September 29, 2011

Mark Twain on banning Huck Finn

Should The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn be off-limits to children? I didn't dream that Mark Twain himself had answered a resounding "Yes" to this question which has been dividing America for years. 

Well, I'm cheating a little for the sake of the story. The reason some Americans today think that children should not read Huckleberry Finn is that the book will expose their impressionistic minds to racism. Yes, Huckleberry Finn indubitably depicts an era when slavery existed in half the states of America, and rampant racism in all of them. But how?

The anti-censorship camp points out how the book actually satirises the attitudes of its time, and note that the escaped slave Jim was made out by Mark Twain to be much more admirable than the white people pursuing him.

The censorship camp thinks that all that doesn't matter. Jim is called "Nigger Jim" in the book, so the book has to be banned, or, for the milder component, rewritten so that he is called instead "Slave Jim". Whom are we kidding, you might ask. Even worse, why are we kidding them? What about their right to know about the historical injustices whose repercussions still affect the society they live in?

So much for the present and so much for seriousness. Now I'm going to tell you something I just learned during Banned Books Week about Mark Twain, who is never serious, and an attempt over 100 years ago by a crusading young librarian, presumably serious although you do need to suspend your disbelief when you hear what she had to say -- to ban Huckleberry Finn from the Children's Room of the Brooklyn Public Library.

The story is contained in an exchange of letters which Mark Twain included in his Autobiography of Mark Twain, between the librarian Asa Dickinson who also worked at the Brooklyn Public Library (and by the way had studied with the great Melvil Dewey, the father of modern librarianship), and himself.

The crusading young librarian, who was Superintendent of the Children's Dept., had found out that there were copies of Huckleberry Finn in the Children's Room (gasp!) and had given orders for them to be removed because Huck and his friend Tom Sawyer were "bad examples for disingenious youth". Mr Dickinson, who counted Huckleberry Finn his best reading experience ever, thereupon wrote to Mark Twain asking him if he could intercede on behalf of this book he so loved:

Dear Sir:
I happened to be present the other day at a meeting of the children's librarians of the Brooklyn Public Library. In the course of the meeting it was stated that copies of "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn" were to be found in some of the children's rooms of the system. The Sup't of the Children's Dep't -- a conscientious and enthusiastic young woman -- was greatly shocked to hear this, and at once ordered that they be transferred to the adults' department. Upon this I shamefacedly confessed to having read "Huckleberry Finn" aloud to my defenseless blind people, without regard to their age, color, or previous condition of servitude. I also reminded them of Brander Matthews's opinion of the book, and stated the fact that I knew it almost at heart, having got more pleasure from it than from any book I have ever read, and reading is the greatest pleasure I have in my life. My warm defense elicited some further discussion and criticism, from which I gathered what the prevailing opinion of Huck was and that he was a deceitful boy who said "sweat" when he should have said "perspiration."
The upshot of this matter was that there is to be further consideration of these books at a meeting early in January which I am especially invited to attend. Seeing you the other night at the performance of "Peter Pan" the thought came to me that you (you knows Huck as well as I -- you can't know him better or love him more -- ) might be willing to give me a word or two to say in witness of his good character though he "warn't no more quality than a mud cat."
I would ask as a favor that you regard this communication as confidential, whether you find time to reply to it or not; for I am loath for obvious reasons to bring the institution from which I draw my salary into ridicule, contempt or reproach.
Yours very respectfully,
Asa Don Dickinson.
(In charge Department for the Blind and Sheepshead Bay Branch, Brooklyn Public Library.)

Here is the reply:

21 Fifth Avenue,
November 21, 1905
Dear Sir:

I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote Tom Sawyer & Huck Finn for adults exclusively, & it always distressed me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean. I know this by my own experience, & to this day I cherish an unappeased bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again on this side of the grave. Ask that young lady - she will tell you so.

