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Feb 01 2013

Bertie Wooster and the n-word

At the risk of beating a dead horse, I want to come back one more time to the question of when the use of the n-word might be appropriate.

I am a huge fan of English humorist P. G. Wodehouse, especially enjoying his Jeeves and Wooster series. If you have read Wodehouse, you know that his stories largely deal with the life of the British upper classes and aristocracy and are set in the time between World War I and World War II. His funniest writing also occurred in this period, though he was a prolific writer, churning out stuff right up to his death in 1975.

His novels do not deal with any serious issues and involve characters who mostly do not do any actual work but live off inherited wealth. Their days are spent in socializing, often in large country manors with fleets of servants, and the plots usually revolve around young men trying to engaged to young women or trying to get out of engagements when they discover too late that the women are not suitable for them.

You would think that such books would be distasteful to people like me with socialist views who think of the the aristocracy as relics of a feudal age who should disappear. But it is extraordinary how many fans Wodehouse has even among people with political views like mine. The appeal of his writing seems to transcend normal political boundaries, I think because of the fact that his novels are basically fantasy, describing a world that no longer exists and probably never existed except in its basic outlines, analogous to the world of Harry Potter. All this is to say that starting from the time when I was a boy, I have read a vast number of this prolific author’s output and have read some of them many times over, in particular his Jeeves, Blandings Casttle, and Psmith books. I never miss a chance when visiting second-hand bookstores to see if I can find any more of his oeuvre to add to my collection.

A few days ago I re-read Thank You, Jeeves that was written in 1934, and was taken aback by the fact that it contains the n-word. I then vaguely remembered that this had surprised me the first time I read it long ago but it had slipped my mind.

What is interesting is that the word occurs three times and always in the speech of Bertie who uses it to refer to a troupe of minstrels. These minstrels never actually appear in the book but are instead alluded to as performing in the vicinity. But their presence and the fact that they are black is a central plot device, used at several crucial moments to move the story along. When Bertie talks about them, he is not speaking derogatively but because he is excited by the prospect of meeting the banjo player in the troupe in order to get some tips since he has just started learning to play the instrument. Although a virtuoso black banjo minstrel player is a stereotype, again the book does not use it with negative intent.

While Bertie uses the n-word, Jeeves always refers to the minstrels as Negroes and this is consistent with their usual speech patterns. Bertie is the one who uses breezy contemporary slang while Jeeves is fastidious about using formal language. It is clear that Wodehouse was reflecting the times he was writing in, where the slangy use of the n-word must have been commonplace, and he seemingly did not think twice about its use.

It is interesting that in the early 1990s, there was an excellent TV series Jeeves and Wooster starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in the title roles. The episodes were based on the original stories and true to the times and the spirit of the stories but adapted and changed in many ways. In one episode, they used elements of the plot of Thank You, Jeeves but, presumably to reflect more modern sensibilities, made the minstrels into a group of Bertie’s wastrel friends from the Drones Club who decided to put on blackface and play in the minstrel style to raise money for charity. I suspect that if the series were made now, even that would be too awkward and the whole minstrel motif would be eliminated altogether.

So this raises the question of whether a new printing of Thank You, Jeeves should replace the n-word with an alternative or otherwise finesse the issue, since new readers would be shocked to stumble across it and undoubtedly find it jarring.

There is precedent for doing this. For example, in one of Agatha Christie’s novels published in the UK in 1939 the n-word was originally right up there in the title which was taken from a popular British nursery rhyme. Later the the n-word was replaced with the word Indian both in the rhyme and the book so as to become Ten Little Indians. It is reportedly the best-selling mystery of all time, with over 100 million copies sold. The novel’s plot involves ten characters who are invited to a mysterious isolated island location and then trapped there by their host who never appears. One by one the guests get killed off in different ways that are evocative of the way the ten people disappear one by one in the nursery rhyme.

The British took longer than the US to realize that the use of racial slurs like the n-word were offensive and should be discouraged. When Christie’s book was published in the US, the last phrase of the poem replaced the first in the title and it was published as And Then There Were None, with the n-word replaced by Indian in the text.

Although all books have some political subtext, Wodehouse’s and Christie’s stories were meant to entertain and not convey any overt social message, unlike Mark Twain who combined his humor with incisive social commentary, as was the case with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Wodehouse’s and Christie’s use of the n-word, unlike Twain’s, had no redeeming social purpose in mind but was simply tossed in, reflecting the way it was used then. As far as I am aware, there is no evidence that Wodehouse and Christie were particularly bigoted in their views, at least as measured by the standards of their time.

I would agree with those who say that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should not be tampered with because Twain’s use of the word was deliberate and designed to serve a purpose and to remove it would be to undercut the message. But with Wodehouse and Christie, the decision is more difficult. Given that there was no explicit social purpose behind their use of the n-word, should we eliminate them? Or should we retain these works as they were originally written so as to keep them true to the times and remind us of how people spoke then?

