Friday, May 07, 2010
Cleaning Up Nancy Drew
I’ve been thinking about including one of the Nancy Drew series in an upcoming seminar on Women and Detective Fiction and so I’ve been learning a bit more about the books and their fairly complicated textual history. One important detail is that the currently available versions of the ‘original’ 1930s stories, beginning with No. 1, The Secret of the Old Clock, are in fact revised versions, rewritten beginning in the late 1950s because apparently the true originals included pretty offensive racist slurs and stereotypes. This got me thinking about when or why or what books are revised or cleaned up to satisfy modern mores. It seems to me that plenty of ‘classics’ wouldn’t pass a very stringent political correctness test (Kipling, anyone, as Colleen points out in a comment to my other post? or Tarzan, just out in an Oxford World’s Classics edition? or fill in the example of choice, for misogyny, anti-Semitism, class prejudice, etc.), but these we expose, critique, interrogate, etc.--not rewrite. I’m just wondering what makes the difference. Perhaps it’s the YA context: the presumed audience for Nancy Drew books isn’t ready to read critically? Marketability, since an overtly racist series would (one hopes) have lost its mass market appeal long ago? Thoughts on this? Are there other examples that people know of ‘cleaned up classics’?
Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Niggers, which was retitled And then there were none? I read it under the former title as a kid.
Series like Nancy Drew aren’t seen as having literary value. I think this largely comes down to the fact that, from the very beginning, they--along with the Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins, and any number of other forgotten franchises--were the product of a well-oiled marketing machine with no greater literary aspirations whatsoever. To the extent that they’re available today, they’re still being marketed to the same demographic as ever, and still with the primary goal being to make a buck--questions of textual fidelity under such circumstances are not considered relevant.
The Hardy Boys, Dr. Dolittle, Little Black Sambo, and Tintin have been cleaned up, in major or minor ways.
The last three aren’t products of a syndicate. Many would consider Tintin as having real aesthetic merit.
The common factor seems to be that the books were continuing to sell, but publishers feared that racist or prejudiced content would limit sales. Revisions are attempts to keep a lucrative franchise going. In the case of Tintin, Herge himself approved the changes, saying that he now repudiated the views he had uncritically absorbed from his milieu.
Why would one do this to children’s books, but not for adult books? Because presenting a book like Little Black Sambo (with the original golliwog illustrations) to a small child risks instilling prejudice OR confusing the child with historical commentary (this was OK then, but we don’t do this now).
There are hundreds of old children’s books, in ebook form, at manybooks.net. Many of them are rife with now-repudiated Victorian prejudices. No one has bothered to revise and re-issue them; they fell out of favor long ago and they would seem to have no commercial possibilities.
I just googled on “bowdlerized” and found a reference to a different kind of bowdlerization; works that are severely edited because they are felt to be too difficult for children.
Or adults ... Reader’s Digest Condensed Books :)
And a Christian publishing house that is re-issuing George MacDonald’s works; the Scots dialect has been translated into standard English and I believe that some Victorian prolixity has been trimmed.
The cleanup on Tarzan is sort of an interesting case. There *was* a (very slightly) cleaned up sixties version, but the differences seem to have been strikingly cosmetic compared to the basic, structural racism of the novel that remains. For example, you still have the wild minstrel show that is Jane’s maid, Esmeralda, who has no purpose other than to contrast white and black femininity in prejudicial terms for the latter, as in this line:
“Esmeralda’s scream of terror had mingled once with that of Jane, and then, as was Esmeralda’s manner under stress of emergency which required presence of mind, she swooned. But Jane did not once lose consciousness.”
Removal of “nigger"s from The Mikado.
Inactive thread, but I’d missed it before—at any rate, my kids liked the fantastical Enid Blyton books. The versions that we read generally had golliwogs that had been rewritten, more or less. But one rewrite that I wouldn’t have expected concerns Dame Slap, an evil character in The Faraway Tree who slaps her students. In the version we read, she was changed to Dame Snap, who snaps her fingers at them.