Most honestly do I wish I could say a softening word or two in defence of Huck's character, since you wish it, but really in my opinion it is no better than God's (in the Ahab & 97 others), & the rest of the sacred brotherhood.

If there is an Unexpurgated [Bible] in the Children's Department, won't you please help that young woman remove Tom & Huck from that questionable companionship?

Sincerely yours,

S. L. Clemens

On the website (which if you visit it you can also read features such as "MARK TWAIN AND THE INFERNAL COUNTESS MASSIGLIA - the lowest-down woman on the planet" and "MARK TWAIN'S QUARREL WITH UNDERTAKERS: It All Begins with Jennie") you can read the original story from The New York Times when Asa Dickinson (no longer at Brooklyn Public Library but Head Librarian at Brooklyn College, I couldn't help noting) first made the letters public, in 1935.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is at our library And so is the Autobiography of Mark Twain

September 27, 2011

Banned Books Week dinner party

It's here! I look forward to it all year: Banned Books Week, the occasion for anti-conformists everywhere to revel publicly in the fact that the censors never win out in the end. To get people thinking about whether other people should be able to proclaim themselves the guardians of everyone's values. And of course to have a good laugh: Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut's novel about the fire-bombing of Dresden (talk about books that make you think, I can still remember the feeling I had when I was reading it of being asked to consider something I'd never considered before), was banned from a school in the US for containing "shocking material"? What, you mean war?

Or what about the the guy who, commenting on a NY Times blog post about the Brooklyn Public Library locking away (literally) Tintin in the Congo, said that they did right, Tintin is a racist and so is his "viscous little white dog"! That's sic, if you were wondering.

I also got a good laugh from the Harry Ransom Center, the famous home for rare books (and films etc) and literary archives at the University of Texas, which invites the public to come commemorate Banned Books Week at a dinner inspired by their exhibition "Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored". Here's what their website says:

"The menu exemplifies the opulence of the 1920s at a time when the government waged war on "objectionable" literature, and larger-than-life personalities battled publicly over obscenity, "clean books," and freedom of expression. The menu includes salmon croquettes, Waldorf salad, roast duck with broiled potatoes, carrots, and peas, and pineapple upside-down cake."

Salmon croquettes? Pineapple upside-down cake? What is this? It sounds like Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald having dinner at the Plaza in New York and I don't think they passed the time arguing about clean books! More about how to get a drink with Prohibition on! The place where all the books were being banned in the twenties was Boston, due to the frenetic activity of a certain "Watch and Ward" committee in that city (which, in a not-unexpected similar vein, called itself "The Hub of the Universe"); thus the phrase, "Banned in Boston". Publishers used to try to get their books banned in Boston, because sales immediately shot up everywhere else. I think the menu should have featured Boston Baked Beans and brown bread.

Anyway, it got me to thinking about a Banned Books dinner menu which would honour famous banned books. Here's where I've gotten so far:

Henry Miller crudités

Hors d'oeuvres à la mode de Gargantua
- several dozen hams
- smoked beef tongues,
- caviar
- fried tripe
- a shovelful of mustard

Steak Tartare au White Fang

Muttonchop au Mellors (aka Lady Chatterley's lover)

Ivan Denisovich bread (10.5 oz)

What's missing of course is Ulysses, next to Lady Chatterley's Lover the most famous banned book of the twenties. But how can you turn a masterwork of a description like this into a menu (as AA Gill said at the Writers and Readers Festival, "Menus always read horribly because they are written by chefs, and chefs all leave school at 15")?

“Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

September 01, 2011

With Blaise Cendrars in Provence

I almost wrote "Reading Blaise in Provence" but actually it wasn't true: what I did with Blaise Cendrars during my four days in Provence which followed my four days in Prague (see previous post) was to carry him around in the form of two books I found in a bookstore in Aix-en-Provence, one of those pleasant bookstores mixing the old and the new, the upstairs with tall windows framed by provençal sky-blue shutters, bookshelves full of poetry and no cash register; and an urbane downstairs for literary novelties where I encountered, among other things, my first ultra-poches.

