Put her in the fire!







“The world is tottering to ruin, evidence not merely of decrepitude, but of final collapse.”

This was said by St. Cyprian, in the middle of the second century A.D.

What causes social change? No way is there time or space to open that can of annelids, but one thing for sure, the history of publishing includes the history of governmental and institutional (and personal) attempts to suppress certain types of publications because the authorities were certain that some works would hustle that total collapse all the faster.

So, what sorts of things got banned? Human nature being what it is, as soon as rudimentary printed woodcuts were invented, someone laboriously etched some porn. But alongside the bawdy were items some authority considered treasonous; within twenty years after Gutenberg invented his printing press, the Germans instituted a censorship office. Over in England, Henry VIII was right on board with controlling London’s emerging press, forbidding work from overseas; in the colonies, the Puritans staged their first public book burning in 1650. In spite of the First Amendment, there was vigorous press policing in all directions, culminating in Congress passing the Comstock Law—which led to bannings of such porn faves as the Canterbury Tales, the Arabian Nights, and authors such as John Steinbeck and Victor Hugo.

Human beings are as conflicted as they are gregarious; as strong as the impulse to mind everyone else’s business for their own good is the curiosity about the forbidden. In France, according to Robert Darnton in his Forbidden Best-Sellers in Pre-Revolutionary France, there was a thriving industry called the libelles, whose product was aimed at the government and the Church, in as scurrilous and wild a form as possible. According to Vic Gattrell in City of Laughter, between 1770 and 1830, during the so-called polite period of English history, London’s printshops published some 20,000 satirical and bawdy engravings. England and France’s coastal booksellers did landslide business shipping forbidden books back and forth across the Channel for the bilingual reader.

Who printed this stuff, why, and how it was passed around makes as interesting a story as the history of mainstream literature. Did everyone read forbidden books? If they wanted it, they could find it, according to researchers. How much influence did it have? A French writer observed during the 1700s, “The more a libelle is forbidden, the more it is coveted.” But then he added, “When you have read it and seen that it provides no reward for your audacity, you are ashamed to have run after it.”

The question of what was suitable for polite company changed as time went by. In his memoirs,  Sir Walter Scott, recounted  an old aunt of his requesting he send her the works of Aphra Behn, which she remembered with fondness from her youth. She soon wrote back, . . . put her in the fire, for I found it impossible to get through the very first novel. But is it not a very odd thing that I, an old woman of eighty and upwards, sitting alone, felt myself ashamed to read a book which, sixty years ago, I have heard read aloud for the amusement of large circles, consisting of the first and most creditable society in London?

In the eighteenth century, Malesherbes, the official appointed by the king to take charge of the French banning books office, stated ironically that anyone who read only approved books would be a century behind everyone else. Governments and institutions have largely been determined to maintain the status quo, and that meant limiting the free flow of ideas considered dangerous to the public good, whether political or moral. How that was determined is not always so easy to comprehend when we look back.

According to Darnton, the second most popular forbidden book (determined by looking at the strictly kept records of how many copies were confiscated and pulped) was Thérèse philosophe, a pornographic story about a free-thinking young lady, which is pretty much what one would expect, but the big surprise was the top best seller, by a significant margin: it was science fiction, called L’Ane 2440, or “The year 2440,” written by Louis-Sebastien Mercier.

When one reads a summary of the plot now, we can understand why there isn’t a copy around even on university reading lists. A bigger snore fest would be difficult to find. Its only interest would be as a social-history curiosity, as the plot (what there was of it) consisted of a man falling asleep in 1771 and waking up several centuries later, whereupon he walks around Paris looking at how things had changed, until he falls asleep again and wakes up in his own time.

So what was the content that was deemed so dangerous? Mercier’s Utopian Paris features people, poor and aristocrat, dressed pretty much alike, in comfortable, loose clothing, their hair simply tied back instead of piled up and plastered and powdered in the torturous fashions of the time. Nobody wears swords, as those are emblems of “the old prejudice of Gothic chivalry.” Everyone has access to the king; public space is open to all; the Bastille has been replaced by the Temple of Clemency, the royal palaces are now homes for artists, and the pestilential “hospital” of the time has been replaced by a Temple of Inoculation, where everyone gets preventive medicine, but if they do fall ill, they are given private beds and excellent care in public hospitals. Religious expression is now a universal and inclusive awareness of the Supreme Being, which has resulted in the entire city becoming pious—and also educated in sciences and civics as well as art.

