Editing Racist Language

From Writer Unboxed,

Once again, serendipity gave me this month’s topic.  Not long after I put up last month’s piece on cultural appropriation, the New York Times published an article on the controversy around plans to rewrite the works of Georgette Heyer.  Ms. Heyer, who wrote from the 1920s to the 1970s, essentially created the modern Regency romance.

She’s delightful to read in a lot of ways.  I love her use of early 19th century language, but her Jewish characters are cruel stereotypes.  Her estate has agreed to a new edition of her books with the anti-Semitism edited out.  It’s about time.

The NY Times article argued both sides of the question.  Readers are generally smart enough to see that things were different in the past, so posthumous rewriting to fit more modern sensibilities is unfair to the author.  On the other side, the racist language of the past may be so offensive that some readers will be unable to read it at all.

In Ms.Heyers’ case, the offensive characters are relatively minor and easily rewritten to erase any antisemitism.  In fact, because the characters are stereotypes, the book is stronger without them.

In other cases, the racism is so interwoven in the narrative that the story can’t be saved.  For instance, I couldn’t get through Gone With the Wind.  I mean, yes, great characters, wonderful romance, historic sweep, all of that.  But I couldn’t get past the Lost Cause narrative – that the Confederacy may have lost the war, but, gosh darn it, they were right all along.  The book can be taught in academic settings, where a teacher can give the cultural context, but by now it is more a historical document about the bad old days than popular entertainment.

Then there’s Booth Tarkington.

The house I grew up in didn’t have many books, and I think I read all of them – my older sister’s Bobbsey Twins collection, Oliver Twist (when I was far too young to follow it), a 19th-century edition of Pilgrim’s Progress, with woodcuts.  And Penrod and Sam, a collection of short stories by Booth Tarkington.  Later in life, I got hold of the first book in the series, Penrod.

Both books tell stories of Penrod Schofield, a boy growing up somewhere in the Midwest just after the turn of the 20th century.  Two of Penrod’s friends were black, the brothers Herman and Verman.  (That is correctly spelled, by the way.  As Herman explains when they first meet Penrod, their parents just like rhyming names — they also have an older brother Sherman.)  Because Tarkington was a product of his time, the brothers are often described using racist language.  But . . .

In one of the stories from Penrod, Penrod has to stay in town while most of his friends visit relatives in the country to escape the summer city heat.  While on his own, Penrod meets a bully, Rupe Collins, who menaces and humiliates him.  And in one of the nice bits of characterization that make Tarkington worth reading, Penrod falls straight into hero worship.  He starts spending more time with Rupe and emulating him.  When Sam returns from the country and runs into Rupe and Penrod, Penrod encourages Rupe to bully Sam the way Rupe bullied him.  Rupe is happy to comply by putting Sam in a headlock.

Into this scene walk Herman and Verman.  Their immediate reaction is to tell Rupe to leave their friends alone.  Rupe orders Penrod to throw them out of the carriage house where they’d been playing, referring to them with a racial slur.  Herman takes even more exception to this.  Rupe responds by towering over him and threatening him, much as he had threatened Penrod.

And then Herman and Verman just beat the sweet bejesus out of him.

Again, the language is extremely, unfortunately racist.  I remember one reference to Verman hitting Rupe with a rake, as hard as he could, tines down, “because, in his simple, straightforward, African way, he wished to kill his enemy and kill him as quickly as possible.”  And I can certainly appreciate why many readers wouldn’t be able to get past the language.  But the story’s stuck with me all these years because what the brothers actually do is brave and honorable and done in defense of their own dignity.

Especially since Tarkington is completely behind them.  They are the heroes of the story, full stop.  When they send Rupe packing, they are justifiably exultant with no hint of guilt or regret.  And their attack breaks Penrod’s hero worship, helping their friend get back to normal.  Despite the language, I find it hard to be offended by a story in which two black boys are celebrated for beating the stuffing out of a white racist.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG could argue the case that sanitizing the wording of old books to suit present-day mores is a form of whitewashing racist, etc., attitudes from an earlier time.

Is it not more instructive for students and others to understand how easily and readily writers and establishment publishers fell into the odious practice of using offensive racist terms to describe other human beings?

Are readers and society at large to assume that the American establishment has always been pristinely free of bad racist habits? One of the benefits of studying history, including literary and publishing history, warts and all, is to avoid the mistakes of the past.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

George Santayana

Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Winston Churchill

2 thoughts on “Editing Racist Language”

  1. It would be much more fun to market both the original and edited versions. Label each.

    One says, “All original language.”
    One says, “Edited to remove racist language.’

  2. To an extent, merely editing to remove racist language (or whatever) is rather dubious and, on another dimension, squicky in some of the same ways as using that language in the first place.

    Where this might get interesting — in the graduate-seminar sense (which is not a compliment) — is in Bowdlerizing translations and other materials that are archly and overtly from another culture. Then one gets deeply involved in “The Intentional Fallacy of Editorial Intent,” and reaches into the one legitimate place that antiappropriationism† has at least some weight, albeit not the definitive weight too common in those debates. Put another way, the difference in degree between editing Tarkington and translating/retelling Aeneas seems so great as to be a difference in kind.

    † I might as well have said antidisestablishmentarianism (which, really, should always be capitalized, notwithstanding the dictionary).

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