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 get 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 Castle, 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.