As discussed yesterday, we’re celebrating (“celebrate” seems like an odd verb choice, but I’m sticking with it) Banned Books Week here on the blog by exploring various books that Somebody™ felt should be on the No-No List. Today’s edition focuses on cultural – and historical – context. The concept of looking at a work through the attitudes and various social/economic/political/etc. norms of the times seem to elude many people, so sit down, relax, and prepare to facepalm.
Little House on the Prairie – Laura Ingalls Wilder
When I think about subversive literature, the first book that doesn’t come to mind is this one. Little House on the Prairie, written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, is based on her life moving from the family’s home in the Big Woods of Wisconsin (read her Little House in the Big Woods for more details) to the prairies of Kansas around 1869-70. It was published in 1935. It wasn’t until the 1990s (!) that people in Louisiana and South Dakota started to protest this book’s depiction of Native Americans. Ma was prejudiced towards them; Laura was quite curious (she was about 3 at the time portrayed in the book); and Pa was rather progressive for the time, if my memory serves me correctly. When I read it for the first time in school, it was explained as part of a larger discussion that this was unfortunately how Native Americans were treated at the time.
Semi-related Fun Fact™: I woke up with scarlet fever on my 16th birthday when I was an exchange student in France. I cried hysterically when the doctor told me what I had, because I remember when Mary Ingalls went blind from scarlet fever in By The Shores of Silver Lake. Oh… spoiler alert if you haven’t read it. Sorry!
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
It’s impossible to have a conversation about banned books without bringing up (The) Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (Did you know the “The” didn’t come until later editions? #booknerd) It was published in the US in 1885 and immediately caused knickers to twist, especially at the Concord, Massachusetts library where it was banned:
One member of the committee says that, while he does not wish to call it immoral, he thinks it contains but little humor, and that of a very coarse type. He regards it as the veriest trash.
That’s kind of an amazing insult, if you think about it. I think I’m going to start pushing my glasses down my nose and saying with extreme disdain, “I regard you as the veriest trash.”
Anyhow, the book was obviously controversial back in the day, considering the social and political upheaval of the times. There’s no denying that it is liberally sprinkled with the “n” word, and challenges head-on an extremely uncomfortable period of our country’s history. (And let’s be honest: racial tensions are running extremely high in this country RIGHT NOW.) But I’d argue that this book is actually the opposite of racist… and I think that’s why it was so incendiary when it came out. For some reason, though, it keeps being challenged in schools and libraries across the country. It has routinely made the Top Ten List of Challenged Books in recent years compiled by the Office of Intellectual Freedom because of “racism” and its “offensive language”. CULTURAL CONTEXT, PEOPLE.
Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
Steinbeck’s 1937 novel about two migrant workers during the Great Depression is another frequent flier on the OIF’s Top Ten List of Challenged Books. Its purported crimes? Offensive language, racism, violence. In 2007, one particular pious high school junior in Iowa protested the use of “Jesus Christ!” as an exclamation. (I’m not making this up.) He said just reading it was as bad as saying it. Jesus wants you to do your homework, Troy. The lapsed Catholic in me can’t even with this kid.
Last year, several people in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho had to go home with a case of the sads when the school board denied their request to remove the book from the school’s curriculum. They didn’t like the book’s use of the words “bastard” and “God damn”, and also felt that the book was “negative” and “dark”.
You know what else was kind of negative and dark? THE GREAT DEPRESSION.
There are dozens and dozens more, but I’m saving the real fun (?!) for tomorrow and Friday. Remember, tomorrow is the “Raised In A Bubble” Edition, and Friday is the “I Can’t Even” Edition. Until then, be a troublemaker and read a banned book!