Service of Respect of an Artist

January 10th, 2011

Categories: Books, Communications, Words, Writing


Words and their impact came into sharp focus this weekend after the mass shooting in Arizona. I’d already drafted this post.  Nevertheless, it doesn’t change my opinion in this case.

The agency once had a client who used the J M Byington & Associates, Inc. letterhead and my name as a contact to send out poorly written material. Even if he wrote splendidly this liberty would have infuriated me. That’s my name and my agency and I hadn’t sold either to him.

Together, clients and I massage copy until we are both happy and comfortable with the results. Reporters and editors can change press release copy or use excerpts or be inspired by the subject or an image. We are thrilled when they think enough about an angle, product, service or event to write or speak about it or show it.

But what Alan Gribben, in cahoots with NewSouth Books, did to Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”–changing words without his permission–was different. While legal I think it was wrong.

According to the NewSouth Books website:

“A new edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, forthcoming from NewSouth Books in mid‑February, does more than unite the companion boy books in one volume, as the author had intended. It does more even than restore a passage from the Huckleberry Finn manuscript that first appeared in Twain’s Life on the Mississippi and was subsequently cut from the work upon publication.

“In a bold move compassionately advocated by Twain scholar Dr. Alan Gribben and embraced by NewSouth, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn also replaces two hurtful epithets that appear hundreds of times in the texts with less offensive words, this intended to counter the ‘preemptive censorship’ that Dr. Gribben observes has caused these important works of literature to fall off curriculum lists nationwide.”

The most widely reported word substitution was “slave” in place of “nigger.”

I can think of no valid excuse for this edit. Such edits take place between editor and writer with the writer’s approval. Books that are made into movies are another subject altogether and not relevant to what happened here.

kids-bookToys, games, films and videos often feature age recommendations. If so moved to protect children, NewSouth Books should note on the cover an age at which readers would know or could be expected to be taught to understand that the way we speak, write and think changes over time and make clear to youngsters that although not a history book, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was first published in 1883, not 2011.

Instead of hitting the “find” key on a computer to locate every “n” word, Dr. Gibbon might have better spent his time to write a foreword, point out the usage of other words that change over time, and briefly cover how the Civil War and its aftermath may have affected Mark Twain inspiring his approach in the book.

What does Dr. Gribben think about certain ugly rap lyrics? Wonder what he would do to Anne Frank’s diary? Words are to an author what paint, watercolor, clay or wood are to an artist. Don’t they deserve the same respect?


5 Responses to “Service of Respect of an Artist”

  1. Thomas Yip Said:

    Happy New Year Jeanne!

    I agree with you – the language used by Mark Twain to portray the racial barrier during the 1800’s, and the novel should be read in its original form as it was written. Besides, the word “nigger” did not refer to the social status of a person, but rather indicated a person’s skin color.


  2. Lucrezia Said:

    The term “nigger” was in use at the time Mark Twain wrote his book, and there is no logical reason to change it. If it’s “legal” to “improve” on someones works, then that permission should be rescinded. Such a transgression becomes even worse considering the text in question is a masterpiece, which in a number of respects, was ahead of its time. Even if the term referred to the social status of a person, that’s the way the book was written, and that’s the way it should stay.

  3. Jeremiah Said:

    There are some, and I am one of them, who believe that Samuel Clements was the greatest native born writer that this country ever produced, and that “Huckleberry Finn” was the greatest American novel ever written.

    Like most great writing, it was written, edited, abridged, unabridged, revised and unrevised often. Since the age of nine, I have probably read it eight or nine times in various versions, one of the most profound of which included extended, almost metaphysical, passages describing the moments during which Huck’s raft, with Jim aboard, drifted down the Mississippi below the southern tip of Illinois into what was then slave country on both sides of the river. Whatever we may think he was up to, while a terrible business man, Clements had first class marketing instincts and was keenly sensitive to the appetites of his audience. This was a book he intended to have universal appeal. It is not only a book boys might enjoy, but was also intended to be read by highly sophisticated adults. Consequently, it is as readable, in different ways, by all who touch it. Incidentally, it is so unlike “Tom Sawyer” that is hard to conceive of his having wanted the two being marketed in the same way.

    Mess with it unnecessary in the name of “political correctness,” and you’ll not only ruin it, but you’ll make that greatest of “spin” artists, the good Dr. Goebbels, wiggle happily in his grave.

    Far worse is being done that foul up history, which having already happened, is un-reversible. A new, very expensive PBS documentary portrays General Robert E. Lee as being a lousy human being and a rotten general. Regrettably, from the producer’s point of view, that’s just not true. Indeed, based upon an overwhelming preponderance of evidence, the opposite remains as true as ever. To top that, according to a recent adolescent-destined book on George Washington, which I took out from the library by mistake thinking it was an “adult” book, the colonies won the War of Independence, thanks to women and a much maligned minority group. If Mrs. Washington hadn’t given birth to and reared George, and if a few private soldiers, of non-European origin, hadn’t died for the “cause,” we would still be speaking English instead of American.

    We all know that books are on their way out, so enjoy them while you can, and hopefully uncorrupted. Meanwhile to paraphrase that great contemporary of Sam Clements, Rudyard Kipling, “A book is only a book, but a cigar is a good smoke,”

  4. Martha Takayama Said:

    I am in complete agreement with your sentiments about the inappropriate nature of altering texts in historic or any other published literature. (I would have thought it illegal!) It is intellectually dishonest and completely alters the experience of reading any completed work.

    By the presumptuously altering of the text of an author’s work one alters the veracity of the experience, which invariably reflects the language usage and social mores of the time in which the text was written and/or set It presents the public with a distorted version the work which should no longer be attributed to the author who has been subjected to such treatment. Furthermore it serves as an example to children and adults that an author’s written words may be altered without his consent to conform to any prevailing standards at any time.

    The self-righteousness of this arrogant activity seems to more than counterbalance the so-called political correctness of the purged or revised text. This attitude would necessitate constant revision of all printed matter to conform to ever-changing notions of custom and usage and might even require the modification of all slang. What will happen to world literature and to historical record if this continues?

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:

    The question of legality crops up in several comments and I have the feeling that at some point there’s a statute of limitations for copyrighted material and it could be that in the 19th century, such laws were different or nonexistent. “60 Minutes” recently interviewed a [very successful] agent of dead celebrities. He’d know what the rules are.

    But so far all comments agree with mine: Regardless of legality, an author’s words should not be tampered with except with the approval of that person.

    Jeremiah knows far more about the books in question than I do. I pull out from what he wrote that it’s equally inappropriate to combine Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in one volume and connect them as the publisher has. Distressing.

    We’ve written about books and how much many of us love to hold them when we read them. I like the lightweight, compact nature of the Kindle, and according to news from the recently closed Consumer Electronics Show [CES], the burgeoning number of tablets like this are the headline. I wonder how soon libraries will have to think of what else to do with the space that books and shelves now take up? I hope this doesn’t need to be decided soon.

    Books, like paintings, are historical. Jeremiah referred to a revisionist history TV show and a children’s book. Material like this should sport some kind of warning, like on a juice bottle that isn’t 100 percent cranberry or grape, to indicate the alteration. Instead of sugar and water, something like: “Warning: Altered to make a point or more PC yarn.”

    But who will lobby for such a warning initiative? Who will answer Martha’s question: “What will happen to world literature and to historical record if this continues?” If there’s no profit in the answer, I fear that we’ll hear nothing but silence along with the tap, tap, tapping of your supportive computer keys.

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