Ad usum Delphini: should we Bowdlerize children’s books?

The Ture Sventon books are a series of Swedish children’s detective stories written by Åke Holmberg 1948-1973. They are locally well-known and appreciated, but henceforth Ture Sventon i Paris (1953) will likely not be republished. The reason is that the publisher Rabén & Sjögren wanted to remove the word “neger” in the book, and the Swedish Writers’ Union (who owns the copyright to the books) refused this change, since it would change the character of the book. They acknowledged that it was a word with a racist resonance but also a part of cultural history, and hence it could not be removed or replaced with “colored” or “black”. They suggested adding an explanatory introduction instead. The publisher choose not to reissue the book.

In English-speaking countries another recent controversy is about the new edition of Huckleberry Finn that replaces use of the word “nigger” with “slave” and “injun” to “Indian”. Again, literature experts complains that this fundamentally changes the novel (which after all is an anti-racist book) and might have deeply upset the author, yet others think that this will allow it to be read more in schools or public. Are we seeing examples of well-intentioned acts of “cultural vandalism and obscurantism that constricts rather than expands the life of the mind”, or just attempts to reduce impediments for the public to read the works?

It is likely that at least Mark Twain would strongly have objected to the changes, since he was particular about his choice of words. But it is not clear that the wishes of authors can morally constrain posthumous editions forever: while we should clearly respect them to some degree, critical editions have their own value. But the real issue here is not embedding the text into a context that affects how it is read but to actually modify the text itself.

Bowdlerization, to omit “unsuitable” parts of a text to make it accessible to families, come from the work of Thomas Bowdler who sanitized Shakespeare (for example making the death of Ophelia an accidental drowning and omitting a prostitute in Henry IV). The term is generally disparaging, although Algernon Swinburne said, “More nauseous and foolish cant was never chattered than that which would deride the memory or depreciate the merits of Bowdler. No man ever did better service to Shakespeare than the man who made it possible to put him into the hands of intelligent and imaginative children.” – the same argument made for modifying Mark Twain’s writing. It is also worth noting that Bowdler did not essentially change the story (unlike Nahum Tate, who gave King Lear a happy ending) since he mainly deleted unsuitable elements (although the implications of Ophelia’s changed death do seem to matter for the story).

However, it is not Bowdler’s version of Shakespeare that is widely read today. The racy or controversial bits remain, often overlooked rather than shocking to modern audiences. The changes to the integrity of the text were largely for naught.The same seems true for other cases: nobody remembers the bowdlerized versions of Victor Hugo’s dramas or the pre 1960 English translations of Lysistrata. Overall, the artistic integrity of the text is viewed as more important than its decency.

The exception seems to be in children’s books. The terms used for ethnic groups have been cleaned up in new editions of Doctor Doolittle, and Pippi Longstocking’s father is no longer “formerly the horror of the sea, now negro-king on Kurrekurredutt island” but merely the “ruler of the kurrekurreduttans”. Beside the normal adult assumption that children are ultra-sensitive creatures that must (and can) be protected from the darker sides of the world, there is likely also the assumption that the literary value of children’s books might be lesser than “real” books, and hence the integrity of the text is not as important as its purity. Adults might agree that Shakespeare or the Bible should not be unnecessarily expurgated, but the entertainment and education of children does not have the same cultural value. This is of course debatable: some children’s books in my opinion do show great literary value. The protection assumption is also problematic because children will be exposed to the darker values and prejudices of their culture anyway. A good education will allow them to respond to them in an appropriate manner, not hide that they are there.

This actually helps us tell when it makes sense to change children’s books. First, children need experience with a wide range of the elements making up the culture they live in. Yet they have little to start with, so they may need help figuring out elements more remote from their experience. In particular they start out locked into a very local time-frame: they know about their present, but have no experience with how their culture looked in the past (unlike adults, who have lived through part of it). Most books are older than the kids who read them, sometimes far older. Hence they might need help to understand references in older books – either by helpful explanations added in newer editions or as changes. But the changes will not help them learn about the past references they will eventually run into, while explanations help. Leaving out aspects of a culture makes it hard to react to it.

Second, (and here I thank Chad Orzel for making the point well) there is a difference between pointless racism, real racism and references to racism. Many older books contain casual racist remarks that while acceptable at the time and hence giving some information about the era actually do not link to the story itself. A racist word used in a fantasy novel does not tell us anything about our society or its past, unless the reader is conscientious and smart enough to look at the publication date (and kids doing that need no Bowdlerization anyway). It can hence be dropped or changed without actually losing much. The word “nigger” in Huckleberry Finn does tell us important things about a particular part of our past. Here the words matter, and changing them not only breaks the integrity of the text but also weakens the reason it ought to be read. Much real racism is transmitted without using any bad words, but by using subtly slanted descriptions of characters – those are the books one should really worry about, and editing is unlikely to fix them.

The real problem is of course that in trying to give a good education and good entertainment to our kids that fit with what we currently think are high moral standards we tend to look at surface characteristics. It is easy to jump at bad words or rants against foreigners. It takes a careful reading to realize how values of racial destiny or irrationalism are promoted by some fantasy novels, or to notice how many horror stories reinforce conservative social patterns. It is better to read and discuss with the kids than to hope Bowdlerization will save them from the culture they are living in.

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One Response to Ad usum Delphini: should we Bowdlerize children’s books?

  • Keli says:

    I agree with your thoughts. Changing the terms just seems wrong. I mean Mark Twain is Mark Twain – he chose certain words to convey certain ideas. As a parent of 2 I would much rather my kids read the original and then we can discuss what they think about what they've just read. The ironic part is that if their goal is to 'sanitize' some of this literature, it actually makes me feel dirty.