
flo's avatar

2nd paragraph, is what I got the following from.
”...Twain scholar Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books plan to release a version of Huckleberry Finn, in a single volume with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, that does away with the “n” word (as well as the “in” word, “Injun”) by replacing it with the word “slave.”

I don’t know anything about the website though.

flo (13313points)“Great Answer” (1points)
RareDenver's avatar

I know I’m late to the thread but this whole thing reminds me of when my dad told me that when he was a boy he had a Black Labrador called ‘Nigger’. Now I was completely shocked by this but it turns out that in 1950’s Liverpool it really wasn’t all that strange for a black dog to be called nigger, at the same time he said the word ‘Shag’ was a real no-no, worse even than how we regard ‘Fuck’ now. Language evolves all the time and I understand when people do a remake of Shakespear in modern language because the original’s can be hard to follow but the stories are still so worth telling. But this is a case of changing one word just for it’s offensive value today. Doesn’t the word being retained in the original have more power to show how the world it was written in was different to the one we live in. Just like I realised the world of my dad’s upbringing was so much different to mine?

flo's avatar

Ooops. “__The same thing about the song by Dire Straights, noone said anything about banning the whole song, just edit the f word for gays.__”
It is not really like bleeping out or changing the f word the Dire Straights song when played on the radio, TV etc.

flo (13313points)“Great Answer” (1points)
flo's avatar

..But to answer the question, I think the original should continue to be published the way it was written because we shouldn’t rewrite history. But I can understand if the number of times the word appears makes it difficult for teachers to use the book. So, I don’t have a problem with another version, being used as long as the students know that that is not the original version.

flo (13313points)“Great Answer” (1points)
SavoirFaire's avatar

I think I’ve found a solution that will satisfy all parties. ~

manuluca's avatar

If we consider ‘The Howl’ as a classical work of literature (and I do) the answer can be found in the debate there had been around the poem. I think literature must be left as it has been written by the author and teachers have the important duty of explaining pupils the meaning hidden behind the writer’s message… Sory for mistakes, I’m not mothertongue…

Dutchess_III's avatar

I can’t believe I didn’t answer this question before.

No. Absolutely not. I remember reading the word “nigger” in Huck Finn,and my eyebrows went up. I was, maybe 9. It didn’t cause me to become racist. It didn’t sound strange in the context either. It added another layer of color authenticity to the story.

Same with Gone With the Wind. If you edited every “offensive” word out of the story, it would be as bland as reading “Run Jane run. See Jane run.”

Answer this question




to answer.

Mobile | Desktop

Send Feedback