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Buzzing about Books: Twain Meets Orwell

Posted by Brittany Lavin on Wed, Jan 05, 2011 @ 07:00 AM

Director, Author Services, LinDee Rochelle, January 5, 2011:

Well, well, it’s 2011 and we finally made it to 1984. Have you seen the recent headlines? The Missourian broke the news late yesterday—“New Edition of Two Mark Twain Books Removes N-word” (Phillip Rawls/The Associated Press)—now before we get started, I want you to understand, this blog is not a cultural/political statement. My comments speak only to the literary ramifications of this controversial issue.

Mark TwainHaving extensively read his works and biographies, I can feel Twain’s rage through the cosmos. But again, there are apparently enough opinions across the Internet about how Mr. Twain would react to this news, according to Rawls’ article, regarding Alan Gribben, a Twain scholar, for his decision to publish altered copies of Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.

My concern here is the moral, ethical, and perhaps legal, aspects of this project, as it applies to authors and publishing both then and now. Putting ourselves in Mark Twain’s heavenly shoes a century after our deaths, how would we feel about someone revising one word of our books for the sake of “modern” propriety? I know what I would say—don’t you *&%$#in’ dare!

We may not be able to separate the politics from the literary, but I’d like to give it a try. As the Missourian article said, “… Twain was particular about his words. His letter in 1888 about the right word and the almost right one was ‘the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.’” The politically charged underlying issue is the word itself, while I am speaking only to the act of removing or revising the word.

The questions then, are do we have the right to revise one man’s words, who can no longer defend his right to write them? Have we lost our capacity (or tolerance) to read a work in the context of its historical era? Does this open the squirmy can of worms threatening Freedom of Speech, past AND present?

Beyond that, are we tampering with ethics? And what about the pure history of it—we may not always be proud of our history, personally or as a society, but our shrinks have always told us we must look forward, because we cannot change the past. Or can we?

In recent decades when writing, reviewing or commenting on the nature of life, especially politics, I have often referred to George Orwell’s “futuristic” novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. It appears this sardonic statement was a few decades early, but we’re in danger of falling into its depths of authorship despair, much like the “memory hole” he created. As Orwell wrote, his job of literary destruction included newspapers, books, periodicals, pamphlets, films, sound tracks …

“The messages he had received referred to articles or news items which for one reason or another it was thought necessary to alter, or, as the official phrase had it, to rectify. … As soon as all the corrections which happened to be necessary in any particular number of the Times had been assembled and collated, that number would be reprinted, the original copy destroyed, and the corrected copy placed on the files in its stead.” Slam-dunk. History altered. Um, rectified.

By the pure virtue of being human, it is extremely difficult for me to offer a strictly literary opinion—however, I will say we’ve worked hard as a nation to enjoy where we are today, which includes altered attitudes, and respect towards each other—not always accomplished, but obviously much better than a hundred or two hundred years ago. Unfortunately, we can’t simply scrub our history clean with a rubber eraser, or drop its atrocities into a memory hole.

Mark TwainEven before the First Amendment was added in 1925, the very nature of publishing sanctified Freedom of Speech. As Evelyn Beatrice Hall (under the pseudonym S. G. Tallentyre) said in her 1906 biographical book The Friends of Voltaire, “I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Write on, my friends … LinDee

 

Clip Art Credit: FCIT http://etc.usf.edu/clipart

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