The Sins (?) of Our Fathers

“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.

23 thoughts on “The Sins (?) of Our Fathers

  1. I can tolerate Marx et al only in small doses, and liberation theology reeks mightily of sulfur. I guess a public reading of Kipling’s “Just So Stories” would be considered edgy and so brave, but not by The Good People. That begs for a new story: “How the Progressive Lost its Mind”.

  2. “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is as close to the original Jane Austen as I can take. Marx understood neither people nor math.

    History really happened. Things were different then. Heck, things were different where/when I grew up. We were still burning witches. (No, I’m not kidding, and they were probably hippies, not witches.)

  3. “Progress” is a series of experiments on humans and society, and even the best measures usually have side effects. If you can’t reconcile yourself to that and can’t accept that your Bright-Future idea may be a horrible mistake that must be reversed, pronto!, then you have no business mucking about in the progress business.

  4. People have been objecting to Huck for over sixty years (to my personal knowledge). But my parents gave me my own copy to have and to hold. Just as they did Sambo. And I am still a voracious reader.
    I wonder where I put my copy of Huck?

  5. I find it incredibly stupid that people attack authors because the author examines a facet of history or human behavior with a positive viewpoint that the critics disagree with. It is quite possible, or even likely that the author agrees that the behavior of a character is loathsome, but for the purposes of exploring the time, or the behavior, or just for entertainment value an otherwise detestable character may be present in a sympathetic light. As a reader, I have have no idea what the authors true views are. Just because it advances the story to have Nero appear as a popular reformer, doesn’t mean that the author believes that he was a great guy.

    • When I was in grad school I read an excellent biography of ‘Pitchfork” Ben Tillman. The author explained in the Author’s Notes that he’d had to explain to a number of people that you did not have to like or agree with someone to find them fascinating and worthy of a book. He was right. Tillman was not a nice person, but he was very, very important to showing how Reconstruction worked and some of the mindset behind it.

  6. It’s not just books. When the Smithsonian was going to put Enola Gay’s fuselage in the Air and Space museum downtown, the ‘curator’ rewrote history to say we were the aggressors… First time since WWII Colonel Tibbets spoke out in various venues to clearly state the facts, and the uproar caused the exhibit to be cancelled. When the ENTIRE airplane was placed at Udvar Hazy, the history was correctly presented. Col Tibbets first comment on seeing the bird was “She never looked that good when I flew her!”

  7. Give Jane Austen time. In my twenties and early thirties, I was not impressed. But at a certain point, she suddenly became hilarious and wise. I had similar experiences with Dumas and Vance — I grew into appreciating them, or their sense of humor/irony/adventure.

    Of course, not every person is going to like any author, no matter how good the author or how adept and sympathetic a reader. Sometimes I just don’t care for one! But it’s worth the occasional free sample dip into an author, or free listen to a library audiobook, to see if I’ve changed my mind.

  8. “Progressive” is a word that always reminds me of cancer.

    I ran across, and started reading Huckleberry Finn when I found it in the school district’s book depository shortly before starting fourth grade (my mom was a teacher, and was selecting books for her class). Tom Sawyer came later.

  9. Like the new bio of John W. Campbell: In the preface, the author holds his nose over Campbell’s ‘unforgiveable’ racism. Funny, I didn’t realize it was a biographer’s job to judge or ‘forgive’ his subject.

  10. While I’ll grant that it’s no *Door into Summer*, in Heinlein’s “Tenderfoot in Space,” a dog is in fact the hero of the story.

  11. Heinlein’s affection for cats is what got me to read him, as I am a soft touch for cats. When I was a kid I tried some science fiction (don’t recall titles), and it did not speak to me. History and historical novels did. I didn’t even read Heinlein until a few years ago when I was 50-something, and I ran across “The Door into Summer.” I figured if he liked cats he can’t be all bad, so started with “The Door…” and moved on.

    “I have spent too much of my life opening doors for cats—I once calculated that, since the dawn of civilization, nine hundred and seventy-eight man-centuries have been used up that way. I could show you figures.” Heinlein knows cats.

  12. “Jane Austen supported the patriarchy!”

    Hmm. I can see many shying away from that whole ‘Victorian romance’ theme, but I’ve always seen Austen ahead of her time as a “thinker’s feminist”. She acknowledged her irreversible era status, recognized the ‘patriarchy’ and used her keen sense to buck ‘sensibility’ in order to manipulate/play it to her characters’ (and her own) benefit(s). Her main characters were strong and wise without sacrificing their personal vulnerability and becoming victims swallowed-up and digested by circumstance. In an era where women were basically left without financial/property stability and no real means of creating their own wealth, she made her way by putting herself in her characters and revealing women as far more substantial than slaves to the latest gaudy fashions out of Paris and tittering messy gossip-mongers. Apparently she wasn’t alone, as the great popularity of her novels at the time shows.

    Charlotte Brontë was another covert feminist. Jane Eyre goes way beyond forbidden romance. It illustrates the female strength to grow self-nurture from hardship and lack of love as a child to a thoughtful and gentle guardian of her own wisdom and beliefs, and protector of her emotional insecurity as a young adult. Oddly enough, Brontë’s submission of her novel under a pseudonym that was assumed to be a man, and later revealed to be the female writer of the popular (and propriety-shaking) novel became an even bigger seller once her true identity was published.

    All this aside, I completely agree with the above blog post. It is a sign of the insanity of the ‘dark ages’ insanity of the 21st century. The ‘start/stop’ of history/time must stop. Rewriting works to somehow, and failingly, make them more palatable in this ‘modern era’ is, quite frankly, criminal. Keep hands off somebody else’s works and write your own, including film. We really are in some twisted era of “if I don’t like it I forbid you to read/watch it”. I have ‘parents’, thank you very much. I bucked them as a teen and read nearly every Kurt Vonnegut, Jr novel and read sci-fi writers such as Heinlein the way I devoured pizza. Read Dickens and came to MY OWN conclusion he’s boring. Tolerated Twain. Loathed Shakespeare. Decided Tolstoy didn’t care much the impact the length of his novels had on forest growth. But from each I took away, at the very least, some little piece of lasting impression. To re-write or ‘re-imagine’ (the current trope used by those who are easily outraged that you’re not outraged) is willfully ignorant and amoral. I can/may see possibly keeping something off a school reading list (Vonnegut wasn’t on my high school Lit reading list but that didn’t stop me from getting to a book store or library to get those books), but having it completely expunged from the ‘collective’ psyche is far more obscene than any text could be. And the people pushing this current mentality are allegedly our ‘betters’? When, exactly, did that happen, huh?

    For example, since childhood I’ve always been a fan of “The Little Rascals/Our Gang” series. Back as a kid they were just fun watching these kids pretending to be equal to grown-ups with each ridiculously creative project and misadventure they set for themselves. Watching now as an adult I take into context the pre-Depression and Depression eras, poverty, inequality, and the innocence buried beneath it by watching a group of race and economically different kids integrated in a neighborhood play group/club. I have a collection of the series episodes, have shown them to my own kids when they were young and now show them to my young grandkids, taking the opportunity each time to discuss the fuller historical context of that time, and the darkside of Hollywood that used and even abused those child actors. But don’t you dare watch that series today.

    Anyhow, these “high gravity” dark days of “Progressivism” I find myself comparing our under siege free thinking and individualistic society to “THX 1138”, or “1984”, or in many aspects “Harrison Bergeron”. We had better be very careful that we aren’t entering (being shoved into, more like it) a real time intellectual dystopian era of Fahrenheit 451. It really would be a zombie apocalypse.

    Just my thunks…

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