14 March 2014

Trouble on Louis Golding's Magnolia Street

Censorship in its most common form is self-censorship, something we do every day to prevent ourselves from going too far due to all kinds of considerations: losing our temper, our job, friendship, or just to avoid hurting people and so on. This form of censorship is expressed by omission, half-truths or simple lies. It exists of course in written form, which more or less serves the same functions.

But the censorship of other people's work is a different issue entirely, and there have to be very good reasons for it, such as the fear of legal action.

There are some (often famous) examples of literary censorship, such as Jessie Pope's ruthless excision of much of Robert Tressell's The Ragged-Arsed Philanthropists – yes, he'd of course already self-censored the title to the milquetoast 'Ragged-Trousered' but the original text was restored by Lawrence & Wishart much later; there was the puscillanimous censoring of much of the sexual content of Lawrence's Sons and Lovers by Edward Garnett (about one tenth of the book), until Baron & Baron came along and restored the text; then there was the horrendous butchering in the 'translation' (to give it a vastly unmerited description) of Beauvoir's The Second Sex by the anti-feminist, non-philosopher, French-literature-deleting H. M. Parshley, who managed to cut the text by a quarter, although Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier's (translated and restored) text has still received criticism: luckily, I was able to read it in the original French.

My main point, though, is that – obviously painfully in the case of the ever-thorny issue of translation – the modern drift is towards a scholarly view of the original text, restoring it where it can be restored, ever heeding what is thought to be the final intention of the author.

What, though, are we supposed to think when we already have a final text but someone decides to censor it on the grounds that the text might cause offence? A recent case that came up was the changing of well over 200 instances of the word 'nigger' to 'slave' in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. The argument, of course, is that the word 'nigger' is insulting to black people so it must be altered to conform to present-day sensibilities. Many people – particularly academics – were shocked by this measure, as indeed they should have been: irrespective of the fact that Huck Finn is a major work of literature, irrespective of the fact that at the time the word 'nigger' had no pejorative connotations, and irrespective of the fact that Huck Finn is in no way a racist work (in fact quite the opposite), it is very wrong to interfere with an original text in this way.

That there are problems cannot be denied: the teaching of Huck Finn in schools must be handled maturely and with much tact. But in no way should any word of the original text be altered.

It therefore came as a shock to me when I saw that the word 'nigger' had been changed in the Five Leaves edition of Louis Golding's Magnolia Street. On inquiring I discovered that Ross Bradshaw was responsible for this action: unsurprisingly, he finds the word 'nigger' 'outrightly offensive'. So do I, although Magnolia Street was written in 1932, when is was not considered offensive: by censoring, you are dehistoricizing the novel, attempting to wipe away historical usage of language, altering an original text which should be left alone. This smacks not so much of misguided political correctness as of paternalism. Am I correct in assuming that no one else was consulted when this decision was made?

Unlike Huck Finn, Magnolia Street is not even freighted with the iconic baggage of being in the educational canon: at 500-plus pages, such a tome never risks being on any syllabus below undergraduate level.

So what is the problem? Totally misguided censorship is the problem. I spoke to Ross about the issue on 10 March 2014, and he pointed out that I was the first person who had ever expressed any objection to his censorship, although my esprit de l'escalier prevented me from saying the obvious: the tiny note in the book – which explains the reason for the censorship – is probably only noticed by a few footnote junkies like me, so how would anyone know they were reading a censored work anyway? (There are not even any footnotes or endnotes indicating where the text has been changed.)

To sum up: the censorship of this book is a major error: anyone using the novel for scholarly purposes must refer to the original text.

Below is a link to the blog post that occasioned this post. Also included below is a link to a two-year-old Guardian article on a censored Huckleberry Finn edition – the many comments are almost as interesting as the article itself:

Ross Bradshaw: 'The "n" word'

Benedicte Page: New Huckleberry Finn edition censors 'n-word'


David Bingham said...

I'm looking forward to the new Penguin Classics edition of "The Black Man Of The 'Narcissus'". At least I will be able to read Conrad on the tube without running the risk of being mistaken for a plainclothes Klansman.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

You set me Googling there, but I think you're joking from what I can (or rather can't) see. (Anyway, what's wrong with a brown paper cover?) :)

I note that Agatha Christie's Ten Little Niggers seems to have been generally (but probably not universally) changed to And Then There Were None.

And on a slightly different tack, ever since I've been aware of Simon Blumenfeld's Jew Boy (1932) I've been intrigued by it's American title: The Iron Garden.