It seems that in discussing reading and readership, a topic that recurs is that of texts being deemed appropriate (or inappropriate, as the case may be) for specific audiences. This is the focus of Flint’s “Reading Practices,” which discusses how texts deemed inappropriate for young 19th century female readers were often the most sought after for the very reason that they were restricted, as well as how such “inappropriate” texts were not necessarily as disturbing to these readers as other more “appropriate” texts were. Altick discusses how “lighter forms of literature–jestbooks, chapbooks, ballads, and the fiction that Thomas Nashe and Thomas Deloney devised” were justified as “appropriate” reading in a Puritan society in “The English Common Reader” (446), while Rose touches on how texts can become “appropriate” to unlikely audiences in “Rereading the English Common Reader.” In his essay, Rose gives the example of a working-class man, John James Bezer, who read Pilgrim’s Progress “as a radical political allegory” (432). This example, especially, would seem to support Fish’s argument in “Interpreting the Variorum,” as it is the reader’s method of approaching and interpreting the text, rather than the author’s intent, that determines the meaning of Pilgrim’s Progress for Mr. Bezer. Rose also upsets our understanding of “appropriate audience” by indicating that 19th century working class readers recognized popular “trash” fiction as trash and were able to appreciate and discern more canonical works that were not necessarily intended for a working-class audience.
This discussion of audience “appropriateness” (I’m not sure if that is even a word) brought to mind a relatively recent story concerning a publisher’s decision to release an edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which the word “nigger” is universally replaced with the less offensive “slave.” While this story also brings up issues of authorship, as Twain’s words are being intentionally changed by someone because they are deemed inappropriate, it also finds its corollary in Flint’s essay and her discussion of an aunt who “stuck a narrow strip of paper” over the inappropriate word “womb” in order to “preserve [Mary Stocks] and her siblings from ‘indelicacy'” (419). Yet beyond issues of authorship, I find it interesting that in these two cases, it is a single word that can cause a text to be deemed inappropriate to certain audiences. Furthermore, I question why this text is so valuable that this single instance of inappropriateness must be covered up so it can be made available to such audiences. If, and this is a strong “if,” Twain’s book is so inappropriate for an audience of contemporary students, why is there such a desire to teach it? Why can these schools not just accept its banning and teach another book, but must instead use a revised “appropriate” edition? Is this book less appropriate now than it was when it was first published and therefore in need of “revision” (or censorship) now where it wasn’t before? Was not the use of the n-word inflammatory and/or provocative when Twain first wrote it? For some reason, and it is quite possibly tied up with my beliefs concerning authorship, I have more of an issue with this revision than with a banning of the entire work.
That printed works can be so inflammatory (and perhaps in this case, more inflammatory) outside of their “time” seems to say a lot about the nature of print and what many of the author’s we have read so far have discussed: that the meaning or significance of the work cannot be necessarily be found in the text itself, but in the context of its being read. (This also brings to mind my first reading of “A Modest Proposal” in which I thought Swift was serious about his proposal that children should be eaten.)
**As a final, unrelated note, Monaghan’s “Literacy Instruction and Gender in Colonial New England” proved very helpful in explaining what Elizabeth Gaskell was writing about in Sylvia’s Lovers when she talked about Sylvia “spelling” her words as she attempted to read. 🙂