Guest Post: Editing The Classics: Is it Ethical?

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Note from Callista: I do not claim to agree or disagree with the following guest post. I am offering it to spark conversation among my readers. Thanks to Rachel for the guest post and My Blog Guest for putting us together.


Political correctness has permeated and dictated personal and professional interaction for too few years. Federal and state laws make many uncomfortable, but the U.S. Constitution must rightfully be honored in word and in intent. But when it infuses itself into changing literary history, political correctness extends cultural sensitivity into the realm of the ridiculous.

The recent decision by NewSouth Books to remove the N-word, a potentially explosive noun of contemporary offense, from the historically significant literary works of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer warrants the ire and disdain of every author, educator, literary historian, and reader around the world.

These stories are fiction, to be sure, but their contribution to literature isn’t based on its fiction versus non-fiction status. They used fictional characters to portray attitudes, outlooks, and realistic interaction between people of an age. That particular age passed, yes, but changing that portrayal insults the intelligence and conceptual comprehension and appreciation of whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, etc., the world over.

If publishers want to change literary history, then by all means, continue the insult. Remove not only the N-word from those classics but also the S-word or all mention, directly or indirectly, of the fact there were any in America. Then extend the censorship into every other work that exists anywhere.

Then why don’t we just erase all mention of the Civil War from all written or spoken words? How about jumping forward a few generations and obliterate mention of the American interment of Japanese during WWII? And if we’re into the WWII era, by all means ‘disappear’ the Holocaust!

Destroy all copies of films, videos, records—including rap songs today that include the N-word—and arrest all those who read, listen, watch, gift, generate and produce them, making those same-offense works illegal. After all, they’re not politically correct either, right? Don’t forget to erase Antonius’ soliloquy in the classic film, Spartacus. No mention or inference of homosexual acts allowed. But offense might be taken if it’s completely omitted. Such cans of worms perch on the horizon.

Sensitivity gives no right to censor literature or literary history. The First Amendment pertains to written works, historical or contemporary, too. Public domain or copyright-protected status grants no license to change history—period.

Public domain does not mean someone can substitute words for the original and still keep the same author name or pseudonym. It does, however, give one the right to publish another author’s work under one’s own name, but these books are so well known, no one will ever give credence to Juanita Smith or John Doe, III, having written them, which is why Juanita or John has had the sense not to try it.

Attempting to market an altered story under the original author’s work is, at the very least, immoral, if not illegal, because it’s false labeling. They’d be selling a product that’s not entirely attributable to the original author. Any change to those exact texts based on public domain status shouldn’t be marketed as Mark Twain’s work, because it will no longer be his work.

Every author, known or unknown, famous or not, has the inherent right to have his or her original work left alone. If society and its laws change over time, write a new forward explaining the publisher does not agree with sentiments, to the opinions, words, outlook, etc., to the author’s work.

Do not change classic literature or literary history for the sake of overzealous, misdirected and ill-aimed weakness of publishing character and especially don’t do it under the auspicious title of Political Correctness.

Using public domain status as an excuse is cowardly and inexcusable.

About the Author
JC Ryan is a freelance writer for My Colleges and Careers helps people determine if an online education is right for them and helps them search for online degrees that can help them reach their goals.

About Kathleen

I've been a nonfiction lover for as long as I can remember. I love children's nonfiction as well and love to share my knowledge and the books I gained them from, with the world. I wish more people would give nonfiction a chance.