When the publishers of Roald Dahl’s books announced their decision to change some of the language that was seen as offensive, my thoughts immediately went to my favorite author and his very funny book Thank You, Jeeves. In that book, the hapless Bertie Wooster, in an attempt to escape from the yacht where he was being held captive by an angry prospective father-in-law, uses shoe polish to darken his skin in order to blend in with a troupe of blackface minstrels who had been invited to perform on the yacht, hoping to slip off with them after the show.
Nowadays, white people performing in blackface is severely frowned upon but in those times it was not uncommon, with people like Al Jolson, Bing Crosby and Shirley Temple being among those who did so. In this book, however, it is even worse because the narrator Bertie casually calls the performers ‘n-word minstrels’, again something that was apparently a fairly common description at that time. But reading that was really jarring, however much one might believe that there was no bad intent on the part of the author and that he was merely using the accepted language of his time.
So I welcomed the decision by the publishers to revise Wodehouse’s books to eliminate this and any other language that are no longer appropriate. In my view, doing so does not detract from the books. There are some books, such as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, where retaining the original language is defensible because Twain was making social commentary and the language played an important part of his message. But while one might argue that Wodehouse’s use of those words tells us something about attitudes in those days and thus should be retained, his books were meant as light entertainment and those words were incidental to the book, so eliminating them should be uncontroversial.
But is anything involving race and gender uncontroversial these days?
Raging Bee says
I can certainly see changing the phrase you cite to “Negro minstrels” or some such; that word was as commonly used back then as the word it’s replacing. What other changes are they making?
I’m okay with changes like these, as long as they’re presented as “revised editions” or some such; and the original versions are still easily available somewhere. I can still find “Mein Kampf,” at least in a library, so getting rid of the original versions of Wodehouse sounds kind of silly.
Rob Grigjanis says
As a kid (mid 1960s), I saw the WWII film The Dam Busters. In the film, and in real life, the mission commander had a black Lab whose name was n-word. In England at the time, it didn’t even register for me; the word simply didn’t have the toxic connotation it has now.
Not to say there weren’t horrible racist words used; ‘paki’, ‘wog’, ‘yid’ and ‘blacky’ come to mind. As someone with friends and neighbours who were Jewish, or who came from South Asia or the Caribbean*, the toxicity of those words was not lost on me.
Today, that word is simply not acceptable, anywhere. I have no problem with it being bleeped out in current screenings. The curious can always look it up.
*In hindsight, I think our area was used as a dumping ground for non-white and European foreigners. Fine by me. I appreciated the diversity.
I think ‘blackface minstrel’ would be better, as it avoids the possible confusion that these musicians might have been actual black people. Unless… does the new edit seeks to sweep the whole phenomenon of white people in blackface under the carpet as part of the sanitation effort?
John Morales says
Jarring for you, not for me.
The TV adaptations with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry uses this story in one of their episodes. There’s also an episode where Wooster pretends to be an African Prince and appears in blackface. I bought the complete series on DVD a few years ago and remember being surprised by it.
I know the books are very much of their time and if they were serious novels interrogating British society and class structures in the interwar period then I can see arguments for keeping these episodes. But they’re supposed to be lighthearted comedies and I have no problem with publishers thinking that readers may not want want to be confronted with overt racism in the middle of tales of high jinx and silliness.
I had to go check my copy, but after reading it I’m pretty certain Wodehouse was referring to actual African-Americans rather than people in blackface.
It’s not really as jarring as one of the school stories, The White Feather, where the protagonist calls a boxer he is facing a ‘nigger’. It is unclear where Pietro is from, the text suggests he is Indian (as in from India) but the name suggests southern European, possibly Italian. Either way, the antagonist was not of African descent, only non-Anglo-Saxon. Which suggests to me that Wodehouse was likely using slang common in English public schools at the end of the nineteenth century where everyone who wasn’t lily-white was considered black.
Thank You, Jeeves was written in 1934. Only four years later, Agatha Christie published And Then There Were None, which was originally planned to be published in the USA under the title of Ten Little Niggers, but was changed out of sensitivity to racism to Ten Little Indians (which is hardly better).
That period was certainly a difficult time for media portraying people of darker skin tone. There are some really great movie sequences which are hard to watch because of the underlying racism, the All God’s Chilun Got Rhythm number in the Marx Brother’s A Day at the Races (1937) is a really well performed musical number, which suffers from the casual racism in the song and setting.
After decades of being seen in books and media as either savages or happy idiots (and I’m looking at you, Joel Chandler Harris), as ragtime became popular, and then the jazz age started, Black entertainers became more and more likely to be seen as people rather than stereotypes. But the old habits died hard, and so you got people like Wodehouse not paying attention to the changes mores, while Christie’s publishers suggested a different title would be more suitable.
By 1942, when Abbott and Costello included Ella Fitzgerald in their movie Ride’em Cowboy, there seems to have been an effort to treat African American performers with a greater respect for their talents and as complete people rather than stereotypes. Clearly there are many examples of racist portrayals after the 1940’s, but the transition from seeing African Americans as sub-human to equals had begun in the US.
We are now eighty years into that transition, which really isn’t enough time to change culture. The casual racism from 100 years ago has in some cases been passed down as a family tradition. Even if it is fading, and I do think it is fading, we have a long ways to go before our culture completely sheds this disgraceful part of it’s past. After all, the US had almost three centuries where most people were convinced of white supremacy; it may take three centuries to eradicate it.
Note: I am aware that using the ‘n-word’ in my above comment may be viewed as insensitive and hateful. Yet, I believe we can discuss pejorative words without suggesting that they apply to anyone, and I don’t think there is any value in using an euphemism when everyone knows exactly what that euphemism means. However, if any reader of this comment is offended by my use of the ‘n-word’ I acknowledge that the decision to do so was my own and I’ll both apologize and accept any opprobrium.