One way to gauge what to do might be to imagine what those authors might do if they were writing now. I feel fairly certain that Wodehouse and Christie would not use that word because it is irrelevant to their purpose while Twain still would. But of course, trying to guess what dead people would do if they were still alive is always fraught with risk because of the temptation to project one’s own views onto them.

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  1. 1
    machintelligence

    A few days ago I re-read Thank You, Jeeves that was written in 1934, and was taken aback by the fact that it contains the n-word

    The term was much more commonly used back then, and only in the last 50 years or so has it become unspeakable. My mother, born in 1922, had to be reminded not to refer to Brazil nuts as n… toes, as that was the common term for them when she was a girl (at least in the Midwest USA).

    BTW I may have triggered this set of posts with my link to the scene from Blazing Saddles. If so, I can’t decide whether to apologize or claim credit.

  2. 2
    Mano Singham

    The link to Blazing Saddles was appropriate. In fact, when used judiciously and not just for shock or derogatory purposes, comedy is one of the areas where the use of such words is not only defensible but can even serve a positive purpose, by shining an ironic light on the words.

  3. 3
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    Well, Christie was pretty bigoted actually. She was anti-Semitic, and many of her books contain what we would call racist and derogatory ethnic stereotypes (at least that’s what I’ve found so far–I’m reading in chronological order and I’m up to The Murder in the Vicarage (1930)–perhaps she becomes more enlightened over time). So trying to figure out what she’d do if she were writing now becomes even more difficult. Was she a racist just because she grew up in the era and environment she did? If she were writing now at the same age as she did then (i.e. grown up post-Holocaust) would she still be anti-Semitic? If she had lived as long as now, would she be embarrassed by her racism and want to revise her earlier works? Who can tell?

    I’m of the “keep it the way it was written” camp. That’s what the author wrote. Knowing how authors like Christie and Wodehouse thought of minorities or how slang was used and perceived by their audience is part of what we can gain from reading their work.

  4. 4
    garnetstar

    Yes, the British of that period lightheartedly used slang terms for almost every non-British group, without necessarily malicious intent. South Americans were dagos, Italians were wops, the French were frogs, Asians were chinks, Arabs and other Middle Eastern people were something, I forget what. There was a saying “Dagos (sometime “Niggers”) begin at Calais”. I recall a Monty Python sketch about a game show where every week the audience came up with a new slur for another group of foreigners (that particular week, it was the Belgians.)

    As you say, that world has disappeared, and part of the fun of books of the period was that their depictions of it were exaggerated, to the point that those fictional worlds never existed. None of these slurs necessarily meant that anyone held racist views (the attitudes towards Jews being an exception: there really was active anti-Semitism). They were more an expression of the insularity of British society and the pride people took in Britain “being an island”.

    Now that that’s gone, I also rather suspect that those authors would not use that language. But, yes, keep it the way it was written. It accurately portrays how things were then, which is instructive.

  5. 5
    Scr... Archivist

    This post reminds me of other books that have already been changed. I have not read them, but I have read about edits to Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries. The books were originally published in the 1920′s and ’30′s, and included some racial stereotypes. By the late 1940′s, readers — including parents — were writing to complain about the problem, and in 1959 new editions were published that removed the stereotypes. Further steps in this direction followed in the 1970′s.

    Now, that is easier to do when it’s done early. It’s also easier for these mystery series since they were ghostwritten by a team of writers. The publishing company could do what it liked. And it’s easier to justify changing the language in children’s books so as not to inculcate children in racial stereotyping. Haven’t Enid Blyton books been changed for this reason?

    But generally, I prefer to leave things as they were originally. As you say, this “keep[s] them true to the times and remind[s] us of how people spoke then”. I’d probably accept later re-writes from an author themself, and still consider it “canon”.

    I’m still working my way through H.P. Lovecraft’s work, but I already know that he had racist attitudes. Some say that they were mitigated with time, but he didn’t live long enough to change enough. He even had — in real life — a black cat whose name included the word to which you allude in the title to this post. That was at the beginning of the twentieth century, and I use it as a reminder to myself of how attitudes have changed, and can change.

    And don’t get me started on the popular music of that time. Much of it is irredeemable and now only of academic interest.

    By the way, I did see and enjoy some of those old Jeeves and Wooster television shows twenty years ago, but I have never read any Wodehouse. What is a good place to start?

  6. 6
    sbh

    Many years ago I was startled when reading a passage my grandmother had written when she was young–the year would have been 1925 or 1926–about a Christmas gift from her brother. It was a radio, one of the first in the family, and she was excited to hear the sounds of distant music brought into their home. About some black performers she wrote admiringly, How those [word omitted]s could sing! (The omitted word being the word under discussion here.)

    I was startled because I could not imagine my grandmother using a derogatory epithet about anybody–not of that sort anyway. (If she used a negative word–say, murderer–if would be in connection to something that person had done, not in reference to something that person was.) It was out of character for her.

    Of course that only threw me for a moment. I don’t specifically recall Bertie using it (though I’m pretty confident that I’ve read Thank You, Jeeves, but the word does turn up quite frequently in pre-WWII American books in contexts where it is clearly not intended offensively (regardless of how the people so described may have taken it), and I figured that my grandmother was probably using it in that way. She was clearly enthusiastic about the singers she was writing about, though of course it is possible to enjoy a performance without feeling that the performers should be anything but second-class citizens.

