Opinion | Removing Offensive Language From Classic Books

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To the Editor:

Re “Readers Torn by Push to Revise Classics for Modern Sensibilities” (front page, April 6):

One of the purposes of art is to offer a window on the values of its time. Offensive passages in the works of Agatha Christie, Roald Dahl and others are a reflection not only of those writers’ sensibilities, but also of what the commercial and cultural powers of the day — and the public — found acceptable. They are part of the historical record of our problematic journey toward enlightenment.

While there may be an argument for expurgated versions of some books for young children, adult readers should face squarely our literature as it is — flaws and all.

Al McKee
San Francisco

To the Editor:

Efforts by literary executors, editors and school systems to sanitize the writing of past generations is nothing new. Notoriously, the 19th-century Bowdler editions of Shakespeare scrubbed away all unsettling sexual content. They have been viewed with scorn ever since.

Unfortunately, the cost of “bowdlerizing” texts is not just literary or aesthetic. This retroactive censorship has dangerous political implications. Victorian translations of classical texts scrubbed away all references to homosexuality, creating an illusion of heteronormativity where it never existed. Late 20th-century library shelves were purged of books that expressed racist, antisemitic and eugenic beliefs, creating a comfortable delusion that such opinions were rare.

In the end, our current wave of neo-bowdlerization is likely to have effects that contradict its proponents’ well-intentioned aims. Censorship cannot fix history. Rather, it erases and conceals our history, making it harder to reckon with.

Sean McEnroe
Ashland, Ore.
The writer is a professor of history at Southern Oregon University.

To the Editor:

Attempting to revise classic literature for a modern world sounds great at first. But it has serious ramifications.

We cannot rewrite history for our own contentment. Because if we do, we’re refusing to acknowledge the anguish caused by the prejudice and bigotry they delineate.

We cannot pretend that racial slurs have not been violently thrown off the tips of tongues, and that they didn’t wound those they were intended for. We cannot pretend that women have not been suppressed for millenniums, and that chauvinism wasn’t prevalent in many facets of life. We cannot pretend that people weren’t disparaged and dehumanized. Because they were. And they still are.

If we change these words, if we change these stories, we aren’t merely effacing the discrimination within them. We are effacing the years of pain and suffering they represent.

Keya Mehta
New York
The writer is a high school freshman.

To the Editor:

As a novelist I am horrified by the idea that my work might be altered to avoid offending people as yet unborn, and whose sensitivities are unknown to me. Agatha Christie’s work is read because it continues to entertain, not because she never offends anybody.

Language and society change constantly. To expect all you read to conform to the particular social notions of your own time and place is simply immature.

Brian Carland
Portland, Ore.

To the Editor:

Perhaps any editing could be accompanied by footnotes showing the original and explaining the basis for the edit. Then the work becomes a lesson in what racial bias is and how to correct it.

The book could also be available in the original version with footnote corrections and an edited version with footnote explanations so the reader could choose.

Saul Krasny
Dartmouth, Mass.

Bar Trans Athletes? Don’t Underestimate Girls.

To the Editor:

Re “N. Dakota Bars Transgender Girls From Female Teams” (Sports, April 13):

I was a construction worker until retiring years ago. In my youth, I went to the gym and was an ardent student of martial arts. In order to get my black belt, one of the tests was to spar with black belt instructors.

The sparring partner I was assigned to was female. My male upbringing and my so-called manly superiority told me that I had to take it a bit easy on this woman. So I held back.

She said “Come on! You can hit me!” several times during our match. So finally I did. I executed a few spinning back kicks and went all out. Not only were the attacks blocked, but I ended up on the floor of the dojo.

So when Gov. Doug Burgum and North Dakota’s legislature feel that they have to deny transgender women the right to participate in women’s sports, is it because they think there may be unfair advantages? Or are they denying the rights of some of their fellow citizens because these people may not fit their definition of “normal”?

Because there are many girls out there who could beat many boys any day of the week. Take it from one who knows.

Richard Donelly
Providence, R.I.

We Will Not Be Intimidated, Taiwan Says

To the Editor:

“For 3rd Day, China Brandishes Military Might in Exercises Near Taiwan” (news article, April 11) shows how China is intentionally flexing its military muscle to jeopardize regional stability.

It’s a longstanding practice for Taiwan’s presidents to make transit visits to the U.S., and President Tsai Ing-wen’s recent trip was fully in line with precedent — including her stop in New York in 2019.

Despite this, China has chosen to use the occasion as yet another pretext in its continued efforts to intimidate the people of Taiwan into submission. This behavior undermines peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and the Indo-Pacific, and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms.

Taiwan has proved itself to be a responsible member of the international community, and we will continue to remain calm in the face of China’s military coercion. However, we will not succumb to China’s intimidation tactics.

As we stand on the front line of democracy against the expansion of authoritarianism, we will continue to work with like-minded countries to safeguard our democratic way of life.

James K.J. Lee
New York
The writer is director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York.

Wistfully Yours, Emily

To the Editor:

Re “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” (Sunday Styles, April 9):

Mine is a very different story about being named Emily. It is about the loneliness of bearing that name.

Your article talks about people named Emily born in the 1990s and beyond. Well, there were a few of us before then — a very few!

My parents named me Emily when I was born in 1949. I grew up in the era of Lindas, Karens and Susans. Oh, how I longed to have one of those names! On those racks of barrettes and bicycle license plates in five-and-ten-cent stores, there was never one that said “Emily.”

When I was in seventh grade I met another Emily. Wow! She was a friend of a friend. Emily and I were delighted to find each other.

For the first 40 years of my life, pretty much the only Emilys that I encountered were doddering old ladies in books. I have a friend who lives nearby who is a few years older than I am and is also named Emily. When we see each other, harkening back to our childhoods, we cheerfully greet each other as “the other Emily.”

Emily Koechlin
Takoma Park, Md.

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