Ultra-poches means "extreme pocket books", or, better yet, "pocket books beyond your wildest dreams". These are not gimmicky little books about fashion astrology or "Catfucius says", but real, hard cover, unabridged novels, only small, not much larger than -- what would be appropriate here -- a box of Gitanes cigarettes, something they achieve by being printed on bible paper and formatted to be read vertically. They were invented in the Netherlands a couple of years back and only made their debut in French bookstores a few months ago, where they seem to have right away struck a chord as their stand was 90% empty, offering only a handful of crime novels, mostly Michael Connelly, and one Swann's Way. The Cormac McCarthys, the Hugh Lauries touted on the display placard, all gone. I chose one of the remaining ones at random (I hope you don't believe that) and here it is, posed next to my mouse for scale:

I was actually looking for a different Marcel and that's Marcel Pagnol, the great novelist and filmmaker who was born back at the turn of the century between Aix and Marseille near one of those massive outcrops called (I love this) massifs that dot the region. "I was born in the town of Aubagne, under a Garlaban covered with goats, at the time of the last goatherds" is how he puts it in the book I was looking for, My father's glory, about the summer vacations his family used to take on the Massif during his childhood, which I have wanted to read since having seen and loved Yves Robert's very sad, sentimental, funny movie version.

When I got upstairs where I thought Pagnol might be, whom did I stumble into instead but Blaise Cendrars, the audacious, emphatic, disenchanted, lyrical adventurer and avant-garde poet who captured my heart (and that of Apollinaire, who credited Cendrars's poetry with revolutionising his own) many years ago with his two great 'river-poems' (they flow on forever) Prose of the Transsiberian and little Jeanne of France, and then Le Panama: or, the adventures of my seven uncles. And here they were in a shiny new Complete Poetry, which I took away, along with a little biography which proclaimed itself a "literary discovery", or, the word being the same in French, a "literary uncovering", not quite a " between the covers" but almost as good.

It turned out to be somewhat difficult to read, from being seriously imprinted with the zapping culture (la culture zapping as the French have it) of the eighties, when this "Literary Discovery" series was born. You know what I mean -- those books where each page has three different fonts and the margins are stuffed with cut-out photos, art, quotes reproduced in autograph.

Still, it looked fantastic lying around every day on the bed of the house where we were staying, the yellow fingerpainting of Cendrars by a beautiful Brasilian modernist named Tarsila do Amaral almost picking up the tone of the blanket. A bit more sulphurous, perhaps, or maybe that was due to its being superimposed on an old black and white photo of Cendrars squinting into the sun, cigarette jutting from his mouth, wearing a wrinkled workshirt which yells out "Cargo boat full of prostitutes and tuberculars" (as the book describes the vessel for one of his Atlantic crossings):

In one of the bits I did read, I learned that I had not lost out completely on taking home a book that would be a souvenir of Provence:  Blaise Cendrars lived self-exiled in Aix-en-Provence from 1940 to 1943, after the Gestapo in the occupied north had seized all the copies of his latest book, and the proprietor of the hotel where he used to live in Paris wired him "Your Aunt Amelie keeps coming looking for you".

He had fought in the first World War and lost an arm, immediately afterwards teaching himself to write with his left hand and in 1918 publishing I killed, where he described a hand-to-hand combat with a German soldier (an excerpt quoted in the book: "I killed the Boche, I was sharper and quicker than he was. I acted, I killed. As a man does who wants to live."); this war he passed in silence, a recluse in a beret and shabby jacket who passed his time at the public library when he wasn't standing in line for his ration of potatoes.

But before all that, back in the Belle Epoque Blaise Cendrars blazed a path across the continents of the known world and the literary map, announcing his destiny with this name -- yes, Cendrars means cinders -- which he invented for himself in his twenties, in New York, poor, hungry, even sick, but "that won't stop me from writing. I am ready."

