No. 14 - The Impulse to Censor

For those who weren’t following Century Press back in Spring of 2021, one of the most contentious conversations between ourselves and amongst our readership revolved around the presence (or absence) of one particular word in The Great Gatsby.

Great Gatsby Paperback Censorship Penguin Books Tyke 1970s

While typesetting our edition of Gatsby, I became aware of a little known fact that following WWII, editorial censorship had slyly and silently worked its way into millions of copies of this famous novel. Moreover, this censorship had been furtively enacted by such illustrious publishers such as Bantam Books and Penguin Books.

I won’t re-hash the whole story, but in short, I made a deeply considered editorial decision to participate in a century-long historical conversation about whether it is appropriate for a publisher to modify a word in an original work of literature. 

Great Gatsby Letterpress Century Press Tyke Jew Century Press

Here, I made the choice not to revert to the original source material, but to instead improve upon a widely disseminated word substitution that has gone largely unnoticed by readers of The Great Gatsby. By doing so, I felt like I was making a morally appropriate decision for a book publishing company in 2021.

My choice to exercise this editorial control led to receiving mixed opinions both in person and online; some approved of the word change, others vehemently condemned my decision. 

Flame War Thumbs Up Down Argument Mobile Phones

In the midst of this emotionally charged tempest, I did my best to take all of these comments in stride, learn from and reflect on them, with the goal of defining what Century Press’s approach would be moving forward. 

After all, if my goal is for Century Press to become a leading publisher of classic novels, it will be nearly impossible to avoid encountering language that is considered derogatory in 2022 and beyond.

After internalizing and processing all this commentary, I sat down to consider how I would approach our second novel The Sun Also Rises, which not only contains an instance the one word I decided to modify in The Great Gatsby, but numerous others, perhaps more offensive (i.e. the N-word), and appearing with greater frequency.

Unlike The Great Gatsby, there was no historical basis for either an intentional or surreptitious editing of The Sun Also Rises. Also, from a sheer logistical standpoint, the decision to edit dozens of instances of a word fundamentally didn’t make any sense. 

Hemingway Martha Gellhorn Boat Cocktails Mustache Leis

Before, things were relatively simple: it was a single word with a long history of editorial revision. Now, where should the line be drawn? I needed to take a step back and really consider: what truly scared me about publishing offensive content?

Well, what are any of us afraid of when we feel the need to censor ourselves from speaking or writing words that may offend? Of course there’s the selfish feeling that we may be judged. Indeed, what if Century Press were cancelled? Should I have my editorial perspective molded out of a desire for self-preservation?

Most of you reading this would instinctually respond: No!

Cancelled Guy Green Shirt iPhone Scribbled Away By Red Ink Thinking

In each of our lives and careers, I believe we should feel comfortable doing and saying what we feel is right, while remaining open to new ideas and information that can change us. We should be willing to make mistakes and learn from them. We should expose ourselves and learn from different groups of people with different ideas.

Therefore we should feel justified to stand up and state what we believe in, not out of fear of censure or condemnation, but because we believe it’s morally correct. As a publisher—tasked with disseminating information and ideas—this notion is extra relevant.  

At the same time, since Century Press’s core business is to send words and ideas out into the world, we need to have true empathetic concern with those who will encounter and engage with our books. We must consider the potential for psychologically damaging those reading our books, or worst case scenario, condoning violence against marginalized groups.

No Violence Hate Speech Protest Signs

Thus, in order to stand on solid ethical ground, I felt it vitally necessary to research and evaluate whether palpable harm could come from republishing language considered inflammatory or damaging.

To this end, I applied some different lenses to analyze this topic of inquiry and approached my research from a few different angles.

First, before diving in to some of my findings, I think it’s valuable to establish that there exists linguistically definable and categorizable groupings of ‘offensive’ language. Essentially, all language that ‘offends’ is not created equally, nor does it elicit the same repercussions, nor does it occupy the same moral territory. 

Since this is not going to be a purely philosophical/linguistic discussion, I’ll link this publication by Lynne Tirrell, as it does a better job than I would at disentangling offensive terms as applied to people. Briefly, she writes that there’s a fundamental difference between obscene language (e.g. “He’s an asshole”) and deeply derogatory language (e.g. “He’s a [racial slur]), the latter of which are often tied to systems of oppression.

