From Bowdler to Gribben


Stefan Kanfer writing in City Journal- Gribbenizing Finn, claims that a valuable new verb has entered the English language with the exit of a noun from a classic novel.

He writes that 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.

Dr. Thomas Bowdler, shocked by the sexual innuendos and rough language in the Shakespearean canon, published The Family Shakespeare. Among his many purification: 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.

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.

Barriers finally came down in the 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; 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.”

Professor Gribben now alters, or to be more accurate, neuters, Huckleberry Finn. In his version, 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.” 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, post-modern twist.

The Shardlake series by C.J. Sansom in which lawyer Matthew Shardlake is a hunchback, shows Shardlake suffering much indignity and insult because of it. Apart from adversely influencing the imagery of the prose, transposing modern mores into literature that is not contemporary is disingenuous.

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