All the Sins of Literature
There’s child abuse in “Huckleberry Finn.”
Regicide in “Macbeth”.
Blasphemy in “The Catcher in the Rye”.
Suicide in “Things Fall Apart”.
Domestic violence in “The Color Purple”.
Rape in “A Streetcar Named Desire”.
Gang violence in “A Most Beautiful Thing”.
Adultery in “The Awakening”.
Grave robbing in “Frankenstein”.
Incest in Greek mythology.
Drag race in “The Outsiders”.
Witchcraft in “The Wizard of Oz”.
I have taught using each of these works for the past 20+ years, and have never suggested students engage in any of the above activities. Nor, to my knowledge, has any student ever murdered a king, joined a gang, or participated in any of the other behaviors just because they read about it.
Addressing difficult subjects in school is not the same as defending them. Most children understand this. Some adults, apparently, don’t.
Case in point: In Tennessee, recently, the McMinn County School Board voted 10 to 0 to remove Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, from an eighth grade unit. year about the Holocaust, as it contains some cartoon depictions. naked animals and a handful of swear words.
Spiegelman’s book tells the story of his interviews with his father, who in turn tells his harrowing story of survival in Poland and Czechoslovakia in the 1930s and 1940s. It’s not an enjoyable read, and it’s not is not supposed to be. We are talking about the Holocaust, when over 6 million Jews were murdered.
The author portrays all the people in the book as animals. The Jews are mice; the Germans, the cats. It’s a brilliant metaphor and powerful testimony, worthy of standing alongside other essential works of Holocaust literature, including Elie Wiesel’s “Night.”
A story by David Corn in Mother Jones explains how the council decided to ban Spiegelman’s book. According to Corn’s summary of the reunion, one member admits he hasn’t read “Maus” and suggests the volume is “just the tip of the iceberg” in terms of allegedly inappropriate material.
Another board member suggests that works like “Maus” could be part of an attempt to “normalize sexuality, normalize nudity and normalize vulgar language”. He also hints that such books are a way to “indoctrinate someone’s children,” as if Tennessee teachers are chuckling at their desks as they hatch a subversive plot to destroy America’s youth by teaching the truth. on the Holocaust.
And children need to learn this truth. The US Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey in 2020 found that “11% of US millennial and gen Z respondents think Jews caused the Holocaust” and some 59% think something similar to the Holocaust could happen again.
(Conspiracy supporters willing to pounce on mask and vaccine mandates as contemporary examples should sit down. No valid comparison can be made between curbing a pandemic and killing millions.)
Focusing only on the nekkid mice and a few swear words misses the point of “Maus”, in the same way that focusing only on the bloody daggers in “Macbeth” misses the larger themes of unchecked ambition and overwhelming guilt in the rest of the room.
Far from normalizing negative behaviors, works that deal with difficult subjects provide teachable moments. After my class read “A Streetcar Named Desire,” I invited the director of the local domestic violence shelter to speak. She demonstrated how Stanley Kowalski, the male protagonist, met most of the characteristics of an abuser. At least one student identified behaviors in a current relationship that met the criteria for emotional abuse. It was a realization that happened because of the intersection between literature and real life.
I doubt McMinn County teachers will delve into the nudity and swearing in “Maus,” and I doubt their students will be titillated by cartoons, set as they are in a non-fiction horror story, and guided to an understanding by professional educators.
Take any passage from almost any book, story, or play out of context and you might question its relevance. Stitch all of these passages together and you might come to the disturbing – and mistaken – conclusion that America’s schools are awash in gore, gore and smut.
The Tennessee board of directors came to a similarly erroneous conclusion about “Maus”. Let it be a lesson for all voters to elect sensible people to school boards, candidates who support high-quality literature and don’t just look for dirty pictures and words.
Or, at the very least, board members who will read an entire book before deciding whether to ban it.
Contact Chris at [email protected] On Twitter: @cschillig.