Literary Censorship: (Bleep) It All

“There is nothing more frightening than active ignorance.”
-Goethe

  

I was reading a news story earlier today about things that are going to be “banned” in various parts of the United States. These items ranged from hugging (cooties?) to milk (because we all know that will kill you), to bake sales and sweet treats (obviously we can no longer have fundraisers that contribute to the obesity epidemic) and the banning of a certain book for students in an advanced placement English class in California. (California? Land of the Liberal?)

The book in question was “The Bastard out of Carolina” written by Dorothy Allison and adapted into a film in 1996.  I haven’t read it, nor have I seen the film, and cannot say one way or the other if a book about an illegitimate teen pregnancy, abusive relationship(s), rape and dysfuncational families should be read by teenagers in school because I don’t know “how” it was written. (I only read the synopsis.) I can’t say I’m thrilled about the idea of my daughters reading it as “required reading,” but then again, I have to wonder if my parents were keen on me reading books from the non-exclusive once banned book list below.

  • The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger (one of the all time favorite books of censors)
  • The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  • The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
  • 1984, by George Orwell
  • Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
  • Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
  • Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
  • Animal Farm, by George Orwell
  • As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
  • A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
  • All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren
  • The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
  • A Separate Peace, by John Knowles  

Most of these books I read in junior high or high school and learned much about writing from them. I also learned much about how the authors saw the world and I expanded not only my vocabulary, but my point of view. This is not to say that all of these books should be read by one so young. I didn’t realize that one of my favorite books, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, wasn’t meant to be a young adult book until the other day.

“I wrote ‘Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Huck Finn’ for adults exclusively, and it always distressed me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean.” – Mark Twain –

I do believe that Mr. Twain has a valid point. The things we read and the things we see cannot be unread or unseen. Where is the point of demarcation between censorship and the “protection” our youth? I do not have the answer, nor does anyone else. It’s subjective.

I also cannot say that any of the books I have read as a child warped me beyond measure or maladjusted my thinking, but maybe I am one of the fortunate ones. But in considering this thought, shouldn’t there be books that realign or adjust our thinking?

I want to bring up two cases in point: “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” and “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley.

According to the American Library Association, as recently as 2010, a parent requested her daughter not be required to read Anne Frank’s diary aloud. Initially, in a Virginia school district, it was reported that officials decided to stop assigning a version of Anne Frank’s diary, due to the complaint that the book includes sexual material and homosexual themes. “The director of instruction announced the edition published on the fiftieth anniversary of Frank’s death in a concentration camp will not be used in the future despite the fact the school system did not follow its own policy for handling complaints.” As a result, the gates of Hades opened and those remarks set of a rush of criticism online and brought international attention to the 7,600-student school system in Virginia. The ALA reported, “The superintendent said, however, that the book will remain a part of English classes, although it may be taught at a different grade level.”

I don’t really give a rat’s tail if there is sexual material or if there are homosexual themes in Anne Frank’s diary. What I do care about is this diary is an unfiltered view of the horrors of World War 2 and Nazi Germany. As they say, if we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it. Who better to learn it from than one who lived through the nightmare?

The ALA also reported Harper Challenged at North County High School in Glen Burnie, Md. in 2010 by a small group of parents who circulated a petition to have “Brave New World” removed from use by county schools over concerns about explicit sexual content. The 1932 novel depicts a dystopian future where science and technology have run amok resulting in a morally bankrupt society. (Tell me this doesn’t sound at all familiar.)  Retained on the list of approved materials that Seattle, Wash. high school teachers may use in their language arts curriculum (2011). A parent had complained that the book has a “high volume of racially offensive derogatory language and misinformation on Native Americans. In addition to the inaccurate imagery, and stereotype views, the text lacks literary value which is relevant to today’s contemporary multicultural society.
I actually found the arguments against “Brave New World” somewhat amusing. This book has been challenged since 1932 when it was banned in Ireland.  Other challenges on this book in the 1980’s led to this book being removed from classrooms in Miller, MO in1980 because it makes promiscuous sex “look like fun.” and  in Oklahoma in 1988 because of “the book’s language and moral content.”  Other complaints were characters showing “contempt for religion, marriage and family” in 2000 and in 2003 another complaint showed parents objected to “adult themes of sexuality,drugs and suicide” that appeared in the novel.

In today’s “politically correct” society, I chuckle because the complaints are NOT about the contempt of family values, but of “racially offensive derogatory language and misinformation on Native Americans, etc…” rounding out with the statemnt that there is no literary value relevant to “today’s contemporary multicultural society.

If they are pissed because of racially offensive language, then we might as well wipe out a LOT of American literature that used the N word (or other words), even though it was “acceptable” once upon a time. In fact, why don’t we just sterilize everything before it goes to print so as to eliminate any possible words that could elicit any kind of response from someone. Today, if someone reads a text that has the word “nigger” in it, it will evoke an emotional response and I think from a historical perspective, that is something that needs to be kept in play.

No literary value?

Who or what determines literary value?

Huxley’s work is genius. If you look at the fact it was written in 1931 and brilliantly depicts a dehumanized life in a futuristic totalitarian state, which is not too unsimilar to today’s times, I can see why someone would want you to think that there is no literary value to this novel.  There are eerie prophetic moments where he describes genetic engineering and biological / technological advancements that take man away from nature. Isn’t that what is going on?  Huxley was a man before his time – much like Jules Verne. Maybe these people are hiding their fear of the prophecy coming to pass behind their politically correct outrage over words written 80 years ago that no one has ever really complained about to the American Library Association.

The one thing of which I am certain: I will never condone the burning or the outright banning of books.  There are many books I will never read for many different reasons; however, to tell an author his point of view has no validity, his muse is mistaken and his writing has no worth is wrong. Sometimes we have to remember that people can be trusted with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies and competitive values and our children are people too.
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