In 1807, Thomas Bowdler published The Family Shakespeare, “in which nothing is added to the original text; but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.” And no, the famous line isn’t changed to “Out, darned spot!” but rather “Out, crimson spot!” which in fact is a bit of an improvement to the original text as it makes it perfectly clear to younger people that Lady Macbeth is referring to the king’s blood.
There are two major editions of The Family Shakespeare; the first one was largely or entirely the product of Harriet Bowdler and omitted a few plays (Romeo and Juliet chief among them) entirely because they could not be thoroughly sanitized without becoming incomprehensible. It was published anonymously, because Harriet did not think it appropriate for women to have their names on a public document. For the second edition, Dr. Thomas Bowdler put his name on the book and reversed some of Harriet’s more enthusiastic changes, in addition to restoring the deleted plays. Readers who are curious about the Bowdlers and the critical response to The Family Shakespeare can read more here.
As with Rudolf Diesel, society has paid Thomas Bowdler the supreme compliment of lower-casing him; one can occasionally read that something was “bowdlerized”, meaning that it has had the offensive (or exciting) content removed. The massive changes in social norms over the past fifty years means that we’ve changed what and how we bowdlerize; today we focus more on violence than sex, where the Greatest Generation censored sex more than violence.
The newest chapter in Dr. Bowdler’s legacy, however, isn’t about sex or violence; it’s about a word.
The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn is one of those rare books that’s been censored by both conservative and progressive activists. Upon its publication, it was often kept out of children’s hands because it was considered morally dangerous. In this era, it’s not the message that offends, but the words. One word in particular.
This word has to be referred to in this blog as “the N-word” because I’d like to keep my job. Note that I could write “fuck” and all the rest on this blog without suffering any job penalties. I could make fun of Christianity or Jesus. I could write all manner of obscenity and filth. But the “N-word” is sacred. It is the one word that a human being cannot say in polite society, although the various historical epithets for homosexuals, including “homosexual”, are gradually joining it. To say it is to render yourself unemployable, destitute. If you say it and are physically attacked or even killed, the media will say that you had it coming.
So we’re not gonna say it here. And we are not going to let Mark Twain say it, either. An increasing number of school districts are banning the book and others that contain the word. Never mind that the primary purpose of Twain’s book (and of To Kill A Mockingbird, another book that comes in for the same criticism) is to elevate the humanity of African-Americans and whites alike. The word itself has magic power.
There is a new version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn coming out. The editors have replaced the magic word with the word “slave”. I’d suggest that is problematic in and of itself; it reinforces the ridiculous and ignorant idea that slavery is somehow uniquely connected to African-Americans, when in fact slavery was business as usual for the entire world all the way into the nineteenth century and it victimized everybody from the Chinese to the Greeks. But the most logical substitution, “black”, probably wouldn’t satisfy everyone. It’s now racist to call people “black”. You could try “African-American”, but that strains the bounds of credulity to think of Huck Finn even saying “African-American”. So “slave” it is.
The new edition’s editors, like Dr. Bowdler, plead the case that they are trying to save Huck Finn, not kill him; that many young people will now have a chance to read something that they otherwise would be forbidden. Twenty years ago, or even ten years ago, I would have called this hypocritical and despicable. I’m afraid that I no longer feel that way.
Censorship is a vile and disgusting practice — when it is aimed at adults. It was ridiculous that D.H. Lawrence was prosecuted for obscenity; it is unfortunate that John Updike had to alter the early versions of Rabbit, Run. It is equally repugnant that you can now get fired or shunned for writing the “N-word” or expressing unpopular sentiments regarding various Beings Of Light and/or protected classes in American society. If there is a true Enlightenment to come in the future, no doubt its beneficiaries will have equal contempt for the Spanish Inquisition and the Gawker Media Group.
Applied to children, on the other hand, censorship is a feature, not a bug. There is far too much in our modern media culture that is not appropriate or healthy for children, particularly with regard to sex and its various deviations. We may protect our precious snowflakes from having to hear the N-word from Mark Twain, but they will hear it a million times from rappers. I may be #PornEducated according to my Lulu review but today’s teenagers truly are porn-educated. How can we expect the next generation to form healthy relationships when they are constantly bombarded with violent, degrading pornography from one corner and social-justice consent/rape garbage from the other?
The most obscene thing we do to our children, however, is to expose them to the relentless, addictive derangement of electronic devices and social networking. Yeah, I played a lot of video games as a child; more than most, as I was able to cajole my father into getting me an Atari 800 before my teens. But I also went outside, rode my bike, had actual experiences in the actual real world. “Screen time” isn’t real time. Not to children.
I don’t let my son watch television while the sun is up, and if there’s an alternative to playing a tablet or a video game I usually force him to take it. Twenty years from now, I’m sure John will tell one of his side pieces that “my jerk of a father was always making me go outside and ride an actual gas-powered motorcycle when all I wanted to do was curl up on the couch and play Minecraft.” Sorry, kid.
Perhaps we need Dr. Bowdler to return, to replace iPads with baseball gloves and Facebook with long bikes to nowhere. But what we truly need is a return of Dr. Bowdler’s mindset: that children are gifts from God, that their souls should be guarded with the same effort we devote to their physical safety, that the best way to grow a flower is not to dump a ton of brine on it from a truck but rather to water it carefully and in a timely fashion. In other words, we should let children be children, not burden them with the soggy, rotten detritus of our twisted and perverse society. There will be time enough for that when they are older. Censor if you will, bowdlerize if you must, but educate if you can and protect at all costs. Who cares if the spot is damned or crimson?