Saturday, July 17, 2010

Summer reading

It has been fifty years since the publication of Harper Lee's, To Kill a Mockingbird, and an hundred years since the death of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). In these hot languid days and nights, over the many years, the at least interested, if not diligent, high school kid has read, and reads some of his school's summer reading list. Over the years the national list has changed. Booth Tarkington, Gertrude Atherton, and Gene Stratton Porter have not been scheduled for several decades. Whims and fashion shape the list, and so does political tenor.

Lee's Mockingbird, and the faithful movie, has maintained its position. After some years it was assigned even in the southland. It has a child's view into the realisation of justice and injustice. It is a novel that, amongst other things, is a story of society's complicity in injustice. It also shows humanity in different people, in some the public would not initially respect.

Twain is one that has been translated early and has been a russian favorite. Many years reading critical literature, i noticed the russians read Huck Finn, and Robert Frost. The french, and the germans also, enjoyed Faulkner. For decades american students thought Hemingway would be the favorite. I should check this now, but ... no, you get the point.

We also have banned books by local fussbudgets, many being the important works of american literature. Steinbeck the social chronicler of the Great Depression and biologist often has more than one grand work prohibited. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been banned because of the inclusion of a [now] taboo racial term, 'nigger'. That the 'nigger' has more noble humanity than any other character in the story; that he acts more a father to the runaway, than his mean, drunkard, miscreant of a natural father, does not over rule the current taboo is illustrative of the age. The moral dilemma Huck has, and he passes, is that he does the right thing, when 'good, God-fearing, american' society would force him not to, is a rite of passage to real morality. He does the truly natural right thing, even though his education would damn him eternally.

Good literature is not just a well crafted collection of phrases, but a story of meaning, that needs to be told. We are not familiar whether Ms. Lee has some unreleased work. This may be her only work, and it is celebrated. The mockingbird still sings, even if prohibited.

Samuel Clemens (Twain) had many volumes, fiction and not. His observations are sharp, brilliant and wickedly humorous. His sharpness is not of a throwaway razor blade, but that of a shining sabre honed on a fine oilstone. In his last years, he dictated an auto-biography. He, his editors, his daughter Clara did not want the complete work in public for a hundred years. Twain died with the return of Haley's comet (1910). The century has past. Previous versions had been released, and scholars have used sections in collections. Now the first volume of three will be released. There is no surprise of the direction his thoughts turn, but the strength of the words.

Clemens was a pacifist and anti-imperialist. He also was openly contemptuous of robber baron capitalists, and financiers, and religious hypocrites. Those thoughts applied to the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, are more volatile now.

To-day's false civil religion of country worship which garnishes Thanksgiving he analysed then as having,
“originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for — annually, not oftener — if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man’s side, consequently on the Lord’s side, consequently it was proper to thank the Lord for it.”
We have just been freed from a rĂ©gime, that, approved of methods that were defined and prosecuted in Twain's day as torture in the Philippines. Of the american soldiers of the day, Twain uses the phrase “our uniformed assassins” when they killed civilians.

What Twain said of the moneyed class's effect on America: “have quite completely transformed our people from a nation with pretty high and respectable ideals to just the opposite of that; that our people have no ideals now that are worthy of consideration; that our Christianity which we have always been so proud of — not to say vain of — is now nothing but a shell, a sham, a hypocrisy; that we have lost our ancient sympathy with oppressed peoples struggling for life and liberty; that when we are not coldly indifferent to such things we sneer at them, and that the sneer is about the only expression the newspapers and the nation deal in with regard to such things”, would not be respectfully presented in much of the country to-day.

The insidious thing about the talent of one such as Twain, is that, he had a moral compass of internal integrity, that he would not allow to be inconsistent. The jingoists who would call every action right if their side did it, even when it transgressed their supposed code, Twain could not abide. This country is split to-day in two large factions. We know of whom Twain would ridicule and anathematise, and necessarily so.

Perhaps the last american writer of recognised stature that might have said similar things, Kurt Vonnegut, did not have the audience Twain had. Those words though clearly chosen in righteous logic would be attacked as not just provocative but traitorous to-day, more so than in 1910. If certain fussbudgets that would dangle a teabag from their hat were to find out these words of Twain to-day, his proscription would increase. Twain will be remembered by some as the teller of the tale where Tom Sawyer tricks people to paint a fence. That innocuous image will screen Twain from some opprobrium. Twain needs to be read and appreciated.

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Lee, Twain, Vonnegut, Steinbeck are all important american writers, who are often some would be censors' target. Ray Badbury's, Fahrenheit 451, is a tale against censorship, pure and simple. Books are banned, the title refers to the burning threshold of paper, and people are outlaws if they know a book. George Orwell's dystopia '1984' is dangerous as it describes an all evasive government, and society, that allows no mental freedom, even memory has to be conformed continuously. The last two books are paeans and lauds to freedom of thought, and jeremiads against authoritarianism. Perhaps the most famous anti-war novel is Erich Maria Remarque's, All's Quiet on the Western Front. I wonder if academic America has forgotten about it. I am surprised that it has not been banned in recent years, it had been many times before, and in a different countries and languages. Those few books mentioned are a great, and vital reading list.Banning for political reasons gives proof that freedom is lost. Some books are banned for frequent, unpleasant language (cussing), and for sexuality. It is hard to blame a parent for that. Sometimes dictionaries are banned, because children look up naughty words. There should be some sense involved. Banning a book from a library is a onerous punishment. Teaching and reading a required book, in class, that arises provocation for its presumed 'filthiness' is pushing too hard. A high school teacher assigning D.H. Lawrence, instead of T. E. Lawrence is just not right. Now, Ayn Rand has a hideous philosophy, and i can not remember her stuff being banned. Some writers are wretched in 130 pages, but she is wretched for 700 to 1400 pages, have mercy. After so many pages of bad writing, why continue reading any book?

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