    I am surprised to learn that Agatha Christie was antisemitic though not much. Antisemitism was fashionable before WWII, and she certainly takes a conventional attitude toward the lower classes.

    Editions of books (except in special cases) should reflect as accurately as possible the author’s final intentions. Changing the words because of the fashions of the time, or because the meaning of words has changed, is the sort of thing that Pope and Johnson used to do to Shakespeare (as in changing blanket to curtains because that’s what Shakespeare must have meant) and it has been rightly derided. This is the same sort of thing. I don’t see that this is at all different from Jared Sparks’ edition of George Washington’s writings, in which he substituted more dignified expressions for the ones Washington had actually used, as being more in character with his being the father of his country and all that.

  7. 7
    Corvus illustris

    … a virtuoso black banjo minstrel player is a stereotype …

    Not entirely off topic: what do you do with the white Pamina (… viel weisser noch als Kreide) and the black Monostatos (… … ein Schwarzer hässlich ist ) in the Mozart-Schikaneder Magic Flute? The light (of the Enlightenment) vs. darkness (of Austrian Catholicism, soon to return under Metternich & co.) is part of the symbolic language of the work.

  8. 8
    rikitiki

    As you said: “But of course, trying to guess what dead people would do if they were still alive is always fraught with risk because of the temptation to project one’s own views onto them.”

    Sooo, “What would Jesus do?” is definitely out! ;-)

  9. 9
    Mano Singham

    I would start with any of the Jeeves and Wooster full-length novels and the Blandings Castle stories, most of which were written in the period between the two world wars.

    The J&W books that come to my mind immediately as classics are The Code of the Woosters, Joy in the Morning, The Mating Season, Right Ho, Jeeves, Much Obliged, Jeeves, Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit, and Thank You, Jeeves.

    The Blandings Castle books that come to my mind are Pigs Have Wings, Leave it to Psmith, Summer Lightning, Heavy Weather, and Uncle Fred in the Springtime

    Although the novels are self-contained, they do have recurring characters and refer to events in other novels so ideally one would read them in chronological order. You can see the full list of Wodehouse books and the dates of publication here where it also gives you the American and British titles, which sometimes differ.

    Wodehouse also wrote lots of short stories but while many of them are good, I prefer the novels.

  10. 10
    mnb0

    MS, you might be interested in the title of this link:

    http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tien_kleine_negertjes

    The thing is that “neger” doesn’t have a negative meaning in Dutch. The literal translation would be “negro” but I have understood that that one has a negative meaning as well.
    Sometimes I am called a “witte neger” (white negro) in Suriname. That is a compliment because it means that I fit well in Surinamese society.
    Still there is racism in The Netherlands as the debate about “Zwarte Piet”(Black Pete, blackface) has painfully illustrated.

  11. 11
    sunny

    Just saw Buckley’s review of ‘P. G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters’

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2013/01/28/yours-ever-plum-the-letters-and-life-of-p-g-wodehouse.html

  12. 12
    brucegee1962

    You’ve got some great points here about three terrific authors. I tend to agree with you that, if Wodehouse and (maybe) Christie were alive today, they probably would have written their books differently. Another tricky case is with Hugh Lofting, who wrote the Dr. Doolittle books that were positively filled with disgusting racial stereotypes, but were lovely and whimsical in other ways.

    But what should we make of H.P. Lovecraft? I think he’s a fabulous horror writer, but there is absolutely no question that he fervently believed Northern Europeans were superior to all other groups, and that belief shows up again and again in his stories. Does it ruin them? Maybe a story of his like “The Street” is impossible to read without sorrowfull head-shaking nowadays, but for other stories it’s hardly the main focus. Still, when you get to a character like the bestial, gorilla-like Negro in “Herbert West, Re-animator” you kind of have to perform some mental substitution to get past him.

    Then we get to people like T.S. Eliot, who wrote some of what I think are the greatest poems of all time (like “The Waste Land”) but was also unabashedly anti-Semitic. At the farthest extreme was Ezra Pound, often a fine poet but also an unrepentent Nazi — I don’t think it was fair to lock him up for twelve years in St. Elizabeth’s, but the argument that he was a downright traitor to his country during the war seems just. Even by the standards of his day, many of his ideas were impossible to get anywhere close to.

    I guess I feel that you have to separate the work from the politics. What pervasive attitudes from today will our descendents judge us harshly for?

  13. 13
    left0ver1under

    In Christie’s story “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe”, one character was a “brownshirt”, a member of the British Union of Fascists, a group that existed at the time the story was written.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Union_of_Fascists

    The character was accused of a crime and portrayed sympathetically, and was eventually shown to be innocent.

  14. 14
    morsgotha

    On a related subject, I wondered what you think of the remake of The Dambusters film that is being bandied about. There is a lot of discussion about whether or not to use the n-word, as in the original (film and actual events) that is the name of the wing commanders black labrador and a code word for ‘busting’ a bridge.

