Monday, April 11, 2011

Sense or Censorship - Today's Banned Books.

Some books change your life forever. To Kill a Mockingbird transformed mine. It woke me up to the issue of racial inequality, something that hadn't been a part of my world until then.

I felt an instant kinship with the two children at the heart of the novel, six-year-old Scout and her older brother Jem. Set in the state of Alabama during the 1930s, their innocence is slowly dismantled as their father, Atticus Finch, takes on the legal challenge of defending an African American against a charge of rape. Such a case had never been won at that time. 

The accused, Tom Robinson, is innocent as much in character as in the crime and both children become outraged when the overwhelming evidence proving his innocence is ignored.

This Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Harper Lee was required reading for my Grade 10 English class. Our teacher paired it with a showing of the Oscar-winning film. Gregory Peck embodied the heart and soul of Atticus Finch and Mary Badham portrayed the curiosity and attitude of six-year-old Scout exactly as I had imagined it.

Written with warmth and humor, To Kill a Mockingbird emphasizes courage, tolerance and decries prejudice. So it was with surprise that I found out this novel had a long history of being banned in many schools across North America.

In 2002, Brian Bauld wrote, "I have been teaching English to Nova Scotian students from Grade 7 to Grade 12 for 28 years. Without doubt, the book that has gained the most favour with my students has been To Kill a Mockingbird. From the thousands of students who have had the privilege to read Harper Lee's one-book-wonder, I would be hard pressed to think of any but the most obtuse and inane who could interpret it as racist."

For myself and many others, the words obtuse and inane best describe those that have implemented the ban of this book.

In 2001, the City Library of Chicago began a program designed to encourage literacy. Endorsed by mayor Richard Daley and city officials, the One Book, One Chicago initiative picked To Kill a Mockingbird as its first book for the entire city to read. By the way, Chicago has a robust black population. How anyone could think that this book hurts African Americans is beyond comprehension.

"That this book is still being taught, despite ongoing resistance, is a credit to those principals and teachers who have placed quality above quackery," Bauld aptly states. "My experience is that students are drawn naturally to stories of justice, mercy, fairness, selflessness and honour, especially when handled by great artists."

There have been numerous "classics" banned through the ages; Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye, Brave New World, 1984, Ulysses and ironically Fahrenheit 451, a novel that reveals a future culture where books are banned and burned.

Even the Bible has been banned.

But I was surprised to learn that Mark Twain's great American novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, has not just been banned but is actually undergoing editing changes. NewSouth Books plans to release a version of this classic with the "n" word (nigger) taken out (used 219 times) and replaced with "slave." They will also remove the word "injun," a colloquial reference to Native Americans.

It's important to remember that in using these words, Twain, like Harper Lee, was critiquing racism not endorsing it.

One can only imagine what Twain himself would say about this edit of Huck Finn. Known for his acerbic wit and speaking his mind, one of Twain's famous quotes, "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education," could well be used in this instance.

A few years ago, I was writing a feature article on modern cowboys for a national magazine. I added some historical context to the piece and wrote about my favorite childhood game, "Cowboys and Indians." The editor said this phrase was not politically correct and could hurt a whole people group. It would have to be changed to read "Cowboys and First Nations people." Well, I had NEVER played cowboys and First Nations people, and when I pointed out it was not meant to be derogatory but merely historically representative, she refused to budge. That section was edited out.

Peter Messent, author of The Cambridge Introduction to Mark Twain is very critical of editing this American classic. He writes, "As Twain himself said, 'The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter - it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.' 

"I respect the motivation of Alan Gribben, the senior Twain scholar who is responsible for the new edition, and who wishes to bring the book back into easy classroom use, believing 'that a significant number of school teachers, college instructors and general readers will welcome the option of an edition of Twain's...novels that spares the reader from a racial slur that never seems to lose its vitriol.'

"But it's exactly that vitriol and its unacceptable nature that Twain intended to capture in the book as it stands. Perhaps this is not a book for younger readers. Perhaps it is a book that needs careful handling by teachers at high school and even university level as they put it in its larger discursive context, explain how the irony works, and the enormous harm that racist language can do. But to tamper with the author's words because of the sensibilities of present-day readers is unacceptable. The minute you do this, the minute this stops being the book that Twain wrote."

Do you feel books like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should be banned or edited to remove inflammatory words - like nigger?

Have we become so overly sensitive to some terms that we cannot judge their context in classic literature?

Any English instructors out there? Do you take these edits as a slight to your teaching capabilities - that you may not be able to present the discursive context in a way your students would comprehend? Would you rather teach an edited version of these novels?


  1. So strong voice and accurate cultural representation will get you banned? Changing words in Huck Finn will completely change Twain's voice. And To Kill a Mockingbird... racist? Really?

  2. Heidi - make sure your first novel has a strong voice and accurate cultural representation - you want it to be banned so you'll have a wider audience :)

  3. Here are a few of the comments among my Facebook Network Blog followers:

    Fred said - Censors are stupid. Most have no concept of the true meaning of the work - as in this one. There are still lots of feel-gooders in the States that think Springsteen's Born in the USA is a celebratory anthem. Nuff said.

    Karen said - Maybe rather than banning books from schools we should teach children to think about what they read!

    Cheryl said - I think it (censorship) should go all the way to oblivion... and stay there ;/

    Nathan said - Movies have age restrictions, maybe books should too (or age guidelines) - the content can get much more violent, lewd or profane than movies (possibly even more so since it is left to the reader to visualize the story and imaginatively fill in any environmental gaps left by the author).

    Imagine if a book like Brave New World were made, uncensored, into a movie - it would easily get the most restrictive ratings everywhere. In its thematic, linguistic and metaphoric elements, the book is phenomenal; however, nothing is held back in disclosing the libertine, hedonistic society of the "modern" world, and I think I would go so far as to say that the book would lose its impact without the content that would be deemed offensive.

    On the other hand, maybe banning books could be used as a clever reverse-psychological ruse to get kids to read challenging books in school. Ban Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Animal Farm, Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird. Punishment for reading those banned books is required attendance of a weekly critical reading discussion group.

    Finally, I love how almost any news story that makes it into this category is filled with absurd amounts of irony, mostly originating from the misinformation being spewed out by the book burners. I read an article on a small town's banning Fahrenheit 451 because "they burn the Bible in that book and that is absolutely wrong and therefore the book is evil." Way to miss the entire point - did you stop reading after page three? Changing words in Twain's books - can you even imagine what he'd say in response?!

  4. Ok... so I'll admit it... in your eyes I am probably almost an illiterate. I have never read most if any of these books (not sure about Fahrenheit 451... that one rings a possible bell but I'm not sure.) To put that comment in perspective I also have to admit that I've never seen most of the 'classic' film movies people often rave about (Gone with the Wind etc.) There's no particular reason why I haven't read or seen these 'masterpieces', they just were never taught it in my classes and I was too busy with other things to notice or care - or take the time on my own to read/watch them. So I really can't give an honest or legitimate response to your post. But when I read your discription of them - and compare that with some of the shallow but violent and pornographic garbage that's being put out now and promoted in the schools (including a book - which will remain nameless - that I was obligated to read in a University English class) I can't help but wonder what this world is coming to.

  5. Am I starting to sound like an old fogey? ;)

  6. Not an old fogey at all, Joy. But I think you would really love To Kill a Mockingbird. If you get the chance - read it!