Sounds pretty vanilla to us! But the lesson of this book, with everyone thriving after the banishment of standing armies, aristocrats, priests, prostitutes, beggars, arbitrary arrest, taxes, coffee, tea, tobacco, and pastry cooks, read like a specific and energetic indictment of everything the Ancien Regime stood for, and everyone during the late eighteenth century knew it.

This book stayed popular for several decades—including during and after the French Revolution. Some maintained that l’Ane 2440 was a harbinger of the Revolution, though there was no evidence at the time, according to Darnton, that Mercier foresaw the upheaval to come. (Though in later editions, as he kept tinkering with the content, he claimed to have foretold the Revolution.)

The twentieth century saw a gradual relaxation of banning until the Comstock Law was struck down in the mid-sixties. Hardcore porn was relegated to its own closed-off sections of “adult” book and film stores, and you can find anything you want on the Internet. The attitude in today’s society seems to be that adults are capable of making up their own minds. But. That attitude comes to a screeching halt when the subject of children is brought up. As soon as someone takes the moral high ground with the words, We have to think of the children! out come the committees and groups and coalitions and organizations.

Sometimes these groups do good work on behalf of those who cannot protect themselves, but other times it seems that emotion is mistaken for principle, and reason seems to go out the window. So, in the name of the children, we get situations like, in 1989, a kiddie book about Little Red Riding Hood being banned because, as its organization ranted before a quailing school board, the illustration of Little Red bringing a basket of food to Gramma might encourage an interest in alcohol. A Wrinkle in Time got on the hit list for mentioning Jesus Christ in the context of famous figures fighting against evil. The Great Gilly Hopkins, another award winner about a girl emerging from childhood into adolescence, got slammed for a scene in which she chews gum. Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Silas Marner, and the works of Shakespeare have been deemed unfit for youth to read, by some group or other.

When I was thirteen, my mother told me about Catcher in the Rye being strictly forbidden at her high school in the late forties—so of course, everyone had to read it, even the non-readers. When she told me this in 1965, I had to get a note from home to check it out of the library. Wow, a banned book! (What did I find? A whiny, boring jerk who used four letter words, and sounded like the teenage boys around me. What a disappointment!)

My fellow bloggers will be exploring aspects of book banning all week. Let me end with my own experience as a teacher. One year I had in my small classroom at a nominally Christian private school, two Roman Catholics kids, one fundamentalist Christian, two Buddhists, one Muslim, several LDS, and a few non-religious kids. There was one mom who took it upon herself to demand that the children only read books acceptable to her–and when I resisted, she tried going over my head. Only one or two other parents agreed with her, but she was determined to control the reading for the entire class. Was she right to do so? Some agreed, some disagreed, everyone vehemently.

Parents or guardians of kids usually sympathize with the fierce desire to protect one’s children from the horrors and uglinesses that can happen in the world, but sympathy can snap into antipathy when someone uses their sense of moral superiority to decide for you what your children can, or cannot, experience.

When parents asked me about specific books, as in “Should my child read this?” I might recommend or caution depending on what I knew about the kid’s interests and reading level, as well as their home background, but I always encouraged parents to read the book in question first, and if the kid was insistent on reading it because everybody else was, be prepared to have a family discussion about it.

Open communication between parents and children seems the best way to establish a solid moral core; certainly the saddest thing (to me) was seeing children who had learned to lie to their parents rather than be punished for their curiosity. Those were the children who, when conflicted between what they were told at home and what they heard in the rest of the world, turned to the schoolyard for answers.



Put her in the fire! — 20 Comments

  1. So many interesting points that it’s hard to know where to begin. I copied this, about the libelles to talk about: “When you have read it and seen that it provides no reward for your audacity, you are ashamed to have run after it.”
    —–but then there was the intriguing description from the book about 2440, when free access to medicine and the wearing loose-fitting clothes apparently threatened society! And you are so right children and things relating to children are our current touchy spot (actually, I can think, possibly, of a few others). And, as to your last point, I do think it’s possible to come down to irreconcilable differences (as in the case of you and the parent that year), and then, what to do. . . not an easy one to answer.

  2. Sometimes when you hear that a book has been banned and you go seek it out, it does provide reward. I read Nana in high school because it had been banned, and it was great.

