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On Air: Must today's values be applied to all literature?

Nuala McGovern Nuala McGovern | 14:48 UK time, Thursday, 6 January 2011


This topic was discussed 6th January 2011. To listen click here

There is a new edition of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn in which the offensive racial epithets "injun" and "nigger" are replaced by "Indian" and "slave" respectively and there is a huge debate about the changes.

The debate isn't about whether these words are offensive, but about if it makes sense to retrospectively edit a work of literature so it matches our current view of what words, language and beliefs are acceptable.

Peter Messent argues in The Guardian:

'the new edition expunges its repeated use of the n-word for understandable reasons, but betrays a great anti-racist novel in the process'

Messent goes on to say:

'one can fully understand the feelings of anger and humiliation that many African American children and parents feel at having such a word repeatedly spoken in the classroom....But that is not necessarily a reason for replacing it with a gentler (bowdlerised) term.'

Dave Rosenthal at The Baltimore Sun disagrees:

'I'm not big on censorship, but this word is so weighted that it gets in the way of a true discussion of the merits, but any teacher who assigns the new version should be required to explain the self-censorship. That way, at least, the tough prose won't be completely white-washed.'

Do you think changing literature, in instances like this, is appropriate? Or do we do undermine the value of literature if we remove some of its connections with the time that it was written?

Do you have an example from your country that you'd also like to discuss?

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