Johnathan Zimmerman | Feb. 9, 2010 | The Philadelphia Inquirer
Profane, Offensive, and Great: Americans have made a habit of taking misguided umbrage at literature.
“Books should offend you,” a professor told my literature class 30 years ago, when I started college. “They should make you squirm and sweat. They should keep you up at night.”
He paused for effect. “Have a nice a day,” he concluded.
Everybody laughed, of course. But the joke was on us. Americans want to feel good, and they want the same for their kids. So we try to protect them from books that hurt.
Look no further than J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, which remains one of the most frequently challenged books in American schools and libraries. When Salinger died last month, obituaries dutifully noted that many schools had removed the book in response to parental complaints.
But these complaints have changed over time, marking an important shift in the culture. When Catcher in the Rye first hit the shelves in 1951, critics condemned it as a threat to the body politic. Now they’re more likely to denounce it as insulting to Christian conservatives, who have happily accepted America’s contemporary gospel: Offend no one.
Early detractors focused on Catcher‘s crude language, blasting the book as “obscene,” “pornographic,” and “immoral.” They carefully counted the number of profanities in it, which topped 700 by some calculations.
Critics at the time insisted that these words were bad for everyone. Like the sex-laden comic books of the era, Salinger’s book was accused of threatening Americans’ shared morals. It would therefore soften them up for communism, which was vying with the American system for the soul of the world.
By the 1980s and 1990s, however, the criticisms of Catcher had changed. The critics were mostly from the so-called Christian right, and they said Salinger’s book violated their distinct values and traditions.
In 1992, for example, a group called Concerned Citizens of Florida asked high schools to remove Catcher from required-reading lists because of its “vulgarity, disrespect, and anti-Christian sentiment.” Profanity remained a problem, of course, but for a different reason: It would offend or alienate the “Christians” in a classroom.
Here the Christian right was borrowing a page from the multicultural left, which was trying to insulate racial minorities and women from school materials that might offend them. Self-appointed censors probed textbooks to purge them of allegedly bigoted or stereotypical content, producing some odd distortions along the way. By the late ’80s, for example, books for elementary school students were more likely to depict female characters as spies, shepherds, or anthropologists than as homemakers.
Most notoriously, African American activists demanded that schools remove Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because it uses the racist N-word to describe Jim, the escaped slave who befriends Huck Finn. Here, too, the critics carefully counted the number of appearances of offending words – more than 200! – and complained that the book insulted their sensibilities.
“I can still recall the anger I felt as my white classmates read aloud the word …,” one black critic wrote in 1982, recalling his encounter with Huck Finn 30 years earlier. “In fact, as I write this letter I am getting angry all over again.”
And so do we all. The Merchant of Venice? Anti-Semitic. Of Mice and Men? Racist. (It uses the N-word, too.) The Harry Potter series? “Satanic,” some parents charge, because it embraces witchcraft.
“Instead of ‘Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry,’ let’s say the book series was about Harry attending ‘Hogwarts School of Racism and Bigotry,’ ” one critic wrote in 2001. “Christians consider witchcraft just as sinful and offensive as racism.”
But all great literature offends someone. I can easily understand why Huck Finn makes African Americans uncomfortable (and I would hope it would make whites a bit nervous, too).
But I can’t understand why we need to shield our kids from these bad feelings. Why, oh why, must everybody feel good? Literature should make us squirm and sweat, because that’s when we really start to learn about the world, which is a messy and disquieting place.
So go ahead, get angry at these books. Yell, scream, and even curse if you want. Just don’t deny kids the same experience. And have a nice day.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author, most recently, of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.