There has been a lot of debate about how—or whether—to read authors whose views (or language) may not comport with today’s mores. Morality evolves, usually for the better, leaving older books bearing attitudes or characters that we find repugnant.
The usual result is to either denigrate or ban these books, and such opprobrium has involved works like Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Slaughterhouse-Five, and even The Color Purple. I’m not even mentioning the many books that are deemed verboten by various religions, such as The Satanic Verses. Go to the American Library Association’s Frequently Challenged Books webpage for a comprehensive list.
How do we deal with these books? Do we remove them from libraries, as Confederate statues are removed from campuses? Do we cease teaching them in classrooms—something that’s now happening with To Kill a Mockingbird? Or do we just decry them as a way of showing our moral advancement and purity? (Remember, though: in 100 years we ourselves will be seen as morally primitive in many ways!) I’ve always claimed that we should not ignore works of literature, even if we find them offensive, as there may be a nugget of truth in them or, if not, we can at least sharpen our minds by mentally debating the authors.
This article in the January 8 New York Times is a bright spot in the censorship wilderness. Written by Brian Morton, author and director of the writing program at Sarah Lawrence College, it is eminently sensible and yet sensitive.
After facing a student who rejected Edith Wharton because of the antisemitism expressed in her novel The House of Mirth(1905), Morton recognizes the commonality of such rejection:
Anyone who’s taught literature in a college or university lately has probably had a conversation like this. The passion for social justice that many students feel — a beautiful passion for social justice — leads them to be keenly aware of the distasteful opinions held by many writers of earlier generations. When they discover the anti-Semitism of Wharton or Dostoyevsky, the racism of Walt Whitman or Joseph Conrad, the sexism of Ernest Hemingway or Richard Wright, the class snobbery of E. M. Forster or Virginia Woolf, not all of them express their repugnance as dramatically as the student I talked to, but many perform an equivalent exercise, dumping the offending books into a trash basket in their imaginations.
And Morton’s solution, which I could kick myself for not having thought of, is obvious and salubrious:
It’s as if we imagine an old book to be a time machine that brings the writer to us. We buy a book and take it home, and the writer appears before us, asking to be admitted into our company. If we find that the writer’s views are ethnocentric or sexist or racist, we reject the application, and we bar his or her entry into the present.
As the student had put it, I don’t want anyone like that in my house.
I think we’d all be better readers if we realized that it isn’t the writer who’s the time traveler. It’s the reader. When we pick up an old novel, we’re not bringing the novelist into our world and deciding whether he or she is enlightened enough to belong here; we’re journeying into the novelist’s world and taking a look around.
. . . If we were to sign up for a trip to the New York of 1905 — Wharton’s New York — we’d understand, even before buying our tickets, that we were visiting a place where people’s attitudes were very different from ours. We’d know that nearly everyone we’d meet, even the best, most generous minds — rich or poor, male or female, white or black — would hold opinions that would be unacceptable today. We’d be informed of this in the contract we’d be required to sign, at the same time as we’d be given our inoculations and fitted for our period clothing — our hoop skirts, our waistcoats, our top hats.
Knowing all this before we went back in time, met Wharton and discovered that some of her opinions were abhorrent, we’d be prepared. We wouldn’t be outraged or shocked.
Instead, we’d probably be curious. We’d probably be interested in exploring the question of how one of the most intelligent and fearless minds of her time was afflicted by moral blind spots that are obvious to us today.
. . . Regarding a writer like Wharton as a creature of her age might bring a further benefit. It might help us see ourselves as creatures of our own.
When we imagine that writers from the past are visiting our world, it subtly reinforces our complacence, our tendency to believe that the efforts at moral improvement made by earlier generations attained their climax, their fulfillment, their perfection, in us. The idea that we are the ones who are doing the time-traveling doesn’t carry the same implication.
Morton notes some of our moral blind spots today, such as our overlooking child labor, which, though disappearing, is still prevalent, as much a moral outrage as is the oppression of any group. This ignorance, too, shall pass.
Morton’s essay is important and timely in an age where views we find offensive tend to be put aside rather than examined or debated. That’s a point that I and others have made repeatedly, but somehow Morton’s idea of a book as a “time machine” makes the point more succinctly.
His conclusion, however, comports with ours:
If we arm ourselves with a little bit of knowledge and a little bit of curiosity (those essential tools of the time-traveler), we’ll be able to see the writers of the past more clearly when we visit them, and see ourselves more clearly when we get back. We’ll be able to appreciate that in their limited ways, sometimes seeing beyond the prejudices of their age, sometimes unable to do so, they — the ones worth reading — were trying to make the world more human, just as we, in our own limited ways, are also trying to do.