Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Dealing with ugliness

In the foreword to Rereadings, a collection she edited, Anne Fadiman writes of reading C.S. Lewis's The Horse and His Boy to her young son, and of her shock at seeing things she hadn't noticed when loving the book as a child. She was troubled enough to try to discuss this with her son (e.g., "'Have you noticed that The Horse and His Boy isn't really fair to girls? And that all the bad guys have dark skin?'"), although, as Fadiman says, "He didn't want to analyze, criticize, evaluate, or explicate the book." He was far more interested in the plot. He wanted to find out what happened to the main characters.

I suspect most readers have had these encounters with celebrated literature from the past, either recommended by others or fondly remembered by ourselves: the shock of finding sentiments and prejudices that stick in our craws. I grew up reading books that often treated girls and women as foreign creatures, not quite human. Whenever I encountered an offending statement, it would jerk me out of the book for a moment, and then I would shrug and think, "That's what they believed then, but we know better now," and go on to get whatever I could from the book. Which was often quite a lot. When I was a girl, the Second Wave of feminism was in full swing, in plain sight, in your face, and so the culture around me affirmed what I knew inside me: of course I was a person, no less real and valuable than a boy. And so I wasn't much shaken by any bigotry to the contrary in my literature.*

It's difficult, however, to know whether to recommend books with such anachronistic views in them, especially in the cases where we ourselves are not members of the group that's being disparaged. People have struggled with the depiction of American Indians in the Little House books, for example. Colleen Mondor discussed some of these issues when she blogged about reading Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's Cross Creek. I look at Booth Tarkington's Penrod and Alice Adams, the latter a recipient of the 1922 Pulitzer Prize. Both are delightful and wonderfully written books in many ways--except that much of what Tarkington writes about his African-American characters is cringe-inducing. Therefore, should we forget these books? Does the bad overshadow everything good in them? Or is it better to read such books with today's children and discuss history, and the books' flaws and misconceptions forthrightly? And who decides?

I don't know. I've wanted to blog about this issue for a long time, but since I obviously have a bunch of questions and no answers, I hesitated. Now I've decided I might as well put the questions out there, for what it's worth.

One thing I am cautious about is getting on too high a horse about any of this: "We were so ignorant in the past, but we're so enlightened now." I believe and hope we are more enlightened, but I always wonder what in today's literature will make our children and our grandchildren cringe when they read it decades from now.


*Which isn't to say that I thought chauvinism was completely dead, completely a relic of the past. But overall, there was a sense that the tide had turned, that the full empowerment of women was, if not a present reality, inevitable in the not-so-distant future. These days, I'm not so sure. But that's another story.

6 comments:

  1. Wonderful post. Like you, I don't have answers, but I love thought-provoking subject matter. I adore reading classic and celebrated literature from the past, so I lean toward sharing these books and discussing everything about them openly. But I'm considering this now, and will continue considering.

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    1. At my other blog, there was some discussion about how we do need to remember where we've come from, so as not to wallpaper over the truths of history. There was support for reading books along with historical context.

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  2. Funny, when I saw that she was talking about "The Horse and His Boy," I was sure she was going to mention the violence in it, which I was rather surprised by when I went back and read it. Didn't bother me as a kid, though. I guess I never noticed any unfairness to girls in particular in the Narnia books, because there were always either 2 girls and 2 boys, or a girl and a boy, with a strong and weaker girl (Lucy vs. Susan) and a strong and weaker boy (Peter vs. Edmund). Then again, "The Horse and His Boy" was never my favorite, so...

    One of the things about kids is that they often don't clock the details you mentioned. Racism, sexism, etc. (and being attuned to discimination) isn't inborn. I read "Huckleberry Finn" when I was eight, and the entire point of how Huck and Jim's friendship was unique was completely lost on me. Then we read it in high school and I was like "OHHH I get it!!" (lol) But then, I'm not part of a minority group, so I have no idea how my readings of books might have changed if I was. It's interesting to think about.

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    1. Yes, I think it can be easier to miss slights that are not aimed at ourselves.

      And as you note, sometimes a knowledge of certain historical facts becomes necessary to understand things--like why Huck and Jim were trying to go north, and why they had to use such elaborate ruses when they traveled.

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  3. This issue came to mind when my daughter and I read The Magician's Nephew together last year. She felt bothered by the chauvinistic attitudes toward women then. Something she doesn't see today at all. It was the first time I'd read the book myself so I had a lot of explaining to do.

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    1. Haven't read that myself. But you made me think that, as painful as it is to explain past prejudices to our children, at least we have the relief of telling them, "It's not like that anymore." It's so much harder to explain the injustices that are still with us.

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