Don’t clean the stains of history from the written page — we must learn from them

Dalton Delan
4 min readMay 12


Given the state of affairs in Ukraine, we would hardly wish to model our educational and propaganda behavior on that of the Russians, yet it appears we are doing precisely that. Philosopher George Santayana famously warned that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” From building-naming and statuary to the new frontier of rewriting the texts of famous authors who can no longer object from six feet under, we are Soviet in spirit.

After exiling revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin made certain that all images of this leading Marxist were covered up, cut or airbrushed from photographs. Stalin also inserted himself, Zelig-like, into important historical photos or had his techs exaggerate his height or airbrush his facial features. We have long considered such alteration of the historical record the kind of thing that makes George Orwell’s “1984” so frightening.

Among the dilemmas of our current era of PC-mania is the mortal bleed in the body politic from buildings and monuments to far more questionable rewrites of history. The recent removal of President Woodrow Wilson’s name from Princeton’s School of Public Affairs was long overdue. Given Wilson’s record of racism, antisemitism and support for the KKK, way back when I attended I thought it was obscene to name a school after him even though he had also been president of the university. As for monuments to Confederate generals, do we memorialize other notable traitors? Pull ’em down. Everybody must get stoned.

So ends the justifiable value proposition as it applies to public tributes to the undeserving. In the ever-widening gyre of searching for cleansing agents for our historical and cultural sins, the next hernia palpation is the one that should elicit the biggest cough. For some years now but heating up of late, publishers have engaged in dubious battle with language contained in great works of the 19th and 20th centuries. Many of us are well aware that Mark Twain employed racial slurs we abhor in “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Having the protagonists of the novel speak in regional dialects was an issue even in his day. Nor is it an easy edit, as Twain used the N-word 219 times. Because of this, modern texts, especially because of school use, have replaced this word with “slave.”

Whether we agree or not, we can understand this particular posthumous rewrite of a classic. But the “teaching moment” of confronting the implicit and explicit racism of an earlier time is viewed by some educators as essential to elucidating the past rather than whitewashing it. It’s a fine line, and the needs of schools are a tough call, as we are seeing in school districts already over the river and through the woods on banning imaginary problematic texts. In many cases, these feel like the witch-hunts of the McCarthy era from which one wishes the school boards and PTAs would move on.

The wholesale cleanup of texts outside of the classroom is now exploding as well. Dr. Seuss, Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, Ursula K. Le Guin, Herge and many other major authors have come in for hefty edits or even complete removal from the market of offending texts, presumably never to be seen again lest they offend the unwary or, worse still, the woke.

Modernizing or adulterating the works of those not around to make the case on behalf of the integrity of their work seems utterly wrong to me. As a writer, how could it not? I could understand a foreword or afterword in which mention is made of the norms of the time and artistic purpose of “fat” or “dumb” or any number of other non-PC expressions that were once commonplace. Would we also update Shakespeare and his Fool?

The slippery slope we are on implies a fear that readers are incapable of understanding that an author’s use of language doesn’t justify its current employ. Implicit in all this is a profound disrespect for readers. Because Abraham is set to murder Isaac, would we so model our own behavior? There is much to edit to bring the Testaments in line with today. Charles Bukowski’s fictional alter egos drink like fish, as he did. Should we ban his books? I was privileged to work with him. He lived in vino veritas. I sincerely hope that readers don’t quaff several bottles of red upon reading him.

The train of politically correct rewriting of literature has left the station and is gathering speed in a race to the bottom. Once we start fixing everything we don’t like in this way, the past and its truths disappears. In its place, our children inherit a woke world in which words are always inoffensive — at least according to the self-appointed language police of the given hour. In the beginning was the Word. Amen.



Dalton Delan

Winner of three Emmy Awards, Dalton Delan pens biweekly The Unspin Room, which began August 7, 2016 in The Berkshire Eagle; it has appeared in 50+ newspapers.