In their original incarnations, the wildly popular Nancy Drew series of mystery books, first written by a two-woman team (under the pen name Carolyn Keene) in the 1930s, were rife with racism and anti-Semitism. Villains were often shifty-eyed, hook-nosed, or swarthy. A “Negro caretaker” is “lazy.” In response to pressure from their publisher, the authors re-edited the books in the late 1950s. That means that the Nancy Drew stories you or I remember were already minus the obviously offensive passages and plots, scrubbed clean and made PC (well, PC by midcentury standards, anyway).
But some would argue that the excisions also left the stories less meaty overall (certainly the original authors felt that way). Did we miss out? Not just on interesting subplots and adventurous twists, but on the chance to, say, discuss with parents and teachers how times had changed, or why people once felt a certain way about people different from them — or why some still harbor those prejudices?
And what about our children, now? As I write, my brother is reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books aloud to his 5-year-old son, and finds there are passages he just skips over. (He didn’t specify which parts, but I’m going to guess it was stuff like, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”) But his son is five. What if the reader was ten, or fifteen?
Currently, a debate is going on in Sweden, where the heirs to the beloved author Astrid Lindgren, who wrote the perennially popular Pippi Longstocking books, are unhappy that a re-broadcast of the 1969 TV adaptation of the book will be short a couple of scenes, such as one in which Pippi’s absent adventurer-father is said to be the King of the Negroes (but using a word in Swedish that’s considered offensive). Alleen Pace Nilsen, Ph.D., emeritus professor of English at Arizona State University, calls controversies like this an example of the “Disneyfication” of entertainment. “Some people want everything negative to be covered up under beautiful colors and pleasant music. But I think from the very beginning, parents, teachers, and librarians should present such things as the Pippi Longstocking story the way it was written, but they should also be aware of the issues and explain them,” in an age-appropriate fashion.
And of course any conversation about political correctness in children’s literature has to mention Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Should high schoolers be reading it at all, or if they do, should it be cleaned-up versions that remove Twain’s multiple instances of the n-word? Nilsen was once invited to speak to a high school that was embroiled in that very controversy. Her feelings on the subject: “Even high school freshman need to know some of the background as to why race is still such an issue.”
The point is that offensive language, characters, and attitudes in literature need to be placed in the perspective of their times, and used as a lesson in history as well as literature and language. While my brother is smart to avoid implanting un-PC language in a 5-year-old’s head that he can’t easily explain, a high school is just as wise to leave in original language in time-tested classic works to help more sophisticated readers learn.
Jan Lacina, Ph.D., professor and associate dean of graduate studies in the College of Education at Texas Christian University, calls the trend for PC-scrubbing censorship, plain and simple: “It’s not fair to the authors, or to today’s children. Children need to learn the historical context in which a book from the past was situated. The dialect, pictures, and other language devices teach us how times have changed, and we can learn valuable lessons from the past.”
Originally published in 1994, a humorous book called Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, by James Finn Garner, satirizes familiar childhood tales, sanitizing such stories as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (sorry, vertically challenged men) and “Little Red Riding Hood” (the wolf, a furry helicopter-parent-type, tells Red it’s not safe to walk through the woods alone). What was meant to be irony in the ‘90s can feel, at its re-release in 2012, like an earnest attempt to clean up the canon, making old stories safe and inoffensive. A zeitgeist in which well-meaning parents of young readers look for PC-friendly books is also a world in which Mark Twain is banished from high schools and college classes get “trigger warnings” about potentially upsetting material. Kind of makes you want to go read Farenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s chilling tale of book banning, doesn’t it?