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Dianne Salerni : Writer of Teen and Middle Grade Fiction | The Danger of Re-Writing History

The Danger of Re-Writing History

Today I have a guest post from my brother-in-law, Larry O’Donnell about re-writing history.  Larry tells me he started this post during last year’s controversial revisions to Huck Finn and finished it in response to the NCAA sanctions against Penn State.

Re-Writing History by Larry O’Donnell

Recent developments in the Penn State scandal remind me of how callous some folks are of history.  Removing Paterno’s statue and “unwinning” hundreds of football games along with other similar punishments, strikes me as trying to expunge facts from the record.  Several of these sanctions were more vindictive than punitive.  The Sandusky crimes were horrific and any persons who prevented their timely discovery were likewise wrong.  These persons, once proven guilty should be held accountable.  Creating an alternative history is not justice.  Claiming that Navy beat Penn State for the last fourteen years provides no compensation for the victims.

I disapprove of re-writing history to make it palatable.  History is how we maintain knowledge, learn, and measure the progress of humanity.  It should be kept as factual as possible.  A while back, New South Books, citing political correctness, expunged the odious n-word from Samuel Clemens’ classic novel, Huckleberry Finn.  The revisionists claimed they wanted to protect young persons from the ugly word.  Falling sales and controversies over the presence of the book in school probably had an economic influence on the decision.  To me, “disappearing” the word postulates that persons of African descent were always referred to with dignity.  The revised book calls the protagonist Slave Jim.  Jim’s escape from slavery and fierce determination to be free is the message of the book.  Calling him a slave was probably far more demeaning to Jim than any other term.  Making this book less offensive diminishes it as a social commentary of the era.  It erases the negative history of the nation.  

Circa 1959,the Stratemeyer Syndicate overhauled its serial children’s books, published by Grosset and Dunlap, to reflect modern times. This effort was not driven by political correctness, but the flagging sales of the books.  The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew stories, as originally written, were not relevant to contemporary youth.  Besides getting rid of racial stereotypes and slurs, terms as “roadster”, “luncheon”, “frock”, and stilted dialog were replaced with modern expressions.  This overhaul differed significantly from that of Huck Finn.  First, Stratemeyer owned all rights of authorship of the books. If Mark Twain was still living and decided to write a modern edition because sales of his book were down, that would be his right.  Secondly, Stratemeyer didn’t change history, they just moved their characters into modern times.  Huck Finn wouldn’t have any relevancy in a modern setting.  Jim wouldn’t worry about being returned to slavery.  Clemens would lose his nom de plume, since fathometers eliminated the exchange between the sounder and captain.

I think Paterno’s wins should stand.  That’s what happened.  If he and other Penn State administrators played a part in shielding Sandusky, write it into the history of Penn State and the biography of Joe Paterno.
Dianne’s two cents: I agree the wins should stand.  We should be able to look at those wins and note: For THIS, Paterno and Penn State officials sacrificed the well-being of innocent boys. IT WASN’T WORTH IT. Maybe we’d finally gain some perspective on the importance of football vs. life. However, I’m glad they took that man’s statue down. Erasing unpalatable history and pretending it didn’t happen is not the same as removing an honor from someone who was not honorable.

I blogged about my own thoughts on the Huck Finn issue HERE.

7 Responses to The Danger of Re-Writing History

  1. Linda G. says:

    Amen! I am not a fan of revisionist history. What happened happened. But, Dianne, I do agree with you about the statue. To leave it standing would have implied Penn State continued to revere the man.

  2. Oh, wow, poignant. I love it.

    My oldest has been an Ole Miss (University of Mississippi) fan since first grade. When she got her first car, she proudly displayed her Ole Miss tag with Colonel Reb, the mascot, prominent on the front. Colonel Reb was removed as the mascot a few years ago because he stood for a time “most” Mississippians want to forget (yet we still have the flag *tongue in cheek*). My daughter no longer wanted to attend this university because she said they tried to erase the history of it by changing the mascot.

    History is history. We can’t change it by trying to erase it.

  3. Chris Fries says:

    I agree with your brother-in-law. The athletes who played the games were not the ones who were preying on kids, and the removal of the wins also punishes them. The NCAA had every right to come down hard on the leaders of an institution which put appearance over the safety of children, and Coach Paterno and the administrators were integral parts of the institution which made those choices. But trying to change history is not the way to address it — it’s the future that should be changed, so that administrators do not do the same thing and look the other way when presented with testimony and evidence of a horrendous crime by someone they employ.

    And I also oppose the revision of Huck Finn. The original language is historically accurate and carries a weight that underscores the horrendous institution of slavery. What’s next? To remove the word “slave” and replace it with “uncompensated life-long employee?”

  4. mshatch says:

    Completely agree with Larry. “Erasing” those wins doesn’t make them go away. And giving a win to someone who didn’t earn isn’t compensation to those who were affected.

    But I agree with Dianne about the statue.

    As for someone other than the author changing the author’s words, well, I’d call that criminal.

  5. Well-said. It’s ludicrous to try to alter the perception of history by pretending something didn’t happen. A written account of facts can be changed with an eraser, but the facts themselves are indelible. But I’m glad the statue came down.

  6. LJ ODonnell says:

    I should have redacted the statue. In my first draft, I discussed it as part of a larger comment on punishing people besides Sandusky. I mercifully shortened my post by more than 1.5K words before sending it to Dianne. Certainly, removing the statue was well in the purview of the University and if the victims and families get solace from that action, it was the very least they could do.

  7. My Dad was saying the same exact thing over vacation when he explained the situation to me. Who does it really help? Not the victims, or the school, or the innocent players and students. I thought it was weird that their solution was to make believe that football at Penn state never existed. It’s like you’ve found Pirates on your boat, so you hang them but then sink your boat and the treasure for good measure. It’s completely bizarre.