Last spring, I revisited The Story of Doctor Dolittle – a story from childhood. As I mentioned in my review at the time, I was surprised discover a forward in my edition of the book noting that some of the content had been changed due to deep racial insensitivity. In the original story, the African prince sought Dr. Dolittle’s services because he wanted to be transformed into a white man. Yikes! Obviously, this is hugely problematic and it’s disturbing that Hugh Lofting ever considered it a good idea, but here we are, basking in the glory of white supremacy.
In the version I read – printed in the 1990s – the subplot had been adjusted and now the prince wanted to be transformed into a lion. This is bad in a different way. While the issue of marking white-skinned individuals as superior was removed, we still have the issue of a Black man wanting to be something other than himself. In addition, we have the correlation between Black people and animals, highlighting the racist belief that Black folks are “less then”. No, no, no, no, no.
Obviously, I unhauled this book, fairly disgusted with myself. But not just myself – with Hollywood for constantly turning to this story as an adaptation (though I appreciate the casting of Eddie Murphy into the role), for the years of publishers being okay with this content, and for generations of readers not seeing how ridiculously problematic it is. And The Story of Doctor Dolittle is considered a children’s classic.
Which brings me to my point – by the 1990s, the publishing conglomerate were finally able to acknowledge how racist this book was, and while I still don’t think they entirely fixed the problem, they had the conscience to try. If we go back and look through a lot of the books considered classics, there are hosts of issues like this. The caricature of Jim in Huckleberry Finn. The role of all the Black folks in Gone With the Wind. Slut-shaming in The Scarlet Letter. Toxic and abusive relationships in Jane Eyre. I can keep going. Almost every single book we know as a classic either has problematic content or a problematic author. So what do we do about it?
Navigating Problematic Classics
On occasion, we see books – like The Story of Doctor Dolittle – where the publisher has taken initiative and changed part of the narrative. In the blogging world and increasingly in at least YA publishing, content triggers can be used to denote triggering or otherwise problematic content. Others have taken to completely disavowing the titles and focusing on contemporary pieces that are more mindful of the humanity of marginalized groups. Each reader has their own take on what to do about it, and we fiercely judge those who are not doing the same as us. But is there a right way of navigating these waters?
I find myself at an intersection of many of them. Take Gone With the Wind, for example. Gone With the Wind is extremely problematic in many ways. At the same time, I adore Melanie Wilkes and I love to hate and admire Scarlett O’Hara. There are parts of this book that have given me strength to get through difficult times, but we cannot overlook the treatment of Sam, Mammy, Prissy, and others. And I don’t want to just shrug it off and say “it’s a product of the times” because that’s making excuses for the behavior, which is unacceptable.
We Need to Do Far More Than Just Edit
Editing the problematic content out of these books doesn’t really change them. It’s like how we know Disney’s Cinderella doesn’t change the gruesomeness of the original Grimm Brothers’ version. It’s questionable whether some of these stories should even be resurrected. We must call out the issues in our classics, yes, but I don’t believe editing the narrative is a complete answer.
What would help is if fewer of these books were taught in schools. I had Beowulf assigned three times in high school and twice in college and I wasn’t even on an English & Literature track. Some (if not all) of the repeated books and problematic books should be replaced with modern narratives. After all, these are the times students are living in and it’s important for them to experience modern issues in the voices of the affected parties. Leave the problematic history to history classics
Finally, we have got to stop giving these books so much visibility. Bookstore chains all have multiple editions of problematic classics because classics continue to sell. They continue to be adapted to screen, and they continue to be publicized. If we are going to read and talk about problematic classics, it’s our responsibility as human beings to underline the ways in which the literature dehumanizes folks – Black, Native, Middle Eastern, women, the LGBTQIAP+ community, and so forth. It’s one thing to read a book. It’s another to applaud it and increase its popularity.
I have been far from perfect in the past – I enjoy reading classics for the richness of language and historical fiction aspects – but I’m also working to be better in outlining where these books fail. And while I would never seek to police someone’s reading, I will seek to educate. And I hope we think twice before supporting problematic works over perfectly good, undermarketed books by modern marginalized authors.