Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Saturday, December 17, 2005

Ghost of Thomas Bowdler Walks the Land

[gary daily col. 24 July 7, 2002]
A May Gallup Poll showed that 71% of Americans still believe in hell but preachers are increasingly reluctant to preach about it. Some say hell is just too negative.
--Wall Street Journal, June 21, 2002

And still the ghost of Thomas Bowdler walks the land--scalpel in hand, scissors nearby, meat axe at the ready should the butchering require action of a more gross and dramatic nature.

In 1759, Bowdler was five years old when one Reverend Francis Gastrell decided a certain mulberry tree was blocking his view of the horizon, or was it his personal vision of heaven’s gate? He strenuously applied the blade of an axe to it. It turns out this tree was believed to have been planted by William Shakespeare, Stratford, England’s, favorite son. (And what did Reverend Gastrell know and when did he know it?)

I personally believe the legend that has Gastrell keening into the wind, “I’ll be back!” as he was “escorted” out of town by devotees of the Bard. And I assign credence to the story that a never-to-be-a-boy named Thomas was nearby as the good Reverend laid his axe on this famous fruited tree, and that he stood weepy and stern-faced by the side of the road as Gastrell took his leave.

As it turns out little Tommy Bowdler took up the profession of medicine. But ministering to the boils of the body did not satisfy his desire to do harsh good in the world. Purification--body, mind and soul--became his watchword and duty. This mission was first displayed in his concern for unsanitary conditions in various wine and cheese watering holes dotting the coast of France. He reported these conditions with relish and in some detail to what we can only guess was a grateful English public. The record is thin on how the level of English traffic to these quaint French inns was affected by his research.

Dr. Bowdler’s most ambitious foray into the purification business, however, was literary not sanitary. Sustained by the unfailing engine of unflawed righteousness, Bowdler took on the gargantuan task of cleansing the plays of William Shakespeare. Bowdler, being a modest but determined soul, always declared that he added nothing to the Bard’s works. Excision was the service he provided readers. As he put it, only “words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family." His inspired eraser created the Family Values version of the plays in 1818. This ten-volume work was commercially successful and aptly named, “The Family Shakespere.”

Drawing on reserves of energy limited to those who carry Truth in their hip pocket, Bowdler went on to cleanse Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. By his report, this task involved, "the careful omission of all passages of an irreligious or immoral tendency." I have not been able to find Bowdler’s own words on his modus operandi for one of his last projects, a purified version of the Old Testament of the Bible. You might take a look for yourself and guess which mulberry trees in that book Bowdler trimmed or removed.

Bowdler’s labors, as with similar exercises since, were momentarily popular successes but abject failures with critics, scholars, and serious readers then and now. His efforts, however, did insure a place for him in our vocabulary-he is now an eponym, a word based on a proper name. To “bowdlerize” in my dictionary is: “1. To remove or modify the parts (of a book, for example) considered offensive. 2. To modify, as by shortening, simplifying, or distorting in style or content. Given the chance, Shakespeare, Gibbon and the priests and prophets of the Old Testament might add to this definition.

Nevertheless, bowdlerize is a handy term to have within reach. Recent revelations in regard to the New York State Regents English exams presents us with a case, in these test crazed days, worth pondering. While going about their work the so sensitive test-makers rounded up the usual suspects--references to race, religion, ethnicity, sex, nudity, alcohol and modest profanity. In proceeding to bowdlerize creative and original sources, they left the very ingredients that helped to make these writer's works "original" on the cutting room floor.

Two examples of their work: Students were asked to write essays on doctored passages from renowned writers such as Anton Chekhov and Annie Dillard. In a Chekhov passage, a crucial section in the original dealing with a 19th century style strip-search of servants was omitted. Dillard’s story, “An American Childhood,” is turned into meaningless mush due to excisions. Her memoir tells of regular trips to a library in the black section of town where she learns early and important lessons about race and racism in America. All racial references in the Dillard work were inexplicably eliminated.

I am happy to report that in this case the ghost of Thomas Bowdler has been exorcized. Earlier this month the New York Times reported that the test making honchos in New York State had “announced [that] literary passages in state-administered tests would no longer be altered to delete unwanted words or phrases.”

But why is it I keep hearing a self-righteous, threatening whine: “I’ll be back!”

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