editing mark twain for modern sensibilities
Old 01-05-2011, 10:01 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Mark Twain and the N-word - The Globe and Mail

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Should classic novels be updated to suit modern tastes and mores?

An American publishing firm has touched off a controversy by announcing it will publish new editions of Mark Twain's novels Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer in which the word "nigger" will be replaced with "slave."
from the discussion:

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Martin Levin: Another thing. I'd be very curious about whether the 'n" word is going to give way to "slave" on every occasion. because, if it does, there are several passages and references that will make no sense at all, such as Huck's Pap's attack on an educated black man and his use of the phrase "free n...." Go parse "free slave," if you will.
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Peter Scowen: But other than that, what exactly is the downside to removing the word and replacing it with "slave"? If it gets more people to actually read the book, which is the publisher's stated intention, isn't that a good thing?
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Old 01-05-2011, 10:46 PM   #2 (permalink)
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I really hate the idea of changing any art in order for people to not be required to work at understanding it. The only issue I see here, is that kids read this. So use the opportunity to teach. The only upside I see is intellectual laziness can be made acceptable.
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Old 01-05-2011, 11:36 PM   #3 (permalink)
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I'm with LX here. They are eliminating some of the cultural context that makes art, literature, drama, etc. what they are.

Think of how we could destroy so many fine novels by replacing words some people deem offensive. I want my Lolitas, my Tropic of Cancers, my Portnoy's Complaints...uncorrupted.

It's worse than modernized Shakespeare, and that's saying something.
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Old 01-05-2011, 11:40 PM   #4 (permalink)
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It's stupid.

Seems pretty insulting to all races of people to me, Just end up pissing everyone off if they do it. But really, who cares, as if there aren't a trillion non-fucket twain books out there.

Not really an issue.
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Old 01-06-2011, 09:58 AM   #5 (permalink)
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I remember when I was studying US literature the prof actually asked us if we wanted to read this book because of material she thought the class would deem offensive.

None of us cared as we understood both the context it was written in and the importance of language.

In fact, we found it really important to understand and know why the language was chosen and how it can impact our reading of it.
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Old 01-06-2011, 10:51 AM   #6 (permalink)
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dead against any kind of change or suppression when it comes to literature...past, present or future

if you ban words today, then you just might fall down that slippery slope and end up banning ideas tomorrow
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Old 01-06-2011, 11:04 AM   #7 (permalink)
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This bothers me for a few reasons. When I have children, I want them to enjoy the classics just as I did. The idea of them reading these books as "new versions" of the original works actually makes me sad. LX is right, if they were kept the same it would give an opportunity to teach. By erasing certain aspects completely, it limits what can be learned from it.

Luckily, I've got copies of most of the classics and will gladly pass them down unchanged.
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Old 01-06-2011, 11:06 AM   #8 (permalink)
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It's a difficult situation to deal with. Of course you guys have no problem with it knowing the context and the time. And you're adults. Certain kids though, I don't know. They don't understand. Could it be an opportunity to educate? Maybe, maybe not. I just have this vision of nasty schoolyard crap. And this thing's been banned from certain school districts because of the word. Change a word, gain a book. Seems reasonable. I don't think it's the start of more extreme forms of censorship.

Last edited by Aar_Canada; 01-06-2011 at 11:08 AM.
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Old 01-06-2011, 11:09 AM   #9 (permalink)
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Two issues here. First, like LX says, there is an opportunity to educate. The word was accepted back in the day (mainly because blacks had no say).

Second. Where does it stop? Soon no one will ever die in a novel read by under 12 y/os. Shakespeare will be outlawed.

Leave dem books alone!
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Old 01-06-2011, 11:43 AM   #10 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Aar_Canada View Post
It's a difficult situation to deal with. Of course you guys have no problem with it knowing the context and the time. And you're adults. Certain kids though, I don't know. They don't understand. Could it be an opportunity to educate? Maybe, maybe not. I just have this vision of nasty schoolyard crap. And this thing's been banned from certain school districts because of the word. Change a word, gain a book. Seems reasonable. I don't think it's the start of more extreme forms of censorship.
But hearing the same words, if not more offensive words, in rap music for example should be tolerated?

I've dealt with 7 year olds who've used the word 'nigger' and don't understand it's concept. When I asked where they learned it, the typical answer was, an I'm paraphrasing, popular media.

At least, with Twain, it was always read in my experience in school and we always had a lesson on the language etc. It's a great tool to utilize and teach about language and ABOUT context.

