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By Stefan Kanfer

The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage.

Eye on the News

Stefan Kanfer
Gribbenizing Finn
A noun exits a classic novel, and a valuable new verb enters the English language.
7 January 2011

When so many college students are focused on the new new things, it’s reassuring to note that one professor is keeping tradition alive. Alan Gribben, a member of the English faculty at Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama, has been called a Mark Twain scholar by no less an authority than Entertainment Weekly. It’s in that role that this learned teacher joins with the great censors of the past.

Perhaps the most prominent of those moral guardians—until now, anyway—was Dr. Thomas Bowdler. Shocked by the sexual innuendos and rough language in the Shakespearean canon, Bowdler published The Family Shakespeare, subtitled in which Nothing is Added to the Original Text; But Those Words and Expressions are Omitted which Cannot with Propriety be Read Aloud in a Family. Among Bowdler’s many purifications: Lady Macbeth’s line “Out, damned spot!” became “Out crimson spot!”; Ophelia’s suicide was changed to accidental death by drowning; and the prostitute Doll Tearsheet vanished from Henry IV.

That other source of shocking material, the Bible, became a target of revisionists during the Victorian era. Many theologians purified a passage here and there, but John Watson, a layman of the Church of England, outdid them all. His edition, The Holy Bible Arranged and Adapted for Family Reading, came out in 1853. As historian Noel Perrin notes in Dr. Bowdler’s Legacy, of the sensual Song of Solomon, Watson “printed only the title, together with a note explaining that adolescents should not encounter this book at all, ‘lest in the fervor of youth they give too wide a scope to fancy.’”

The word “Bowdlerism” was coined at about this time, but not always as a pejorative. Indeed, across the pond it was first used with approval. The Royal Standard Dictionary, the first such lexicon to be printed in America, sedulously followed the Doctor’s prescription. Among many omissions was the verb “shite” and the noun “penis.” Soon, other works came under close examination for offensive passages. In Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, the notorious womanizer confesses that he made a pass at a friend’s inamorata, “which she repuls’d with a proper Resentment, and acquainted him with my Behavior. This made a Breach between us.” Anxious to keep the Founding Father’s reputation unsullied, editors referred to the incident vaguely as a quarrel of unspecified nature, or excised it entirely.

In the “progressive” twentieth century, the censors didn’t let up. Selected works of James Joyce, e e cummings, Ernest Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence, et al. were famously banned from bookstores and schools. Because of steamy prose or pictures, magazines as varied as Playboy and Redbook were removed from supermarket shelves. As late as the 1950s, the word “pregnant” was barred from prime-time television. “Lucy Is Enceinte” was the way CBS put it on I Love Lucy.

Barriers finally came down in the anything-goes sixties; no demand for social violence, no sexual version or perversion was deemed inappropriate. But the self-appointed protectors of public morals had not retired; they were merely lying in wait, sharpening their blue pencils. This time they had no interest in what went on in the bedroom; their focus was on the schoolroom—and, by extension, the library and, eventually, the media. Political Correctness reigned supreme. “Negro” became “black” and then “African-American”; “Indian” became “Native American”; “gender-neutral” terms replaced masculine words like “fireman” and “chairman”; the blind became “visually challenged” and the lame “differently abled.”

These terms remain in place in PC America, but they are not enough to satisfy academia. Thus it is that Professor Gribben alters, or to be more accurate, neuters, Huckleberry Finn. In his version, to be published next month, every time the word “nigger” appears it is changed to “slave.” The professor defends his new version by claiming that “in the new classroom” the old Huckleberry Finn is “really not acceptable. For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs.” With this in mind, surely other changes are under way at institutions of higher learning. Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the Narcissus is bound to become “The Person of the Narcissus”; references to savage tribes in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales are certain to disappear; and The Hunchback of Notre Dame can easily receive the new and inoffensive title The Posture-Challenged Bell Ringer of Notre Dame.

Gribben has been the target of much derision recently. This is unfair; in fact, he’s performed a valuable service to his country. For too long, Bowdlerizing has been the classic synonym for ignorance and inhibition. It’s time to bring the title home, time for “Gribbenizing” to replace the British term, giving censorship a fresh, postmodern twist. Who says the twenty-first can’t be another American Century?

Stefan Kanfer, a contributing editor of City Journal and a former editor of Time, is the author, most recently, of Somebody, a biography of Marlon Brando. His next book, a biography of Humphrey Bogart called Tough Without a Gun, will be out in February.

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