    Forgive me if this has already been covered.

  15. 15
    garnetstar

    “What pervasive attitudes from today will our descendents judge us harshly for?”

    Excellent and penetrating question, brucegee! Because you know it’s something that would never occur to us to question, that we think is completely fine and that we take for granted and would be offended if called out on.

    Things have always progressed like that, we will be wondered about in our turn.

  16. 16
    Mano Singham

    Wow, I saw that film ages ago and don’t recall the use of that word at all. I don’t recall it as being a particular memorable film in general.

  17. 17
    morsgotha

    That is interesting, perhaps the version you had saw had been edited. When it is shown in the UK it hasn’t and you cant miss it, they are jumping around and yelling the word in glee at some points!

    Here is a BBC link I found, apparently they are renaming the dog (and codeword) to ‘Digger’:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lincolnshire-13727908

  18. 18
    left0ver1under

    For those who forget, a “professor” in Alabama is rewriting Huckleberry Finn to remove the “offensive” word. Clearly, the point Twain was making is completely lost on him. It’s like someone banning or rewriting “The Merchant of Venice” because he thinks the play will lead to anti-semitism.

    http://voices.washingtonpost.com/compost/2011/01/why_a_new_edition_of_huckleber.html

    Another group that used the word in its work was Queen, on the album “Queen II”. I don’t know how much controversy it caused, if any. Maybe it went unnoticed because (commercially) it was their least successful album, though among die-hard Queen fans (including me) it’s considered (among) their best.

    http://staff.science.uva.nl/~jellekok/lyrics/queen_ii.html

  19. 19
    Funkopolis

    Great post.. I love Wodehouse and just knew it would be those minstrels…

    The reference to Fry & Laurie reminded me of Stephen Fry’s work adapting ‘The Dam Busters’ for Peter Jackson, and brought to mind an extra wrinkle.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Chastise

    The wing commander’s dog and squadron mascot was a jet black labrador with an unfortunate name that in the context of this thread is pretty obvious. Thing is, the dog’s name was also the radio code word to indicate the destruction of one of the dams. So it’s a fundamental part of the story.

    So what do you do if you want to adapt this for a movie? Keep the original name, and cause offense on racial-slur grounds, or change it and cause offense on disrespect-to-history grounds?

  20. 20
    Funkopolis

    morsgotha beat me to it while I was typing!

  21. 21
    Funkopolis

    Wodehouse has so many characters and ‘series’ that you might want to pick up an anthology like:
    The Most of Wodehouse
    and find out which ones you most enjoy.

  22. 22
    poxyhowzes

    Around the previous turn of the century (1800s – 1900s,) W.S. Gilbert and Helen (Lenoir) Carte worked together on revisions to the libretti of the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas so as to establish definitive texts for them. (Those revised texts were the basis for half a century of G&S revivals.)

    One of the revisions occurred in the Mikado’s song, where Gilbert and Carte changed Gilbert’s original line: “the lady who dyes a chemical yellow / Or stains her grey hair puce, / Or pinches her figger
    **is blacked like a [word that rhymes with "figger]“]** / with permanent walnut juice. The line now reads: …”is painted with vigour / in permanent walnut juice.”

    This would indicate that in the first decade of the 20th Century (Gilbert died in 1911) the word under discussion was already suspect in the middle-to-upper reaches of British society. At least for potential commercial productions throughout the English-speaking world, Carte and/or Gilbert thought it discreet to expunge it from the canon. (Or is that “expel it from the cannon?”)

    pH

  23. 23
    Jeff Johnson

    I was unfamiliar with Wodehouse until after reading Hitch 22 I became curious. Now I adore Jeeves and Wooster. I’ve also got the whole CD set of the Fry and Laurie British TV program Jeeves and Wooster.

    On the usage of the word “nigger”, I hate using n-word. It’s a bit too juvenile sounding. As adults it should be clear from context when we are talking about the word rather than using the word. Sometimes even if intent is not meant to be hurtful, the usage still is hurtful. For example in a white person reared and steeped in the Deep South culture of Jim Crow, or even antebellum slavery, the phrase “we love our niggers” wouldn’t be unusual to hear. This meant something quite different from the term “nigger lover”. The speaker thinks this is an affectionate statement, and even during the worst oppression, feelings of affection between blacks and whites were possible. None of that of course erases the inequality and brutality and cruelty of the entire context. I saw this phrase used in Internet posts during the recent GOP primary in discussions about the Rick Perry “Niggerhead” controversy. Ann Coulter echoed the sentiment not too long back by saying that in the GOP “their blacks” are better than the Democratic blacks.

    Even if the intent isn’t to offend in the mind of the speaker, this kind of usage is offensive because the speaker is indifferent to the history and the negative connotations, and because of the usage of the possessive form along with it, which to my mind clearly indicates slavery and white supremacy.

    So the primary point I’m making is that intent doesn’t always excuse usage of the word, and context is more important.

