Thursday, October 11, 2012

Oregon Banned Book Week continues: The virtues of a-blowing around and cussing and whooping and carrying on

Technically, Oregon Banned Book Week is over until next September, but I've decided it's not really over until we say it's over. Got a problem with that?

There are plenty of books that have been challenged or banned in Oregon public and school libraries over the years. Every year the list compiled by the Oregon ACLU and the Oregon Library Association includes some hardy perennials but also an encouraging number of new entries, including the allegedly “anti-family” The Hunger Games.

So why come back to an old warhorse like Huck Finn?

Because no challenged work is so famous and admired that it can't use an extra friend when the improvers and uplifters and scolds come after it. And, for one reason or another, Huck has been in their sights almost since he first saw the light of published day.

Another reason is that, over the years, Huck's had to take his hidings from both sides: cultural conservatives and well-meaning progressives. Save us all from the people who want to censor and bowdlerize books because they imagine doing so will somehow protect progressive causes. They couldn't be more wrong.
Nothstine's Law of Free Speech: If defending freedom of speech and thought doesn't hurt at least a little, you're probably not doing it right.
A generation or two after it was published in 1884, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was praised by such dignitaries as T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, and H. L. Mencken as the headwaters from which all later American novels flowed -- the first novel about American themes with American characters, doing American things, all rendered in American English.

In fact, though, that was where the trouble began:
In 1885, the Concord Public Library in Massachusetts banned the year-old book for its “coarse language” — critics deemed Mark Twain’s use of common vernacular (slang) as demeaning and damaging. A reviewer dubbed it “the veriest trash … more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.” Little Women author Louisa May Alcott lashed out publicly at Twain, saying, “If Mr. Clemens [Twain's original name] cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses he had best stop writing for them.” (That the N word appears more than 200 times throughout the book did not initially cause much controversy.) In 1905, the Brooklyn Public Library in New York followed Concord’s lead, banishing the book from the building’s juvenile section with this explanation: “Huck not only itched but scratched, and that he said sweat when he should have said perspiration.” Twain enthusiastically fired back, and once said of his detractors: “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.”

It's true. Twain's characters were often known to drink and swear, and occasionally even to cheat and lie and skip Sunday school and depart from the King's English, and they frequently seemed not the least repentant about it all. In a world that had not begun to watch “Mad Men,” the guardians of the old literary/moral order were not best pleased by this.

Today, of course, Huck faces a more insidious cadre of censors, ones who can't so easily be ridiculed out of court, although they are no less pernicious -- perhaps more so -- than those once so eager to defend America's tender youth from irreverent images of folks a-whooping and carrying on: I refer to those who want to pick up the scalpel based on the fact that Twain's characters used the word “nigger” over 200 times in a story set entirely in antebellum slave states. I've dealt with this problem elsewhere.

But that came later; it was the whooping and carrying on that originally got Huck Finn crossways with the censors. Like this:

If your browser won't display the embedded version, click here

Some people just have a problem with images of people behaving the way they don't think people should behave, however sympathetic or unsympathetic the portrayal.

Sorry, Ms. Alcott.

Read banned books.

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