Teach (parents, teachers etc.) instead of running away.
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Old 01-06-2011, 12:19 PM   #11 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Claudius View Post
But hearing the same words, if not more offensive words, in rap music for example should be tolerated?

I've dealt with 7 year olds who've used the word 'nigger' and don't understand it's concept. When I asked where they learned it, the typical answer was, an I'm paraphrasing, popular media.

At least, with Twain, it was always read in my experience in school and we always had a lesson on the language etc. It's a great tool to utilize and teach about language and ABOUT context.

Teach (parents, teachers etc.) instead of running away.
I don't think it's running away and I don't think a 7 year old should be listening to such things. Parents should do their best to keep it away and I think a similar thing could be done by whomever - district heads - in the school system. And it's not like it's being wiped from every copy on earth.

I was watching Three Stooges with my son over the holidays. They had a marathon on AMC. In a lot of the earlier shorts, the "help" is portrayed by black actors characterized by the worst stereotypes you could imagine - highly offensive stuff. It wasn't a statement of the time, it was just a dumb fact of the time and the way things were. Now, my son's just 3 and doesn't understand, but when he's older, I'll explain, just like my dad did for me. That said, if I could snap my fingers and have that whole image erased from every movie, short movie, cartoon, I would. We know what went on back then. We don't have to see it to continue to grow and understand.

Those scenes and this type of language are both inconsequential to their respective works. Like I said, people think it's the start of less benign changes and I don't think that's the case at all. And I bet if Twain were alive today, he wouldn't have written such things.
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Old 01-06-2011, 12:30 PM   #12 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Claudius View Post
I remember when I was studying US literature the prof actually asked us if we wanted to read this book because of material she thought the class would deem offensive.

None of us cared as we understood both the context it was written in and the importance of language.

In fact, we found it really important to understand and know why the language was chosen and how it can impact our reading of it.
Unless there's some sort of historical contextualization, given that the connotations of the word 'nigger' have shifted since the time of Twain's writing, and the ways in which it's used, then teaching this book needs to be adequately contextualized.

That said, you still don't edit it out. It's PC bullshit. Its an attempt to anaesthetize racist structures and utterances, both past and present.
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Old 01-06-2011, 12:43 PM   #13 (permalink)
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Twain didn't exactly buy into the stereotypes. I don't have so much of a problem with censoring the 3 stooges being viewed by kids, or some of the animated shorts of the time for the same reason. But Huck Finn portrays a human relationship that develops, and not just stock characters playing into stereotypes. The use of the n-word is part of an honest portrayal, not just a word that was ok for Twain use at the time. And it scares me to think that such a portrayal could be whitewashed as if such a deed was part of Tom Sawyer's chores.
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Old 01-06-2011, 01:10 PM   #14 (permalink)
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I must admit I've never read the book. I have a vague understanding of what it's about. I did check out some passages this morning and replaced the word with 'slave' and the intent really doesn't change. I think everyone knows who the slaves were.

This change was suggested by a Twain scholar who tired of seeing the book not used in classrooms. I just have this vision of say, a white kid being asked to read a passage aloud while sitting next to an African American kid. Regardless of the context, that makes me queasy and I can see why a school board, a teacher, parents of both kids, might not want to 'go there'. If this brings the book back to the classroom while maintaining the gist of it, I don't see the harm.
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Old 01-06-2011, 01:14 PM   #15 (permalink)
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I think the book has not been taught very well in the classroom regardless. It's been seen as a kid's book of sorts, and it isn't. Maybe it should just be left for a university curriculum.
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Old 01-07-2011, 03:30 PM   #16 (permalink)
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I take back what I said about some animated shorts perhaps being worthy of censorship for the right reasons. I heard this guy on the CBC this morning. He lays out a pretty convincing case against the censorship of 11 loony tunes cartoons. remember that these were also made for an adult audience.

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The titles alone of many give you a sense of why United Artists pulled them out of circulation in 1968: Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarves, Goldilocks and the Jivin' Bears, Clean Pastures, All This and Rabbit Stew, Tin Pan Alley Cats, Uncle Tom's Bungalow, Sunday Go to Meetin' Time, Jungle Jitters, Hittin' the Trail for Hallelujah Land, The Isle of Pingo Pongo and Angel Puss.

Yet many of these are amazing pieces of art -- and all but a few black people would thoroughly enjoy them. There is a healthy contingent of black fans amid the constant blog-site chatter about these cartoons, and a few months ago in Los Angeles, Donald Bogle, author of the classic black film history Toms, Coons, Mammies, Mulattoes and Bucks, hosted a cinema screening of eight of them.