    One of the most important things about Wodehouse’s Wooster tales, which you didn’t mention, is the absolute brilliance and erudition of the servant Jeeves. Even though he is the servant, he’s the master of every situation, always thinking several steps ahead and anticipates events well in advance of their occurrence. Wooster has all the impractical helplessness of his spoiled and pampered class, and constantly needs to beg or cajole Jeeves into getting him out of all the messes he gets himself into. The very nature of this relationship is implicitly a criticism of the upper classes, which I think explains why these satirical parodies are appealing to people with leftist tendencies. They trivialize rather than glorify the elites.

  24. 24
    morsgotha

    Great minds think alike! One thing I didn’t know was that Stephen Fry is/was writing it until I read your post and then googled the bbc link above.

  25. 25
    Corvus illustris

    When the professor gets done with Twain, will he rewrite Swift’s Modest Proposal, perhaps replacing the little Irish kids with piglets?

  26. 26
    Pierce R. Butler

    Those who bowdlerize Huckleberry Finn do have a (non-literary) point.

    In a modern, integrated, US high school, you can virtually guarantee that some of the lowbrows (stereotypically those sitting to the rear) would seize upon the name of N—– Jim and start spraying it around, in and out of class, provoking a backlash and potentially disrupting the whole school.

    left0ver1under @ # 13: It’s like someone banning or rewriting “The Merchant of Venice” because he thinks the play will lead to anti-semitism.

    My understanding was that this would be an accurate interpretation of the playwright’s intent. The play was created as (in part) a comedy, and audiences would roar at each of Shylock’s setbacks. Then, sometime in the 18th century (or maybe even the early 1800s), one particularly gifted actor (whose name I can’t remember, nor even the title of the book where I read this) chose to play it as a tragedy, and it became practically impossible for anyone to see MoV otherwise thereafter.

  27. 27
    poxyhowzes

    Mano:

    What great timing! I just recently discovered the (ITV, I believe, not BBC) series starring Fry and Laurie, and spent many a late night during the holiday season working through the episodes one by one. I, too, wondered whether the “blackface” episodes could or would be done nowadays.

    Toward the end of the series (season 3 or season 4) there was a particularly clumsy episode, I thought, in which Wooster was called upon to play (in blackface- neck- scalp- and -hands) a minor African tribal potentate, only to be confronted by the real minor African tribal potentate, someone at least as urbane in real life as Wooster, and perhaps even Jeeves. That episode was written and played, IMHO, purely as sight-gag, unworthy of Wodehouse.

    I also wondered about Sir Roderick Spode (he was Lord Gumby or something later in the series). Sir Roderick was portrayed unconvincingly as a Nazi sockpuppet. Although he appears in many episodes, he plays an on/off character, either entirely unconvincing bully or entirely supplicating sycophant. His only even mildly “funny” line in the whole series is the one where R.S. says that he and his followers wear black shorts because the manufacturer didn’t have enough black cloth for long pants.

    I thought that the Fry/Laurie series suffered significantly towards the end by descending into “situation” comedy — The same cast (ghast?) of characters from episode to episode, the same unconvincing female protagonists, the same male foils (fools?), the same set-ups, and the same sets, including the same ladder in two of the “latter” episodes.

    At that point, or maybe somewhat before, any Wodehousian wit had departed the series for places unknown. But then again, maybe Wodehousian wit has always occupied places unknown.

    pH

    pH

  28. 28
    Mano Singham

    When I discussed the Huck Finn question with my younger daughter who had got out of high school just a few years earlier, she made exactly the same point, that some immature students might take the chance to act as if the word was now legitimized and use it freely and obnoxiously while pretending they were using it in a literary context.

    She also said that other students (like her) while willing and able to read the word silently, may gag at having to say it out loud if asked to read a passage or in class discussions.

  29. 29
    Corvus illustris

    … T. S. Eliot … was also unabashedly anti-Semitic.

    Oh, he was probably unabashedly anti- any ethnos but his own; he cannot have helped but know what he was doing in naming one of his anti-heroes “Sweeney”, and Wikipedia takes note of this in a way not really critical of Eliot’s ethnocentrism.

    What pervasive attitudes from today will our descendents judge us harshly for?

    It’s hard to guess. But one of the things that bothers me about bowdlerizing–even of the word that dare not speak its name–is the inherent falsification of the historical record. If later generations are to judge earlier ones, they should have the facts. I am uneasily reminded of the “Christianities” that were consigned to the flames by the victorious champions of the Christianity we now know and don’t exactly love. The vanquished versions may have been worse, but we have been prevented from knowing.

  30. 30
    Jeffrey Johnson

    I think it’s completely misguided to say that antisemitism was Shakespeare’s intent in Merchant of Venice. While their may have been antisemitism in the audience, it is very difficult to read or hear the play carefully and not see the humanity with which Shakespeare addresses the subject. I think that the mentality that sees antisemitism in Merchant of Venice is applying the same type of superficial checklist of offensive words that those seeing racism in Huckleberry Finn apply. Whatever the 16th or 17th century audience chooses to see is not Shakespeare’s fault, and it seems to me he is trying to educate them.

