Beyond the Secret Garden: Classic Literature and Classic Mistakes

In the latest in their Beyond the Secret Garden series, Karen Sands-O’Connor and Darren Chetty consider the classics.

In February 2020 Barnes and Noble and Penguin Random House attempted to repackage classics in ‘Diversity Editions’ to ‘celebrate’ Black History Month in the US, producing new covers for classic texts such as The Wizard of Oz, Frankenstein, Moby Dick, Peter Pan and The Secret Garden. These books were chosen because, according to an Artificial Intelligence programme used by the company, the texts ‘never actually specified the race and ethnicity of the protagonists’ (back cover blurb from the Diverse Editions). The backlash against taking classic texts, many of which are

inherently tied to white European and American ideas of

colonization, westward expansion and imperialism, and ‘colouring in’ the main characters to sell more books, was instantaneous and angry. Barnes and Noble was forced to cancel their event promoting the books, and acknowledge that ‘The covers are not a substitute for black voices or writers of color, whose work and voices deserve to be heard’ (Barnes and Noble Statement February 5, 2020). However, they continued to insist that ‘The booksellers who championed this initiative did so convinced it would help drive engagement with these classic titles’ (Statement). In 1994, M. T. Ford wrote that a trend toward multiculturalism meant that publishers often looked to backlists ‘for titles that can be repackaged in some kind of multicultural way, because it takes so long to produce new titles and the demand is immediate’ (The cult of multiculturalism Publishers Weekly 241.29: 30-31).

14 Books for Keeps No.241 March 2020

In the past, one liberal response to this argument has been to try and ‘save’ the story while making changes to the objectionable content. George Nicholson, when he was the vice president of Dell, ‘blue- penciled’ The Adventures of Doctor Dolittle to excise the racist depiction of an African prince who longed to be white. However, he did not entirely agree with the critics who called it racist, saying, ‘The character is obviously a fool . . . But most people lose their sense of humour when they read that chapter’ (Blue pencil erases Doctor Dolittle’s black humour The Times 15 February 1988: 1). In 2018, the Macmillan Collector’s Library edition of The Story of Doctor Dolittle, broke with its own policy of publishing complete and unabridged versions. Philip Ardagh explained in a section that follows the story that he chose to ‘have the offending passages . . . rewritten in such a way as to exclude the inappropriate material but

The idea that it is necessary to ‘drive engagement’ with the classics is not new, and not exclusive to the publishing industry. In children’s literature scholarship, education and library journals, and even debates in parliament, the concern over what to do about ‘classic’ literature has raged over the last century. It is a debate that often pits form against content, with those in favour of keeping classics in print arguing that a good story should trump a few lapses into racist (or sexist, or homophobic, or ableist) stereotypes, especially because ‘people thought differently back then.’

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