Letter No. 5 - On Censorship

When I started Century Press I knew that one of my key jobs would be faithfully transcribing the original text of classic novels so they’d be preserved in our editions as originally intended. 

What I didn’t expect was that this process was not very straightforward. 

Of course, I considered the smaller stylistic choices such as what words should be italicized vs. bracketed by single or double quotation marks, etc.

Yet, uncovering the existence of censorship in different versions of The Great Gatsby was not part of the plan.

How did I recognize this? In addition to using a 1974 Penguin Books paperback edition to check my formatting and typesetting, I also listened to an audiobook of The Great Gatsby as I read the text and checked for typos and elisions. Surprisingly there’s been some real rock stars like Jake Gyllenhaal who have narrated the book.

Great Gatsby 1974 Penguin Paperback Paramount Picture Redford Farrow

In my case, I had the version narrated by none other than Tim Robbins, who played Andy Dufresne in the all-time classic film The Shawshank Redemption. Honestly, it was hard to stay fully focused because I kept on thinking Morgan Freeman would come into the action at any time. Nevertheless, I hunkered down and kept my eyes on the words, and my ears on Nick Carraway/Tim Robbins/Andy Dufresne.

Great Gatsby Audiobook Tim Robbins

Then, halfway down page 40 I nearly spit my coffee out. What the heck did Tim Robbins just say!?

I replayed it three times before I could believe my ears. In the womanly voice of Mrs. McKee, he declares “I almost married a little kike who’d been after me for years. I knew he was below me.Why was Andy Dufresne dropping the K-bomb? I quickly referenced my Penguin edition where “little tyke” was written instead. Now I began to piece it together; in the context of the book, the K-bomb made much more sense. “Tyke” on the other hand was acceptable, but really a poorly suited substitution for this word.

What was the source of this discrepancy? I had to get to the bottom of the mystery. 

I found the answer in Professor James L. W. West III's book, Making the Archives Talk.

Making the Archives Talk Book Professor James L. W. West III

He writes:

Most editions of The Great Gatsby since 1925 print either “kyke,” Fitzgerald’s spelling from the manuscript, or the more commonly found “kike.” But within the first American paperback edition (published initially by Bantam Books in November 1945, five years after Fitzgerald’s death), one finds a plate variant on page 42. The variant occurs between the third impression of March 1946 and the fourth of March 1951. The word “kyke” becomes “guy.”

From “kyke” to “guy” to “tyke…” What a journey this sentence has made! Professor West posits that the public awareness of the Holocaust during WWII likely warranted these changes to the original text. To me, that checks out, but it’s curious that there’s no textual note in any of these edited copies, and by and large, this unmentioned censorship hasn’t been discussed widely in public discourse.

While the edits to Gatsby have been swept under the rug without much notice, the question of censorship in older books has proven an evergreen and divisive topic in contemporary news.

This past March, the Seuss estate said that it would stop selling six books with problematic racial stereotypes, including “And to Think That I Saw it On Mulberry Street.”

Dr Seuss And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street Chinese Man Sticks

In the USA, this undoubtedly ignited a partisan flashpoint with condemnations of “Cancel Culture” on one side; and on the other, the desire to take a stronger approach to diversifying children’s bookshelves.

So where did I stand? Should I honor the text as originally intended? Should I keep the prior replacement words, “guy” or “tyke”? Should I choose another word entirely?

What would you do? Tell me in the comments.

(To be continued)


1 comment

  • Michael Schultz

    That’s a tricky one – do you stick with the original or ( without F. Scott’s approval) change it to be politically correct (2021)…….

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