    Shakespeare probably accurately portrays the antisemitism of the day, but nobody locked into an antisemitic mindset could have authored this speech:

    SHYLOCK
    To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else,
    it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and
    hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
    mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
    bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
    enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
    not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
    dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
    the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
    to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
    warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
    a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
    if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
    us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
    revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
    resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
    what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
    wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
    Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you
    teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
    will better the instruction.

  31. 31
    estraven

    One of my favorite Bertie/Jeeves novels involves the Black Shorts (I think it was black?). Anyway, I say, keep the original words. I object to the n word, of course, and boy, when I taught Huck Finn in college, there was some pretty spirited discussion, but all in all, we need to look back to those times before there was widespread agreement as to what was offensive.

    I am so happy to learn you’re a huge Wodehouse fan! I have been since about 1970, and when my daughter was in high school, she started reading his novels. She had a hard time at first with the British slang and the massacred quotations on Bertie’s part, but she’d ask me questions and just got hooked, and now both of us, when we’re having a hard time with life, return to Wodehouse’s writings.

    By the way, Alexander Cockburn once wrote an intro for a Wodehouse book …

  32. 32
    Corvus illustris

    It may just be that not everything can be done in high school. Irony might work, but imagine a bunch of adolescents trying to deal with Lysistrata. Sex ed and real life might prepare them for most of it, but good grief, even the Loeb facing-page translation leaves one of the women’s oktodaktylos olisbos in Greek.

  33. 33
    Mano Singham

    In reading all the comments and ideas in this thread, I think I am now firmly in the camp that feels that the original words should be retained and that readers will have to overcome their distaste and see this as a learning experience. Once one starts mucking around with the text, who knows where it will end.

    But I still hold that I will not write or speak such words myself and will resort to euphemisms except in those cases where doing so looks ridiculous.

    Cockburn’s introduction was to The Code of the Woosters, one of the best books.

  34. 34
    filethirteen

    Over time many words previously common become unmentionable. Many words have been co-opted as insults that originally had harmless or even medical meanings: idiot, fool, retard, moron, silly and stupid to name a few. The n word is similar in the sense that even the word “negro” is unpalatable these days, and the n word is a bastardised form of that.

    There are only a few situations I can think of where the n word seems still ok to use. There has been an effort among some to reclaim it as “brother”; I actually think it’s fine when used in that context. Otherwise, in fantastical situations: movie makers and book writers use it as a plot device to mark the bad guy, or to shock (cf. Tarantino) and that doesn’t upset me , and it does have a place in comedy, although usually also used there to shock or induce a laugh by its incongruity.

    Ben Elton in particular knew well how to mix jokes with barbed social commentary. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lpmPh6Sn5sM (fast forward to the second clip at 1:57 in; warning, n word occurs once)

  35. 35
    filethirteen

    Whoops, 1:27 not 1:57

  36. 36
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    there was a saying “Dagos (sometime “Niggers”) begin at Calais”.

    I’ve only encountered that expression as “Wogs begin at Calai”, but that isn’t any less derogatory.

  37. 37
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    I agree with the general sentiment that the books should be left as is. I disagree, however, with this part:

    One way to gauge what to do might be to imagine what those authors might do if they were writing now. I feel fairly certain that Wodehouse and Christie would not use that word because it is irrelevant to their purpose while Twain still would.

    At least Wodehouse was using it to make a point; specifically, he was making a point about the different attitudes of Jeeves and Wooster as expressed in their modes of speaking. If he was writing the books today, and set them in the present day, then I see no reason why he would use it, as it wouldn’t be part of the everyday vocabulary of a generally likable upperclass layabout today, but if the books were written today as a period piece set in the 20s-30s then it could still be an appropriate usage for the same reason.
    I am also reminded of a scene in Tintin and the Broken Ear, where in the original comic album Tintin disguises himself as a black waiter on a cruise ship, using blackface and a wig. In the animated adaptation from the 90s, the wig is changed and the blackface replaced with a false toothbrush moustache (the net effect being a bit Hitleresque actually).

  38. 38
    Scr... Archivist

    Thank you (both) for the book recommendations. I’ll take a closer look and add one to The Pile.

  39. 39
    Acolyte of Sagan

    These posts brought back a long-forgotten memory which (kind of) fits with the overall theme. When I was 14 (a frighteningly long time ago) my English Lit. teacher announced that we would be studying ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ – still one of my all-time favourite books – and gave us a brief outline of the issues we would be faced with as the plot unfolded. All was going well until right at the very end of her briefing, when she turned to the only black child in the class and told her that owing to the subject matter and the possible upset that it may cause her, along with the possibility that her presence in the classroom might ‘discourage’ the rest of the class to discuss the book openly and honestly, she had made arrangements to have her moved to a class studying a ‘safer’ book for the rest of the term.
    Despite the objections of most of us in the class, and despite our efforts to show her the error she was making, the stupid teacher just didn’t seem able to understand why we were so outraged, or indeed by how far she was missing the point. I asked her if she would do the same to the kids from broken homes if the book had been about divorce, and she told me that I was the one being obtuse!