Bogle is quite concerned with stereotyping of blacks in vintage American pop culture. Yet he sees the Censored Eleven as, after 70 years, worthy of examination, and Warner Home Video's George Feltenstein spearheaded the Bogle event as a step toward getting these cartoons out of the vaults.

Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarves, for example, is one of the 10 best Looney Tunes ever made. The Snow White tale is retold in eight glorious minutes to a driving boogie-woogie beat, with director Bob Clampett's hot, rubbery animation yanking characters into the camera lens like Ren and Stimpy on acid. Clampett took his animators to black clubs in L.A. to get a look at the dance moves, and it shows. Clampett got the idea for the cartoon from seeing a Duke Ellington revue in L.A., after which the cast themselves suggested he do a cartoon with the same feel.

He made sure that some local black musicians got to play on the soundtrack, and protagonist So White is voiced by Dorothy Dandridge's sister Vivian. They and other blacks who helped create it reportedly had a great time. I will never forget my first look at this one at a film festival when I was 12 -- I had to remember to breathe.
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Now, to be sure, these cartoons feature minstrel-style caricatures. But Looney Tunes were all about caricature. Italians were swivel-tongued hotheads. Women were eyelash-batting gold diggers, battle-ax spouses or dotty spinsters. Mexicans were impecunious slowpokes -- upon which it bears mentioning that Speedy Gonzales is popular in Mexico, and when the Cartoon Network banned his cartoons, Mexican Americans were amply represented among the disappointed, and the ban was lifted in 2002.

Funny Comes in All Colors

In that context, in 2010 can't we take a joke too? All This and Rabbit Stew has Bugs Bunny pursued by a slow-witted black hunter, who basically does precisely the things Elmer Fudd usually did. The only difference is that whenever the black hunter runs, it's to a driving boogie vamp, which is just plain catchy.

Well, there's a little more -- in a single sequence, the hunter shoots some craps. You know -- "black people shoot craps, ha-ha," at least in 1941. But is that going to send any black people to the other room in tears?

To be sure, in 1943 the NAACP protested Coal Black. But in those days, things like this were almost the only depiction of blacks in mainstream pop culture. Today we are long past that -- or even by the early '80s, when The Cosby Show was heralded as showing whites that not all black people were poor.

There's a reason restaurateur B. Smith is no longer hot news. In our times, Spike Lee movies, Tyler Perry's universe, the first family and even the likes of bread-and-butter TV successes like Sister, Sister and That's So Raven -- the passing nature of those last two only underscores the point -- show us that black depictions in the media have done a lot of overcoming. Eight minutes of jiving cartoon high jinks can hardly be blamed for defining black people.
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In any case, while we're on how we receive depictions of what black people "are," let's look at what Coal Black is about. So White is a chocolate hottie with a spherical posterior endowment. Prince Chawming has gold teeth. The whole cartoon is set to a jiving bounce. Everybody talks in the slang that we learned to call Ebonics 50 years later. Sex is in the air; even the dwarves are horny. The Queen calls up thugs to rub out So White, and that's supposed to be funny.

Sound familiar? All of it is right out of the rap catalog -- the lingo, the butts, the violence, right down to the gold teeth. If Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent are classic, then why aren't the Censored Eleven? These cartoons are pieces of black performance history in their way. Stylized, to be sure. But so is rap. Stereotyped, to be sure. But ... need I go on?

Primly holding these 11 cartoons back in the vaults in 2010 makes black people look, frankly, weak. Why can't we take a joke as, say, Yunte Huang can about Charlie Chan, as recounted in a recent New Yorker? Charlie Chan gets anthologized on DVD sets with all of us admitting that the past is the past (when the Chinese past in America was quite hideous). But we can only get peeks at the Censored Eleven from muddy prints of some of them on YouTube.

It's high time for Warner Home Video to do a DVD with all 11 of these historical curios. They should include sage commentary before each one and preface the whole thing with a nice apologia by someone black. I suggest Whoopi Goldberg, who was brought in for similar purpose in earlier Looney Tunes DVD sets, or Oprah. Or maybe even Dr. Dre.

Yes, there will be a flutter or two of protest from people who can't take a joke even at 70 years' remove. But the sky will not fall in, and the kerfuffle will only increase the profits on a DVD that will sell like hotcakes from minute one. And that will not be because the cartoons are racist -- though they are -- but because they are, in spite of themselves, one part history and one part just plain fierce.
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