06 January 2011

Standing Up for the Public Domain

As we consider the current kerfuffle over an edition of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Americans are united on several points:

Opposing censorship is a Good Thing. Preserving our history (even of Bad Things) is a Good Thing. Preserving our culture (especially the Great American Novels) is a Good Thing.

But standing up for the public domain is also a Good Thing.

All the books that Mark Twain published in his lifetime are in the public domain. (Canny author-publisher that he was, he managed to figure out how to generate new copyrights and new publicity.) That makes changing Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn different from demanding changes to, or restricting access to, a book still under copyright with limited availability.

For one thing, such censorship won’t work. With Project Gutenberg, Google Books, more cheap “classic” paperback editions than you can swing a dead cat at, and millions of copies already printed, there’s no way the original texts of Twain’s best novels will disappear.

One edited edition of Huck Finn from one small press doesn’t erase all the other books on the market. It doesn’t stop bookstores, libraries, and schools from using unexpurgated versions if they decide those are more desirable. I can’t imagine a credible scenario in which this edition pushes out the original text.

Furthermore, because Huckleberry Finn is in the public domain, Prof. Alan Gribben has every right to do whatever he wants with the text. He chose to remove the word “nigger” and insert the chapter from Life on the Mississippi that Twain himself edited out, and in his introduction (PDF download) he explains why.

We all have the same right. For very little money I can put out an electronic edition with the word “nigger” replaced with “n!gger” and that extra chapter pulled out. White supremacists could issue an edition that replaces the word “nigger” with “naturally ignorant nigger.” Less stupid authors could rewrite the book to make Jim less childish, or substitute a better plot in the last third. People can write sequels, and fanfiction. The public domain makes all that possible. Then it’s up to the reading public to choose which uses have value.

Yesterday I noticed that several blog posts about this controversy are illustrated with the cover of the Troll Illustrated Classic edition, shown above. Perhaps that’s an ironic commentary on watering down the book to a childish level, but I suspect it’s because that edition has a big, iconic illustration of Huck and Jim on their appropriated raft.

That Troll edition clocks in at 48 pages. Obviously it’s been abridged for younger readers, another possibility made cheap and easy by the public domain. I’ll bet that a lot of Twain’s words were taken out of that book, and that “nigger” was one of the first to go. Nobody seems to have objected.

I can imagine a philosophical argument for barring people from making any changes to a reproducible work of art that its creator didn’t approve. But the cultural cost of such a restriction would far outweigh the benefits.

As long as no one misrepresents a changed edition of Twain as the original, then it’s up to readers which to choose. Gribben is quite explicit in his Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn edition about what he changed—probably more explicit than the folks at Troll Illustrated Classics.

TOMORROW: A modest technological solution.


J. L. Bell said...

A thought after posting: If someone had taken the text of Huckleberry Finn and rewritten it as Huck Finn, Zombie Hunter, that would clearly have been a bigger change than this “NewSouth” edition.

It would be impossible to miss those changes, but equally the editor’s introduction makes it impossible to miss how the “NewSouth” edition differs from the original.

Would Huck Finn, Zombie Hunter have inspired so many outraged blog postings and newspaper editorials?

Anonymous said...

I thought of the Zombie-Austens when I read your earlier post, but I don't see your argument. There are a lot of things that are legal, that I want to be legal and that I think are reprehensible. The Westboro Baptist Church, for an extreme example.

This isn't so extreme, but I still think it is wrong-headed and counter-productive and the more people who say so, the happier I am.

This isn't like the Zombie Austens. Teachers are not going to assign Pride and Prejudice and Zombies instead of the original, but that switch is exactly Mr. Gribben's intent with the NewSouth publication. It's disingenuous to say that the students can go look up other editions when no reasonable person would expect that they would.

People have said many things that we, with hindsight, think were mistaken. Should we change them? Should we tack on another helpful paragraph to the Gettysburg address? Should we edit out the phrase "infernal abolitionists" from Twain's earlier work? No, because these are things people SAID. You don't put words in people's mouths, and you don't take them out of the historical record. Huckleberry Finn, in the same way, is what Twain *said*. Mr. Gribbens is altering history, taking some words out of Twain's mouth and putting others in. Legal, yes. Justifiable? Not to me.

It's wrong headed and counter-productive because it is just another kind of white-washing. In this day in our society, this word in a book has such power to wound, so we are going to change . . . the book.

I'll reiterate my comment from the earlier post. If students can't deal with the material, there's nothing to be gained by making them read it. There's nothing to be gained by giving them a white-washed version of it, either. If students can't read this book, then it's an indictment of our society and the education we are providing. The problem isn't in the book, it is in us. Altering the book just helps to obscure that.

J. L. Bell said...

Anonymous, no reasonable person would suggest that students given Gribben’s edition of Twain’s novels would have to look up one of the many complete copies of those books to understand what the novels originally said. The introduction clearly states what words have been changed.

You seem to believe that no kids would be curious about seeing a “forbidden” text that also happens to be widely and cheaply available. I disagree.

As for your comments about adding paragraphs to the Gettysburg Address and such, that moves into the territory I described in yesterday’s point 5.

Anonymous said...

You seem to believe that no kids would be curious about seeing a “forbidden” text that also happens to be widely and cheaply available.

Of course! That's why the book is flying off the shelves and has been for all these years. Oh, wait . . no it hasn't.

Yep. We disagree. Also, clearly, about whether it is okay to put words in people's mouths, and also to erase the words they said.

J. L. Bell said...

I didn’t “erase” any of the words you’ve posted here anonymously. Please don’t suggest I did.

I responded to this statement from you: It's disingenuous to say that the students can go look up other editions when no reasonable person would expect that they would. I pointed out what I see as two fallacies in that argument.

Now I come to this topic having read both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn on my own as a kid; I never studied them in school. I therefore reject the suggestion that kids won’t read those books unless they’re assigned.

Your sarcastic comment suggests that Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are unpopular. In fact, they’re the most popular works of nineteenth-century American literature. There are dozens of editions and adaptations, as well as stage and movie versions. Except for To Kill a Mockingbird, I don’t think any other common curricular American novel commands such an audience outside of schools.

Anonymous said...

Erasing and replacing *Twain's* words was what I was talking about, JL. I hope you'll reconsider.

J. L. Bell said...

Thank you for pointing out my mistake, and for expressing your views.

My point in this “Standing Up for the Public Domain” posting is that I think it is okay to adapt and alter texts that are in the public domain, as long as one is clear about what one is selling. The original texts survive, and the public chooses which have value for what purpose.