29 June 2013

Dumbing Down: Self-fulfilling prophecies about the loss of culture

by Elizabeth Zelvin

Sad to say, and present company excepted, there is a trend in our culture, especially in its literature, to assume that Americans, in particular, will not understand sophisticated or even mildly historical cultural references. The current solution is to change those references to something that whoever is in charge of these decisions believes will be comprehensible to everyone, on the unstated and insulting assumption that many readers are illiterate cultural ignoramuses. The consequence of these changes is that as new generations arise, they have never heard of the terms or bits of history that they’ve been protected from exposure to (or make that “bits of history to which they’ve been protected from exposure,” since today’s readers also suffer from the neglect of good grammar).

Let’s start with the universally popular Harry Potter series, written for kids but enjoyed by adults across a broad spectrum of reading tastes from don’t-usually-read-at-all to highly literate (that would be us). In England, the first volume was entitled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. If you’ve heard of the Philosopher’s Stone, raise your hand. Keep your hand raised if you learned about it by reading a book. The Philosopher’s Stone has been around since at least the 8th century. Well, not around, or alchemists, philosophers, and early scientists (including Sir Isaac Newton, John Dee, Paracelsus, and even perhaps St Thomas Aquinas) wouldn’t have tried so hard over hundreds of years to find or fabricate this legendary substance that was believed to turn base materials into gold and maybe confer rejuvenation or even immortality. I bet school kids even nowadays are told at least once in the course of their education who Newton was. Would it have been so hard to explain the Philosopher’s Stone? Yet thanks to a publishing decision, the millions of American kids who read and loved Harry Potter have never heard of the Philosopher’s Stone. The “Sorcerer’s Stone” they’ve read about is just a thing, a fictional magical object like the “Horcrux” in the later books, without cultural resonance outside the world of Harry Potter and easily forgotten.

Here’s another example from children’s literature, the source of many mystery writers’ and adult readers’ lifelong love of the genre: the Nancy Drew series, first published in 1930. The original Nancy was feisty and independent. She drove a roadster and always had a pocket full of tools (rope, flashlight, sewing kit) to get her out of the tight spots her love of adventure and desire for justice invariably got her into. Reading them in the 1950s, I didn’t know what a roadster was. But did it matter? A brave and active heroine of the 21st century, with a cell phone and a hybrid car, is nothing special. But against the cultural backdrop of less feminist times, Nancy shines. My cousin Emily, now fourteen, started reading the Nancy Drew books when she was ten. When I asked which version she had, she said she thought they were the originals. But when I asked her what Nancy drove, she said, “A convertible.” All that cultural texture is unavailable to Emily and her generation.

Some revisions are bowdlerizations, playing to our supposed prudishness rather than our supposed ignorance. As a kid in the 1950s, I learned a lot of history from Elswyth Thane’s popular Williamsburg series of historical novels. The Day, Sprague, and Murray families (from the Revolutionary War in Virginia to World War II in England) were probably, for me, the first fictional characters so well developed and likable that they felt like family. A few years ago I found them in library editions that took a kind of Victorian attitude toward certain cultural references. In one book, the fortyish male companion of the rather demi-mondaine seventy-year-old Cousin Sally, mysterious and unexplained in the original, is described as a “doctor” in the library edition, presumably so readers won’t be shocked that they are clearly intimates. (No sex scenes, but he sits at her bedside reading aloud. Horrors!) Elsewhere, references to champagne—a metaphor for a refined hedonism, life’s fizziness as opposed to its earnest Puritanism—are amended to “wine.” On the last reread I found one I’d missed—this one more of a dumbing down. A character in London in 1896 refers to his solicitor and man of business, saying, “I’ll refer the matter (the character’s divorce) to my man Partridge.” Nobody who’s ever read an English novel would have trouble with this, surely. But in the American library edition, Partridge has become a “handyman.” Ouch!

Finally, let me share a query I got from a young editor, passing on a query from the final proofreader before the book in question went to press. It’s a scene in which a couple of my characters arrive at an office building on Wall Street after hours. The night security man at the desk in the lobby says, “Now stand on that spot for ten seconds, please. State your name and who you got the apperntment with for the camera.” The proofreader, and apparently the young editor as well, wanted to know, “Should this be ‘appointment’?” When I’d recovered from the shock, I wrote back that the passage was correct as it stood, and “apperntment” was “what used to be called Brooklynese.” I’m glad they asked. Otherwise, it would have been another nail driven in the coffin of American culture.


  1. I'm with you, Elizabeth. Raised on classics and adult literature, I have zero patience with bowdlerization.

    Makes me think of early grade school when a teacher seized my book on opera and called in my parents. "It has n-n-nudes in it," said my teacher. Where did he get this?" "We gave it to him," said my parents.

  2. It is certainly true. Think also of all the biblical references that were familiar to people who weren't religious per se but who studied the bible as literature.

    And Mary Stewart, a long time favorite author, has her characters making casual literary references which a modern editor might not encourage.

    I took advantage of the Downton Abbey popularity to introduce several friends to Elswyth Thane. They became instant fans.


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