  40. 40
    left0ver1under

    Shakespeare almost seems to be mocking those who hated jews. From what I’ve read and been told, Shakespeare’s point was to highlight the inequities in society. The bigoted stereotype is “money grubbing”. In reality, being pecuniary may simply have been an act of self-defense by a few. The same is true of the quakers in England (i.e. Lloyd’s of London).

    In many places and for a long time, jews had few rights, few protections, and money was one of the few sources of power and protection available to them. The histories of Canada and the US say the same. In some US states, it was as much as fifty years after the US became independent before jews were given the right to vote.

  41. 41
    Mano Singham

    I think people often underestimate the ability of children and teens to deal with sophisticated issues. Your teacher seems to be one of them who probably thought she was doing the black child an act of kindness.

  42. 42
    Brian Faux

    Worth looking at is Orwell`s defence of Wodehouse (on charges of being pro-Nazi) taking the view that PGW was pretty much an innocent in most ways.

  43. 43
    Mano Singham

    For those interested in what Wodehouse did during World War II that caused such an uproar that Brian is referring to, Orwell’s essay can be read here. It sheds an interesting light (that is relevant even today) on how when you create a particular kind of frightened mindset in the population, people’s actions can be easily distorted to seem much more sinister than they actually are.

  44. 44
    movablebooklady

    I’m firmly on the side of leaving the original words intact (English Lit. major; bookseller). Part of the reading experience is putting yourself in another age/place and using current sensibilities interferes with that. We should know what it was really like then or there. We make fun of Dr. Bowlder today because he eviscerated Shakespeare to as not to give “the ladies” the fantods (lovely word) with all that sex and whatnot.

    Somebody upthread mentioned the Nancy Drew changes — not only did they begin writing the new ones to reflect current thinking but they went back and rewrote the early ones to make Nancy herself less independent and competent. Aaaargh.

  45. 45
    BecomingJulie

    There’s also a question of acceptability where an abbreviation with at least one innocuous expansion in a particular context can also be considered offensive in another context …..

    Ask anyone with a background in electronic repairs what would be their first suspicion if an amplifier blows its main power fuse the instant it is switched on even with no speaker connected, and they’ll probably say “Short-circuit output t****ies” (as in transistors) without so much as a pause for breath.

    But obviously, that word has another meaning besides a simple three-layered sandwich of silicon, and might well be considered deeply offensive by many in my community (especially if used by an outsider; I certainly wouldn’t be happy being called it by a cis person using it as an insult).

    The thing is, the experienced electronics technician using t****y to mean transistor probably does not intend any harm either to the trans* community as a whole or any individual within it. So is that usage OK, or at least not quite so not-OK?

  46. 46
    david tan

    >realize that the use of racial slurs like the n-word were offensive

    If you don’t realize that it’s offensive, it can still be offensive. But was it a ‘racial slur’? If it was a “slur”, what what the associated or implied offense?

    SLUR:
    Unclear or abnormal enunciation
    Played without separation (legato articulation)
    Insinuation or allegation about someone that is likely to insult them or damage their reputation
    Any term of disparagement (pejorative)

    You can see how the first two become the third, and the third becomes the fourth, but perhaps there is now another derived meaning: “categorization”, as:
    “The British took longer than the US to realize that racial categorisation was offensive”

    This is interesting, because it is a use of the word “slur” that is not currently reported by the popular versions of most English dictionaries.

    Since I don’t live in either England or the USA, I’m not able to offer an verification of this attempted translation.

    Or perhaps the author should have said: “It took a while for the English to realize that the word had a different meaning in the USA” ??????

  47. 47
    Jeffrey Johnson

    The exact meaning of the word “slur” is not at issue. But just to clear the confusion, the first two definitions of “slur” you provided have nothing to do with the second two semantically, but perhaps etymologically speaking, blurring or breaking distinct boundaries is a common thread between the first three. This breaking of boundaries is the opposite of categorization or the subversion of categorization. The first has to do with drunkenness or speech impediments (blurring or slurring the boundaries of word or phoneme articulation). The second has to do with playing music (blurring the boundaries between the articulation of notes with an instrument, which could include the voice). In the third case the word is used probably because an insulting “slur” blurs people’s perceptions of one’s character, thus rather than providing clear categorization, it instead creates doubt and confusion about character, and thus leaves open room for negative assumptions. The fourth seems to be a generalization of the fact that the third is to some degree synonymous with insult. The third and the fourth definitions are apt in this case, even though their use is not limited to the context of race. I don’t think it makes sense to interpret “slur” in the context of race as having to do with categorization, but more with the sense of insulting one’s character using a racial category. This is only insulting if one thinks a racial category is insulting, or if one uses a racial category as if it were insulting. The distinction here is subtle, but it requires understanding that racial categorization without a “slur” is possible. In other words “racial category” does not equal “racial slur”, but “racial insult” does pretty nearly equal “racial slur”.