Arriving back in Paris the year Marcel Duchamp presented his scandalous painting "Nude descending a staircase", he produced the poem which brought modernism hurtling into the literary scene like the locomotive it describes speeding through a Russia in the throes of the Revolution of 1905. It was inspired by Cendrars's first great adventure, eight years before. Aged seventeen, he had run away from his boarding school near Basel, catching the first international train to come into the station and ending up in St. Petersburg, making friends with anarchists and spending time with the librarian of the Imperial Library, who told him he was a poet.

The poem is called The prose of the Transsiberian and little Jeanne of France (Jeanne is a prostitute), and here are a couple of my favourite verses from it, translated by Ekaterina Likhtik:

The sky is like the shredded tent of a poor circus in a small fishing village
In Flanders
The sun is a smoky oil lamp
And at the very top of a trapeze a woman makes a moon.
The clarinet the piston a sharp flute and a bad tambourine
And here is my cradle
My cradle
It was always next to the piano when my mother like Madame Bovary played Beethoven sonatas
I spent my childhood in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon
And skipping school, in the railroad stations in front of departing trains
Now, I have made all the trains run behind me
I have also bet on the races at Auteuil and at Longchamp
Paris – New York
Now, I have made all the trains run the course of my life
Madrid – Stockholm
And I lost all my bets
There is now only Patagonia, Patagonia, that suits my immense sadness, Patagonia, and a journey to the South Seas
I'm on the road
I've always been on the road
I'm on the road with little Jehanne from France
The train makes a perilous jump and falls back on all of its wheels
The train falls back on its wheels
The train always falls back on all of its wheels

“Blaise, tell me, are we very far from Montmartre?”
We are far, Jeanne, you've been on the move for seven days
You are far from Montmartre, from the Hill that nourished you from Sacre-Cœur that cradled you
Paris has disappeared and its enormous flame
There is nothing but continuous ash
Falling rain
Rising peat
Whirling Siberia
Heavy rebounding sheets of snow
And the bell of madness that quivers like the very last wish in the bluish air
The train beats at the heart of the heavy horizons
And your sorrow sneers…

“Tell me, Blaise, are we very far from Montmartre?”
The worries
Forget the worries
All the railroad stations cracked askew on the road
The telegraph wires on which they hang
The grimacing lampposts gesticulate and strangle them
The world expands elongates and retracts like an accordion tormented by a sadistic hand
In the shreds of the sky, locomotives in a fury
And in the holes,
The dizzying wheels the mouths the voices
And the dogs of misfortune that bark at our parcels
The demons are unchained
Scrap iron
All is in false harmony
The broom-room-room of the wheels
Bouncing back
We are a storm in the skull of the deaf… 

This is just a fraction of the poem, but you can read the rest of it on the website The drunken boat.

As I said, I didn't get around to reading the Complete Poetry when I was in France; I read it when I was back at home. And the funniest thing happened. As I was reading it, one night in bed, I kept smelling tobacco, not just any tobacco but pungent French cigarette tobacco. I looked around. I was alone. My husband was still in Europe; Jean-Paul Belmondo was not on the deck outside my window.

I read some more. The odour didn't go away. I looked around again. Still alone. The cat had not taken up smoking in our absence. Turned my attention back to the book. Still there. I brought the book up to my nose. And then it hit me. I opened the tube of lotion I had bought in the pharmacy in Avignon which was on the bedside table. I sniffed it. I sniffed my hands. Somehow I had bought French hand lotion that smells like tobacco.

Was this a new French fashion? The next day, for fun, I googled "tabac perfume women". 0.05 seconds later, up came the result: Tabac blond Caron.

Why, c'est moi!
Complete poems by Blaise Cendrars or try his cult novel Moravagine   
My Father's Glory and My Mother's Castle: Memories of Childhood by Marcel Pagnol
My Father's Glory (DVD of the movie version by Yves Robert)

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