Roald Dahl is famous for writing childhood favorites such as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Matilda,” and “James and the Giant Peach,” but he will go down in history as yet another unknowing victim of retroactive and posthumous edits made to cater to sensitive readers and, more importantly, leftist ideologues.
Puffin, Dahl’s publisher, recently decided to make hundreds of changes to his work including no longer referring to gluttonous Augustus Gloop as “fat.” These alterations weren’t just protested by the public, they were made against the late author’s explicit wishes.
“I’ve warned my publishers that if they later on so much as change a single comma in one of my books, they will never see another word from me. Never! Ever!” Dahl told artist Francis Bacon during a meeting in 1982.
Even after Puffin reluctantly agreed to keep selling the original versions of Dahl’s work, the publisher continued to “force censored versions” on readers who had previously purchased digital versions of his books.
Some argue such changes are simply “commercially savvy” because they appeal to younger generations and extend profits, but they are kidding themselves. Readers might not know it, but in the last decade especially, it’s become all too commonplace for the people who control America’s books to retroactively edit out narratives they find distasteful and words they find offensive, and strip awards from authors they deem racist. For more than a century now, publishers and special-interest groups have worked to change older writings to fit their modern sensibilities.
How many other beloved books have been bowdlerized and then reissued without the public’s knowledge? Here are several classics that did not escape Orwellian butchering.
James Bond Series
Ian Fleming’s hit spy novel series featuring 007 suffered a blow this week when publisher Ian Fleming Publications announced it planned to retroactively edit some of Fleming’s “racist” descriptors out of the books in favor of “terms that are more accepted today.” In some of the books, the company plans to remove black characters altogether.
When the newly censored literary works hit the shelves in April, they will be accompanied by a sensitivity disclaimer that attempts to justify the slew of changes.
“This book was written at a time when terms and attitudes which might be considered offensive by modern readers were commonplace,” the disclaimer will state. “A number of updates have been made in this edition, while keeping as close as possible to the original text and the period in which it is set.”
Not long before censors came for Augustus Gloop and 007, they went after Dr. Seuss. Seuss Enterprises announced in 2021 that it would discontinue at least six of Theodor Geisel’s illustrated books due to “racist and insensitive imagery.” That decision prompted a slew of backlash and price gouging that was quickly squashed by sellers such as eBay, which decided to ban the sale of the six offending titles.
Hugh Lofting’s “The Story of Doctor Dolittle,” a tale about a veterinarian who could talk to animals, first entered the literary scene in the 1920s. By 1923, Lofting was crowned winner of the Newberry Medal for one of his sequels, “The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle and Other Tales.”
Multiple tweaks were made to Lofting’s texts to cut down on racial characterizations and language. In 1988, a century after Lofting’s birth, publisher Bantam Doubleday Dell decided Lofting’s fictitious accounts needed to be cut or reworded because they were too racist.
The author’s son, Christopher Lofting, explained in an afterword that the “deciding factor was the strong belief that the author himself would have immediately approved of making the alterations” and that he didn’t believe the changes would “interfere with the style and spirit of the original.”
Most modern readers wouldn’t know it, but the “Nancy Drew” mystery series, which is widely recognized as a timeless children’s classic, hasn’t always been perceived that way by publishers.
Nearly 30 years after the young sleuth entered the literary scene in 1930, publisher Grosset & Dunlap, today part of Penguin Random House, revised nearly 200 pages of pseudonym Carolyn Keene’s storytelling to remove racist stereotypes, slang, and obsolete terminology from the series’ pages. The edits, made between 1959 and 1977, also conveniently resulted in fewer pages and, subsequently, lower printing costs for Grosset & Dunlap.
In the end, the 18-year meddling resulted in drastic changes to 20 chapters in 34 of Keene’s books that fundamentally changed Drew’s character and the arc of her detective work. The original prints can only be found via resale.
Beginning in 1959, the “Hardy Boys” canon was also subjected to dozens of changes by Grosset & Dunlap that were supposed to modernize the books, eliminate racist jargon and stereotypes, and drastically cut the number of pages.
By 1973, 38 of the series’ mysteries were ripped apart and put back together. In some cases, ideas from the old stories were reinvented to create new, more appealing plots.
Before “Tarzan of the Apes” rose to popularity in the early 1900s, author Edgar Rice Burroughs made several changes in an attempt to make his jungle-man character more appealing to the public.
That clearly wasn’t enough for editors who, in the aftermath of World War II, expunged several disparaging references about Jews from the text. Publisher Ballantine Books eliminated another round of derogatory racial language during the 1960s.
Alabama-based publisher NewSouth Books decided — at the behest of a professor — in 2011 that “two hurtful epithets” used to describe black slaves and Native Americans would be scrubbed from all new prints of “Adventures with Huckleberry Finn.” The company hoped that excising the n-word from the books would encourage schools to keep Mark Twain on their reading lists.
This decision as well as the justification for the expurgation were heavily criticized by scholars who said context, even in the form of offensive language, is necessary for learning. Removing that context “means the book ceases to show the moral development of [Finn’s] character.”
“The fault lies with the teaching, not the book. You can’t say ‘I’ll change Dickens so it is compatible with my teaching method.’ Twain’s books are not just literary documents but historical documents, and that word is totemic because it encodes all of the violence of slavery. The point of the book is that Huckleberry Finn starts out racist in a racist society, and stops being racist and leaves that society,” Sarah Churchwell, senior lecturer in U.S. literature and culture at the University of East Anglia, told The Guardian.
“It seems depressing that we are so squeamish that we can’t credit youngsters with seeing the context for texts,” Geoff Barton, head of King Edward’s School in Bury St Edmunds, added.