    What counts is not the meaning of “slur”, but what people thought the word “nigger” meant, and how they were using it. I think there is little confusion or mystery about that, except that I think it is reasonable to think the connotations vary in intensity between say the American South, South Africa, and the south of England. Generally though when used by white people it is understood to be an intentionally derogatory term, or at the very least, an ignorantly insensitive one. But anyone who has spent much time at all with African Americans won’t be surprised to learn that the word “nigger”, or perhaps “nigga”, in an act of defusing or detoxifying for the purpose of racial solidarity and self-defense, has been claimed by black Americans as their own word. It is used by black Americans to be everything from a term of affection, a playful tease, or an admonishment, but not, obviously, as a racial insult. I’ve heard blacks using this word in the sense of implying they were ashamed of certain behaviors on the part of members of their own race, but not meant as a negative racist conclusion, but more as a desire to lift one’s fellows to a higher level of achievement. And here the word is defused of race, as when Cornell West called 9/11 the “niggerization” of America, particularly white America. He meant whites take note, because now you know something at least of how it feels to be niggerized. If a black calls another black “nigger” in a derogatory way, it is not so different than myself as a white person or as an American being ashamed of the racism of slavery and Jim Crow segregation perpetrated by other whites. It’s not beyond me to use the term “redneck cracker” or “white trash” or “white supremacist bastard” in a moment of passionate disregard for white racists. Does this make me, as a white person, a racist? I don’t think so because I’m not generalizing the term of disparagement to all whites simply based on skin color, but only to a racially confused and unfeeling subset of whites based on their actual behaviors and beliefs. And even though Malcolm X used the words “any snake will do” to incite images of anger or violence against whites, and it was clearly racist, any white person who has thought about this history enough can sympathize with and forgive Malcolm, and feel why his anger was justified. So there is complexity, and understanding is required, because humans are complex. No simple rule of thumb will do.

    So context, intent, and who is speaking matters a lot, which is why trying to take the word “nigger” out of Huck Finn is infantile oversimplification that replaces genuine understanding with superstitious taboo. I suspect people who feel indignantly that this historical context of literature as social critique should be altered aren’t really quite clear on where they stand with respect to race and racism today, so they want to err on the side of caution. This is done with good intent of course, but not with detailed or clear understanding.

    I think if you can defer to our President as a black man, and trust and respect his judgement as our leader in the highest elected office, and honor him as the most powerful man in America, and praise his accomplishments and abilities as one who rose through hard work to a level we can all aspire to but so few of us can actually attain, and hold the affection for him that Americans are used to holding for their President, even across partisan lines, then you are transcending race and seeing a man and his abilities and accomplishments. You are judging by the content of his character. But anyone for whom these feelings are difficult, regardless of whether you disagree with him on many topics, if you think he isn’t up to the job and isn’t qualified and is in over his head and only got elected because of some kind of empty headed affirmative action that blinded ignorant voters, then you probably aren’t seeing the man clearly and you hold some legacy of racial confusion inside yourself that hasn’t been worked out yet. Note the hope in the word “yet”. There is room to disagree with our President’s positions based on political or economic substance, but there is no objective basis to claim he is incompetent, unable to understand the issues, not man enough for the job, or lacks loyal American patriotism or American sensibilities. These are all subtle forms of racially motivated attacks, not explicitly racial, but all only conceptually possible in a context of racial confusion or animosity.

    Even if Mano is correct that the British took longer than Americans to develop a cultural sensitivity about such racist terminology in the 20th century, to their credit the British did abolish slavery about three decades before we Americans managed to, and unlike us, they didn’t have to fight an awful bloody war to do it. If America as a whole made progress in the twentieth century, that was down to the Northern, Eastern, and Western regions. The American South had to be dragged kicking and screaming out of their belligerent racist social hierarchy, which they cherished and struggled to preserve in a manner that went beyond all reason or decency.

  48. 48
    david tan

    I can see that you are interested in the use/abuse of the N word. Perhaps it is off topic, but I was interested in the use/abuse of the ‘s’ word: slur. So yes, the exact meaning of “slur” is at issue. You have used it in a sense that to me, as a native English speaker, but not an American or British resident, has no clear meaning.

    I understand that a racial slur is the implication that you have some quality by virtue of race. This slurs the concept of race with the concept of — cleanliness, intelligence, virtue, value or others.

    I do not understand how the N word comes to be described as a “racial slur”. Does the term “racial slur” include the meaning “any reference to race using an insulting term”? That is not consistent with your use of the phrase in this article, where you suggested that the use of the N word by the English was offensive because it was a racial slur, not that it was a racial slur because it was offensive.

    So I suggested a meaning that I thought might work: “any reference to race”. This removes “offensiveness” from the definition, leaving that characteristic free to be used outside the definition.

    My other suggestion was that it was a simple error on the part of the author. Since I am not familar with colloquial American writing on this topic, I am unable to determine if this use of the term “racial slur” is current, or was an error. It’s not in the dictionaries, but dictionaries are not definitive, and my search was not definitive either.

    So what is it? How did you come to use the word “slur” in that context? What meaning did you intend?

  1. 49
    Friday Book Club: P.G. Wodehouse and Race | geek girl in love

    […] FreeThoughtblogs:  Bertie and the N-Word […]

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