“Mark Twain was racist!”
“Robert Heinlein was sexist!”
“Jane Austin supported the patriarchy!”
“Dickens was a … he’s just boring.”
If all you read of Dickens is Bleak House or Ye Old Curiosity Shop then I’ll grant the last one. But otherwise, demands that people not read certain books because they do not meet the standards of the last five minutes serves as an example of the painful presentism of the modern censors and regulators of moral purity.
One of the hallmarks of a political philosophy that will end badly when applied to reality is re-starting the calendar. “Everything that predates today has been tainted by the corrupt past, so we must reset the calendar and clocks. Today is day one of year zero.” And thus the rational calendar of the increaslingly-irrational French Revolution, the Russian Communists (Bolshevik flavor) re-working the calendar, and Pol Pot re-starting time keeping by ending the lives of up to 50% of the residents of Cambodia.* The past must be buried, “disappeared,” eradicated in favor of the present. Or, if kept, re-written and redefined in order to fit the desired patterns and narratives. Thus the Hanseatic League is praised to an extent by East German historians because they are the proto-bourgeoise overthrowing the old Feudalists. This was a necessary precondition for the rise of the proletariat, and so supported Marx’s teachings and thus OK.
Were there works written back when that are offensive to modern tastes and morés? Oh certainly, and some were offensive even back then. The Klansman is one that comes to mind. Not everyone liked it as much as Woodrow Wilson did.
People objected to Huck Finn because it showed a black man in a positive light, because Huck is not a plaster saint from Sunday School, because it was written in dialect and not “good English…” Kipling’s poems were “plebeian” because they put the reader in the boots or footprints of working-class people, Indian natives, children, and ordinary soldiers. They were not uplifting social paragons, because “single men in barracks don’t grow into plaster saints.” Tut, tut, such things are not suitable for the young or impressionable. Heaven forbid that Kipling show an Englishman falling in love with a native girl and vice versa, and the pair have sincere feelings for each other. Dickens portrayed poverty as degrading and even deadening, and showed how it can corrupt people. Fagan is not a good person, even if he is a sympathetic person.
Now, people object to Huck Finn because it has “the n-word” in it and describes slavery. Jane Austin’s insistence that people marry before having sexual relations is dreadful and supports the patriarchy and oppression. Kipling is beyond the pale. Robert Heinlein is racist, sexist, anti-religion (OK, but he also took it seriously and saw the down-sides of blind belief in anything), and didn’t like dogs (or at least, no dogs are heroes of the book like cats are.)
This is the easy way to reject books. You don’t have to read them. I tell people to read “The Communist Manifesto” and Mein Kampf. Or Pol Pot’s writings. Or stuff by Chinese Communists. Or the writings of the supporters of Liberation Theology. See what the books actually say. Then you can hold your nose in all honesty, or fling the volume out the door, down the street, and into the burn bin (so long as it is not someone else’s copy that you are borrowing.) Don’t like Twain’s style after you read him? No worries, I’m not offended. You read him. I’m not a Jane Austin fan, and I’ve read three of her novels. She just doesn’t appeal to me as a novelist. As an anthropologist, she’s great.
When we do research in archives and read documents from the past, we historians are enjoined to set our current standards aside and try to weigh and sift the past by its standards. The ranch manager may have sounded like a Grand Dragon of the KKK in his letters, but did he pay his black and Catholic employees the same as he paid other people in those jobs? Did he treat them fairly by the ranch records? Yes? OK, so he was a bigot, not a b-stard. The reverse is also true on occasion. I don’t always like people by my standards, but their times are not mine. Ditto Heinlein, Clark, C. L. Moore, and others.
I disapprove of re-writing things like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and other works to pander to modern sensibilities. Yes, they are dated and stilted, in part because of the standards for children’s and young adult books back then. But dang, Little Black Sambo was a fun story set in India. The re-writes always feel forced and too safe, like modern playground equipment.
Some day, people may read my books and be aghast and offended that I grant women so many rights and privileges. Women allowed to vote and have a say in government? Horrible! There was a good reason that dreadful experiment was terminated.** Heck, I suspect there are people offended by inter-species romance, the firearms and violence, smoking (!), and other things.**
But sheesh, at least read the books. “Let it be said/When I am dead/ [Her] sins were scarlet/ but [her] books were read.”
*The percentage numbers have been creeping upwards in the past ten years or so as better demographic tools have come into use and as more and more Killing Fields have been excavated. Something similar is happening with Stalin’s numbers, too just not as dramatically.
**Thought experiment, but there are days…
***Yes, I put that in deliberately to irk the Mrs. Grundy’s. I don’t smoke, but if other people want to do it, don’t fumigate me in the process, and pay for their own medical care, I see no problem with tobacco smoking. Other things are different, for different reasons.
Edited to Add: Welcome, Instapundit Readers! Thanks for dropping by.