The Right Of Revision

In James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 The Last of the Mohicans, the word “savages” is used at least several dozen times for Native Americans. In Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 The Sun Also Rises, casual antisemitism appears repeatedly on the pages. Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 Gone With The Wind includes plainly racist references to and portrayals of Black Americans. (If you think the 1939 Hollywood film is bad, it actually GREATLY tones down what’s in the novel.)

We also know, as adult readers, that those novels are for us as adults. We understand they were written in their times and places and much of that may make for uncomfortable reading. We are readily able critically, however, to grasp such historical contexts and take them into consideration while reading those books – which are also in many respects by now “historical documents” themselves.

In contrast, the now late Roald Dahl’s (he died in 1990) books are aimed at children, to be read by – and to – children. Historical context does not matter in the tales themselves. The stories are, in many ways, timeless and “place-less.”

This debate over offensive words in Dahl (that even has had the current prime minister asked for an opinion) reminds me of the one that (again) arose (that time, in 2018) in the U.S. about the 1930s-40s-written Little House children’s novels (which were adapted so successfully, we remember, into the 1970s-80s TV series starring Michael Landon). Author Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote at times problematically about racial minorities. Unsurprisingly, eight decades or so later many parents – and not just racial minority ones – were not too happy to have their children reading such in children’s books. (Posting on that, I found myself involved in, you may recall, a debate in my comments for several days with one author/follower, who finally announced she was unfollowing me basically because I insisted the word “d-rkies” was offensive.)

We tend to forget that authors of books aimed even at adults sometimes have returned to long-published novels and tried to revise them. Henry James, for one, rewrote large parts of 1877’s The American for a 1907 re-issue because he believed the plot had been too fanciful and not “serious” enough. Most critics disliked his changes; but that is irrelevant in the “right of the author” context to do with his own novel what he wanted (to try) to do. The fact remains regardless of what we may think of his changes, it was entirely James’s right as the author to make those changes. (Today, both versions are long in the public domain. I have only read the original – it is one of my favorite novels.)

[Photo by Yan Krukau on]

By the late 2010s, many parents must have found themselves troubled reading Dahl to their young children, or in allowing their children to read him, because of words such as “fat.” Plainly Dahl’s estate and publisher got that feedback and did not want to lose future young readers and sales. So the revisions are both an artistic decision (much as in many respects Henry James’s was about The American) as well as a clearly long-term commercial one (as the estate and publisher obviously don’t want to lose sales).

[Photo by Ludovic Delot on]

Roald Dahl, who as the BBC notes in its Instagram report above occasionally revised his books during his lifetime, has been dead what is now about 33 years. Would he have used similar words and descriptions if he had written the same books in the last few years? It would seem unlikely; but of course we cannot know for sure. Yet what we do know for sure is his literary estate owns the copyrights as if he was still alive and is making the changes obviously in the hopes the revisions will better the books for young readers of today and tomorrow.

To term these revisions “absurd censorship” is wrong; government has nothing to do with this. It is simply his literary estate’s right to revise his books slightly as it sees fit. That is all this is.

Have a good day, wherever you are. 🙂


  1. There was an interesting article in the Saturday Times last week about how many authors are leaving established publishers to sign up for independent firms as their books are now being subject to ‘diversity checking’. One example was an author writing for the American market who was told he could not use the word ‘scalpel’ because…it contains the word ‘scalp’ which some Americans might find offensive because of the connotations with Red Indians/Native Americans scalping white settlers. I kid you not.

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    • Don’t get me wrong, I dislike the idea of “sensitivity readers” being forced on adult authors of books for other adults. But I feel children’s books are a different creature because of the intended (immature) audience. If Dahl’s literary estate and publisher wanted to use “sensitivity readers” on his books to revise them somewhat, that was their right to do so. Any author/estate, I feel, has a right to revise any book for whatever reason.

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