Bertie is an idiotic upper-class twit. Jeeves is the voice of restrained reason. That a nincompoop like Wooster might use that word and even think that it’s a good plan seems very appropriate to the story to me. If I were modifying the story, I’d have Jeeves mention an alternate sensible vocabulary to Bertie and then write Wooster using that alternate vocabulary the whole rest of the story. Lesson learned. Sort of. To the degree that anyone in Wodehouse’s story learns anything. 🙂
Because unlike many RL more bloody-minded idiotic upper-class twits, one of the reasons he is so amusing is that he is so *very* persuadable.
“The book uses the dated and now derogatory term “n- minstrels” which was once a common term for white performers in blackface. Blackface minstrels were a staple of British seaside resorts until World War II. The term “n- minstrels” was historically used to differentiate blackface minstrels from “colored minstrels” who were actually black performers.”
Well, in several parts of the book, Jeeves refers to the entertainers as negroes or negroid. Now, this could be for a number of different reasons:
A) Wodehouse is making a joke about how Jeeves has to appear more educated or sophisticated than the other characters in the novel. So Wodehouse has Jeeves use a less descriptive, but maybe less familiar, phrase to show sophistication.
B) Jeeves is being superior and refuses to use slang even though a better description would not be negroes but blacked-up (which is a term used in the book to describe Bertie and Rodrick Glossop).
C) The minstrels were actually dark-skinned. While the rest of the characters use slang terms, Jeeves is correctly describing the (social construct of) race of the minstrels.
I prefer option C. I think it makes the story better, is just as humorous, and doesn’t paint Jeeves as a pedantic ass who chooses to use a less descriptive word which refers to a race (the social construct) rather than the use of blackface. Maybe that’s not how Wodehouse intended it, I don’t really know. I don’t think the letter on the Wiki page makes it clear either way. That letter makes it clear that Bertie would be blacked up, but doesn’t really give a clue as to whether the minstrels themselves are in blackface or are negroes. YMMV.
Tabby Lavalamp says
“Blackface minstrels were a staple of British seaside resorts until World War II.”
And British television until the late 70s.
Tabby Lavalamp says
Oh, I just read further down and it seems after the show was cancelled there were still tours of seaside resorts until 19-friggin’-89.
Oh, and I don’t mind the editing. There are a lot of books which could be edited to adjust to current cultural expectations and still maintain the message/meaning/pleasurable writing. I find it more enjoyable to read translations of Chaucer and Cervantes, and I don’t think I miss anything by not reading them in the original Klingon. I look at editing of this mature as a insignificant form of translation into current societal expectations. The original words are still there, they can still be found, but if the translation allows the book to be pleasurably read by more people all the better.
Scholars will always have previous editions to evaluate differences, but a book can get trapped in the amber of a lost culture and then forgotten by everyone but the scholars.
Hmm. If it’s from the Jeeves stories, wouldn’t it have been African-Britons (though actual terminology over here is in many cases Just Different than in the US), unless they were on an international tour?
chigau (違う) says
Has anyone tried this on Nevil Shute’s “In the Wet”?
Deepak Shetty says
Coincidentally my son and I are almost finished with the Five Find outers and since he didnt seem to like Hardy Boys much, the next author and books on our list to read together were Wodehouse -- Jeeves/Blandings (whichever library hold comes first!)
I expect this to come up for discussion.
Andrew Dalke says
#6 flex: “but was changed out of sensitivity to racism to Ten Little Indians”
The original US title was “And Then There Were None.” See a copy of the 1940 title page at https://archive.org/details/andthentherewere0000agat_n7r9/page/n9/mode/2up . The n-word appears only twice in the book, compared to its much more frequent use in the British version. (Note: the archive.org entry for what claims to be a copy of the original 1939 book, under the original title, is actually a much later version but with a copy of the original title on the front page.)
Wikipedia informs me the title “Ten Little Indians” wasn’t used until 1964.
Mano Singham says
While each of Wodehouse’s books are largely self-contained and can be enjoyed on their own, I think it is best to read the Jeeves and Wooster and the Blandings book series (especially the novels) in the order they were written since some characters and storylines continue.
Deepak Shetty says
Yes -- I had to read a couple of articles to find the order (https://honoriaplum.com/2014/08/10/getting-started-with-bertie-and-jeeves-a-chronological-challenge/)
Growing up though , we read what we got in whatever order . My mother had access to a library and she would get whatever was available( a fact for which I am forever grateful for and one of the reasons I would never ever support the current republican party even if they toned down their other stuff!). The only other source of books was the second hand recycle shops that sometimes would get these novels (who in their right mind gets rid of these books?) and sell them for a fraction of the price. We couldnt afford new books.. There is a thrill in finding missing pieces of a series of books , that I have never managed to replicate now that I can afford to buy the books in the order I want (or even if i fake it)
Mano Singham says
Your experience growing up seems to be very similar to mine! I too had to make do with whatever was readily available since we too could not afford to buy new books.
I agree with flex@9 that Wodehouse intended the minstrels to be actually Black (if indeed he had a fixed intention, the distinction is not essential to the plot) and, xohjoh2n@13, in that case they would almost certainly have been Americans on an international tour -- there were of course Black people in 1930s Britain, but far fewer than now, or in contemporary America. On p.93 of my Vintage edition, Jeeves says “Yes, sir. The Negroes will be present.”
I also agree with Mano that there’s no harm in updating Wodehouse to remove language that is now offensive. It won’t stop him being the funniest writer in English of the 20th- or possibly any other -- century.