Lynne Tirrell Lecture Powerpoint Presentation Toxic Language University of Connecticut

In her work, she uses the example of the 1990s genocide in Rwanda to argue that an increasing normalization of the use of derogatory terms leads to a greater acceptance of non-linguistic (i.e. physical) actions. In this case, the state-controlled media was promulgating the normalization of these derogatory terms through newspapers and radio.

Fast-forwarding to 2021, social media giants such as Facebook have been blamed for causing religious riots as a result of their inability to monitor and flag inflammatory content on their platform.

Religious Hatred in India Riot

While these reports and studies are very much concerning, researchers have yet to causally prove a link between the temporal frequency of deeply derogatory language and the physical manifestation of hate violence in a society.

Moreover, I felt the examples of radio or social media quite far afield from the re-printing of classic works of fiction. For these reasons, my concerns about the detrimental effects of re-printing literature as it was originally written were tempered.

That being said, language in books has been a flashpoint in schools. Take for example Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, which contains numerous instances of the N-word. Here, I think it goes without saying that (quantitative research aside) asking black and white students, who have not yet emotionally or intellectually matured, to read that word aloud in an educational setting would not promote an effective learning environment.

High School Classroom Reading Books Aloud Together

Yet, Century Press’s catalog is not being taught in schools, but instead to adults who are themselves choosing to acquire and learn from our publications. The audience is fundamentally different.

Given this process of research and contemplation, I began to feel more confident moving forward with a framework for how slurs and other derogatory content would be addressed in Century Press editions.

And now to leave you (perhaps) with bated breath! Stay tuned for our next letter to learn how we approached deeply offensive content in our edition of The Sun Also Rises.

We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, so drop us a line on how you’d proceed if you were in the editor’s chair.


  • Joseph Lukesh

    I just received my copy of The Great Gatsby yesterday. It is beautiful and a joy to hold and see. Today I’m reading how you modified it. If I had known that I would not have purchased it. So I did not receive “The Great Gatsby” but rather “The Great Gatsby*” (* not as written by the author). As others note, if your published works are to be modified in order to assuage the weak souled who may encounter it, flag it clearly as such so I will opt to not purchase it.

  • Mel

    O, dear Century Press! I am confused by your dilemma, and hope it is not a harbinger of things to come. I could understand your position a little better if you published original material, that is, works that have not been published before. Such material could well contain words or actions or concepts that were offensive to you as a publisher. And, in that case, it would be your right to not publish such a work. You’re not censoring it or altering it, you’re simply not publishing it. I understand that.

    But you do not publish original work. Your mission is to publish “classic novels,” works that have already appeared in print, and that have been deemed to have lasting value. This mission makes your quandary all the more difficult to understand. Clearly, you read a book before deciding to publish it. If the book contains content that is troublesome, why publish it?

    This is your second book (I love my copy of The Great Gatsby) and the second time you have faced this issue. I think you’re at a crossroads: either you decide to publish works as they were written, or you bowdlerize them and neuter their classic status. I hope you’ll choose the former so that future generations will enjoy your books as true classics, as uncomfortable as aspects of them may be. We cannot change the past, and we should not do that to its works of literature, no matter how much we may disagree with its content.

    Please don’t emasculate Hemingway. Or any future books. In doing so you risk losing your identity as Century Press and becoming Censory Press.

  • Matt

    Please do not change a single word in any future books. We buy classics for what they are, not what we want them to become. Sure, times have changed. But erasing the past through censorship does a grave disservice to the art, the authors, and us (your readers). Please be very clear if you choose to censor future books so I can look elsewhere for collector classics. I have been really excited to buy one of your books this year, but if they are going to be dishonest works, I don’t think I will. I mean this with respect. All the best! I can appreciate the dilemma you face.

  • Ferenc Dobay

    Luckily I did not order your “Great Gatsby” book. If you decide to censor/alter the Hemingway book please cancel my order as soon as possible. I really despise this woke approach to literature more than anything else.

  • Rob

    I’m just so disappointed. I had been so excited to discover Century Press, and it never occurred to me that a publisher, ostensibly a lover of classic books, would even consider altering the author’s intended text. Under compulsion from the state, sure, but willingly? I have no words. Not printable ones, at least.

    I regret my purchase of “The Great Gatsby”. I don’t want to give up on Century, and I want to believe that you can still be a great publisher. But I don’t trust you to do the right thing. I hope I’ll still be able to buy an uncensored copy of Hemingway from you, but this letter doesn’t fill me with confidence. “Stay tuned … to learn how [you] approached offensive content”? The only thing we need to read is an apology for censoring Gatsby, and a promise never to do it again.

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