Alexis Woodbury

Alexis Woodbury with his book, "Huck Finn: A Rendition Into Contemporary English."

In observance of Banned Book week 2018, former WITCC professor, Alexis Woodbury came to the Weekender to talk about banned books and his new version of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

Why is it that some classic literature gets put on the banned book list, while other titles appear in course syllabi around the nation? Woodbury gives his perspective on the subject.

“I think people have good intentions of wanting to spare people what the banners feel is contamination,” said Woodbury. “They don’t want the young people to be contaminated by some certain ideas. That’s what Plato wanted to do. He wanted to ban a number of books, music and plays which he thought would have a negative influence on people. It was started a long time ago by people with pure intentions.”

Some people may rightly argue that banning books goes against the First Amendment to the American Constitution, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

“Mostly I think it does go against the First Amendment,” said the former WITCC professor. “One example would be ‘The Catcher in the Rye,’ a book I first picked up as a freshman in college. I read it and thought it was pretty good. I didn’t see why teachers would be fired for placing it on the extra credit reading list. Subsequently I read it again and could tell it was really good, and there weren’t issues in it that should deem it to get banned, so I think it went against the First Amendment rights when it was banned.”

On the other hand, there are books with inappropriate subject matters which should not have a place in schools.

“What about a book or an internet article where the author is telling pedophiles how to groom children,” said Woodbury. “Well, that’s a little bit more problematic, obviously. The First Amendment is interesting because it doesn’t give an absolute right to free speech. You can’t walk into a crowded theater and yell ‘FIRE,’ because people could get killed. These kinds of speech are not productive and protected under the amendment. I think there are constitutional limits on speech, the question being who will make the decision?”

There are also multiple ethical standpoints on the differing sides of banning books in and out of the classroom.

“The artist has a right to express and to do, which is Kantian, kind of self-expression and valuing of individual expression,” said Woodbury. “You could look at it in a Utilitarian point of view – will publishing this do more good than harm, or vice versa. Utilitarian concern is huge. You can also look at it in the terms of Virtue Ethics – will this book help the audience become more or less virtuous? Would it help them treat others in a kind, generous, respectful way, or does it encourage people to treat others in a less kind, less generous or less respectful way?”

Woodbury recently released ‘Huck Finn,’ a version of Mark Twain’s ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ that omits the outdated Mississippi dialect and replaces it with a more modern, easy to read language.

“After retiring I slept and watched TV for six months,” said Woodbury. “One day I felt a cloud coming toward me, and I didn’t know what was inside it, but I knew it would be my next project. As it got closer and pressed upon me, and one day it said, ‘Huck Finn.’ I wanted people to be able to have a chance to read the story. Basically it was a community service. I really had a heart for it because for me and my friends, as well as many white people, it was one of the first books to wake us up to racial issues. I think Huck Finn could easily be described as a civil rights hero, especially for his decision on the boat at the end of the story, to not turn Jim in to the people out to get him. Originally, in the Mississippi dialect of the 1830s, it can be a very difficult read, so I wanted to give young people half a chance to actually read it.”

With extra time on his hands since retiring from teaching, Woodbury has a couple more books in the works.

“I just began a book I call ‘Socrates in Seven,’” said Woodbury. “This is a project modernizing the first seven dialogues of Plato where he portrayed Socrates’ ideas. I won’t be taking any liberties with the Socrates project. I also started a readable version of Genesis from the Hebrew Scriptures. With the Genesis project, I plan on taking plenty of liberties in rendering it into contemporary English. I won’t be doing a word for word translation. It will be more about thought for thought and feeling for feeling.”

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