There have been multiple instances in recent years of prominent figures either getting “cancelled,” or surviving attempts to have them cancelled. Children’s authors have been a popular target. This includes Theodor Geisel, or Dr. Seuss, which I wrote about last year.
Who is cancel culture’s newest target? Roald Dahl, the late British author of popular children’s books like James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr Fox and The BFG.
Puffin Books, the children’s imprint of Penguin Books, announced last month it had hired “sensitivity readers” to comb through and adjust the language in Dahl’s books. The Daily Telegraph noted on Feb. 17 that “hundreds of the author’s words” had already been changed. Several examples include:
– The Witches: “Fat little brown mouse” was adjusted to “little brown mouse.” “‘Here’s your little boy,’ she said. ‘He needs to go on a diet,’” was switched to “Here’s your little boy.” “You must be mad, woman!” is now “You must be out of your mind!” “The old hag” became “the old crow.”
– Matilda: Miss Trunchbull’s “great horsey face” becomes her “face.” “Eight nutty little idiots” become “eight nutty little boys.” One character, instead of “turning white,” became “quite pale.”
– James and the Giant Peach: The Cloud-Men have transformed into Cloud-People. Miss Sponge is no longer “the fat one.” Miss Spider’s head is no longer “black.” The Earthworm doesn’t possess “lovely pink” skin any longer, but rather “lovely smooth skin.”
What caused this rewriting fiasco? Dahl has been accused of racism, sexism and anti-Semitism for decades. Since these gaping wounds were largely self-inflicted, he was an easy target for Puffin Books’ sensitivity readers and other would-be critics.
Dahl attacked Israel and Jews in a review of Tony Clifton’s God Cried in the August 1983 issue of The Literary Review. “Never before in the history of man has a race of people switched rapidly from being much pitied victims to barbarous murderers. Never before has a race of people generated so much sympathy around the world and then, in the space of a lifetime, succeeded in turning that sympathy into hatred and revulsion.” He condemned “Jewish financial institutions” and “American Jewish bankers,” and concluded, “Now is the time for the Jews of the world to follow the example of the Germans and become anti-Israeli. But do they have the conscience? And do they, I wonder, have the guts?”
Michael Coren interviewed Dahl for The New Statesman on Aug. 26, 1983. The literary giant didn’t correct the record, and proceeded to make things worse. “This I did not dare to say, but there is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews,” he told Coren. “I mean Hitler, I mean there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason…”
Dahl’s 1990 interview with The Independent was the icing on the multi-layered anti-Semitic cake. “I’m certainly anti-Israeli, and I’ve become anti-Semitic,” he said. “It’s the same old thing: we all know about Jews and the rest of it. There aren’t any non-Jewish publishers anywhere, they control the media – jolly clever thing to do – that’s why the president of the United States has to sell all this stuff to Israel.”
Dahl’s official website attempted to put the controversy to rest in 2020. “The Dahl family and the Roald Dahl Story Company deeply apologise for the lasting and understandable hurt caused by some of Roald Dahl’s statements.” The apology was genuine and heartfelt.
Nevertheless, Puffin Books’ woke warriors saw a golden opportunity to tear apart Dahl’s books and adjust them as they saw fit. It was a selfish, arrogant decision that most individuals and groups hadn’t demanded or asked for.
“Put simply: these may not be the words Dahl wrote,” the Telegraph’s Ed Cumming, Abigail Buchanan, Genevieve Holl-Allen and Benedict Smith noted. “The publishers have given themselves licence to edit the writer as they see fit, chopping, altering and adding where necessary to bring his books in line with contemporary sensibilities.”
I’ll go even further. These aren’t the words that Dahl wrote, and Puffin Books should have defended historical accuracy instead of giving in to “contemporary sensibilities” such as cancel culture and wokeness.
You don’t have to like or agree with Dahl’s controversial views on Jews and Israel, or his equally controversial descriptions of Blacks, women and others, to respect the words, paragraphs and pages he wrote. Releasing a new version that misrepresented his original intent for the stories and characters was irresponsible. Dahl’s magnificent works of children’s literature should have never been tampered with, and his books should be read and studied exactly as they were crafted.
After getting blasted from all corners, including author Salman Rushdie and British Prime Rishi Sunak, Puffin Books reversed course (sort of). They announced on Feb. 24 the impending release of the Roald Dahl Classic Collection to “keep the author’s classic text in print.” This collection will be sold alongside the newly-released books.
If the original titles had been left alone, this wouldn’t have been necessary. That would have required some common sense, which we’ve seemingly lost in modern society.
As a final aside, Ian Fleming Publications said they would follow Puffin Books’ lead and re-release Fleming’s James Bond book series in the same fashion. Even Agent 007 isn’t safe from the cancel culture mob, it seems.
Michael Taube, a long-time newspaper columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.