THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

In other words. . .

Why stop with Mark Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn’? Other works could be tweaked for modern sensibilities.

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / January 11, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

Darned writers! Where does Mark Twain get off, calling African-Americans the N-word? Who does he think he is? Kanye West?

The hot news in Literature World is NewSouth Books’ controversial decision to publish the classic novel “Huckleberry Finn’’ minus the 219 occurrences of the derogatory term for blacks, which was current in 1885, when the book first appeared. The word “slave’’ will stand in, immediately rendering the novel palatable to the bluestocking book-banners in school districts across the country.

Everything old is new again, and the august Auburn University scholar who had this brainstorm, Alan Gribben, is treading the well-trod footsteps of the oft-ridiculed British physician Thomas Bowdler, who rendered the works of William Shakespeare and Edward Gibbon safe for the delicate sensibilities of English schoolchildren. His famous emendations included eliminating Ophelia’s suicide from “Hamlet’’ — she dies in an accidental drowning; maiden overboard! — and changing Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damned spot!’’ to “Out, crimson spot!’’

I was reasonably sure he would deny Mr. Macbeth the “spur to prick the sides of my intent,’’ and I was right. Out, darned prick! In Bowdler, the “bawdy hand of the dial’’ is most certainly not on “the prick of noon,’’ as the Bard artfully punned. Mr. Bowdler’s watch is on the point of noon.

Now that Professor Gribben has blazed the path, we can think of reworking more classics for the delicate sensibility of the modern American schoolchildren. Or, more probably, their modern American parents.

Some texts are hopeless. They might as well cut the “Song of Solomon’’ right out of the Bible. “Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.’’ “Your navel is a rounded goblet that never lacks blended wine.’’ Now scholars tell us that may not actually be her navel. . . . Time to move on!

Out with the all-too-suggestive “intercourse,’’ which will more or less put Adam Smith, inveterate analyzer of social, um, exchanges, out of business. Ditto Karl Marx. That will enable us to de-smut-ify John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.’’ When pre-Fall Adam starts jabbering to Eve about the “sweet [exchange] of looks and smiles’’, who knows what’s really on his mind? That goes double for Charles Dickens, who wrote tenderly to his longtime correspondent Mrs. Watson of yearning for “years of unchanged [exchange].’’

J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye’’ has dropped off many a school library shelf, damned — sorry, darned — for its gamey language. The archaic epithet “goddam’’ appears 137 times in the relatively short novel. Alas, the word will have to go, along with “crap,’’ another staple of the Holden Caulfield lexicon. That pretty much de-fangs the book’s famous opening, where Holden vows not “to tell you my whole [darned] autobiography or anything . . . all that David Copperfield kind of [junk.]’’

I suspect that journalist Hunter Thompson doesn’t grace many middle school library shelves, partly because he relies so heavily on Salinger-speak, and worse. “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’’ has some wonderful moments, especially when the author seeks divine absolution at Wild Bill’s Cafe, uttering the immortal lines: “Is there a priest in this tavern? I want to confess! I’m [an accursed] sinner! Venal, mortal, carnal. . .’’

“Queer,’’ “on Queer Street’’ and to be “queer for’’ have interesting etymologies. The latter phrase, now used only ironically, once meant “attracted to.’’ One of the characters in “Giovanni’s Room,’’ James Baldwin’s 1956 novel about gay life in Paris, says: “Actually, I’m sort of queer for girls myself.’’ But who needs ambiguity? Let’s pack the offending adjective off to the discard pile, with all those other terrible words.

Herewith a couplet from Robert Frost’s lovely poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,’’ appropriately bowdlerized for modern ears:

My little horse must think it [strange] To stop without a farmhouse [within range]

Not pretty, but it will have to do.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.