    But I’ve also been on the other side. Running the Summer Reading table at the library, and having this tiny girl (seven, eight?) show her list of chapters from Harry Potter 4 with a rather disinterested parent behind her made me pull the parent aside and ask her if she was reading it with her daughter. And she wasn’t. Some books can be emotionally traumatic experiences, and having someone to talk to about it is important.

    Protecting children from books by banning them rather than by steering appropriate ones toward the kid and allowing learning and development and change sounds a bit like throwing Danaë into her tower. And when you end up putting your kid in a chest and throwing her into the sea – you know you’ve made some shitty child-rearing decisions.

  3. I have two adult children and one teenager. All three love to read. I don’t think I have ever stopped them reading a book. Harry Potter and sci. fi./fantasy were encouraged. When topics like religion, witchcraft, etc. were raised, we discussed it, quite often at the dinner table. If I had a concern about the book in question, I would read it as well and then talk about it with my child. (They learned quickly that I would pick up any of their books to read, so a sense of reading forbidden things and getting one over on Mom disappeared quickly.) I always felt that it was better for my children to be exposed to a variety of books and learn to judge for themselves, rather than someone dictating to them what they could or shouldn’t read.

    Thank you for a thought provoking blog. I enjoyed it a lot.

    • Thanks for stopping by. And for what I think of as a sensible approach–at least, it has always seemed to me that kids gain a better chance at developing a moral compass if they learn about the world bit by bit but feel safe enough to discuss what they encounter at home. If they are punished for questions or explorations, then the home becomes adversarial, and not the place to come back to for safety and wisdom.

  4. You can see it in the current “Culture Wars.” Fear. Some ideas ARE dangerous, but suppression isn’t the answer. Respecting other people’s concerns while promoting free exchange of ideas is a very delicate balance.
    And not stories are right for everyone–even kids who want to read something they aren’t ready for. Even at my advanced age, I self-censor stories I know will just ick me out.
    Congratulations, Sherwood, on escaping the punishing heat.

  5. I’, sending this to my 14 year old daughter–her English teacher was discussing banned books in class, and she seemed interested (and a little taken aback).

  6. I am sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table, with my mom across the table from me and grandma busy at the kitchen island, and at several points had to read bits of this aloud to them. Specifically, the paragraph about Sir Walter Scott’s memoirs (what mom finds most interesting is the aunt’s awareness of this trend; I found myself wondering if grandma — a woman of eighty and upwards — had any books like that from her own youth), several paragraphs about The Year 2440 (laughter from both of them), and the paragraph about Catcher in the Rye, which then required explanation for grandma, who’s never read it. (My reaction to the book was much the same as yours, only it was part of my 9th grade curriculum.)

  7. I’ve been thinking a lot about Walter Scott’s Aunt these days, with the sudden triumph of the “Shades of Grey” books. Seems like the same story, in reverse. Suddenly, gray-haired aunties are reading–and discussing in book clubs!–BDSM porn that they would not have touched in their youth. How do I know this? Because we gray-haired aunties who did read Anais Nin, The Story of O, and Justine in our youth see nothing new or interesting in the lightly-disguised porn on the current best-seller list.

  8. When I hear stories about classrooms such as yours, with parents who want to control the reading list, I am thankful for my own (arguably benignly neglectful) parents, who said I could read anything I wanted, as long as I asked them any questions that arose afterward.

    The only time this was tested was when a cousin sent me a copy of Screw, a weekly counter-culture bad-boy newspaper in which he’d found an article that he thought would amuse me, in which the author attempted to prove that the word “fuck” could be used correctly for every grammatical class…except as a copulative verb. My father tossed the rag out, insisting it wasn’t because it was offensive but because it was just tacky…

  9. Judging by the synopsis, Monsieur Mercier was rather prescient in his description of Paris in the year 2440. He even predicted that the royal palaces would be handed over to artists – the Louvre was a royal palace before 1789.

    • I was thinking the same thing! His points — at least the ones Sherwood summarized — sound a great deal like the present day. (We may not *all* dress in comfortable, loose-fitting clothing and pull our hair back, but a lot of people do.)

      • I suspect the guy was writing up the sorts of things he heard around him–revolution was in the air. (He also tinkered with it over the years, bringing it ‘up to date’ so to speak.)