September 27, 2014

Banned Books Week


My award for Best Headline of Banned Books Week goes to Melville House Publishers for "Texas school district thinks 'Banned Books Week' means they’re supposed to ban books this week", with which they called attention to the decision on the part of a school district in Texas to pull a new crop of books from the school curriculum. In other words, the school board doesn't subscribe to the sentiment voiced by the great, banned-in-his-time writer and philosopher Voltaire: "Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too".

I must say it's good to see Banned Books Week getting ever greater, and wittier, attention in the media, as well in that old stalwart, libraries (it is, in fact, an initiative of the American Library Association).

I'm proud to have two personal ties to Banned Books. The first is that it was my 10th great-grandfather, William Pynchon, who wrote the first book to be banned in the New World. It happened in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in 1650, and the book was called The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, Justification, etc. It refuted the Puritan belief that punishment and suffering were the price of atonement, and as such the order went out for it to be burned -- by the colony's executioner, no less -- the very next day, on the Boston Common.

Its author, perhaps because of his standing as an important businessman (exporter of beaver pelts) and a magistrate, was given time to retract-- or be tried for heresy and receive the same treatment as his book. He wisely precluded the need for either by heading back across the sea to England, where he continued to write tracts until his death 12 years later.

Nine copies of the book survived and here is one of them, held at the Congregational Library in Boston. The blog where I found it, History of Christianity, points out that this is one book which the Puritans could have judged by its cover. Just look at that subtitle: Clearing it from some common Errors. Seriously?


My other claim to banned books fame is having smuggled Henry Miller through US Customs at the tender age of eight. Not Henry Miller in person, but a number of books by him which my father had purchased in Paris (Olympia Press's aptly named "Traveller's Companion" editions, as pictured) while the American courts were still debating whether they were obscene or not, and popped into his daughters' little tote bags for the re-entry onto U.S. soil and into U.S. jurisdiction.

I was just remembering with my sister this weekend the heady moment when, tired out by standing in line at LA airport, and perhaps from lugging her tote bag (no cute little wheeled suitcases back then!), she began feeling faint and our parents were frantically trying to get us through before she keeled over and drew the agents' attention to us. She remembers the books as being by DH Lawrence, so it looks as if each daughter might have carried a different banned author.

It was the attempt by Grove Press to publish Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer in the United States which led to the obscenity trials that tested American laws on pornography. Witnesses for the defense included a professor of medieval literature at Harvard, who testified (quoted in The Harvard Crimson), about the "meaningless and irrational" social conventions around the use of some words: "Words of Latin and French derivation referring to the sex act and bodily organs are acceptable in English, Bloomfield testified, but words of Anglo-Saxon origin with identical meanings are tabu." Indisputably.

The case was heard by the Superior Court of Suffolk County (Massachusetts, again!), which decided that the book was indeed protected by the First Amendment. I love this passage from the opinion:

That a serious work uses four letter words and has a grossly offensive tone does not mean that the work is not entitled to constitutional protection. Much in modern art, literature, and music is likely to seem ugly and thoroughly objectionable to those who have different standards of taste. It is not the function of judges to serve as arbiters of taste or to say that an author must regard vulgarity as unnecessary to his portrayal of particular scenes or characters or to establish particular ideas. Within broad limits each writer, attempting to be a literary artist, is entitled to determine such matters for himself, even if the result is as dull, dreary, and offensive as the writer of this opinion finds almost all of Tropic. Competent critics assert, and we conclude, that Tropic has serious purpose, even if many will find that purpose obscure.

Personally I prefer Tropic of Capricorn, which was the second of Miller's two autobiographical novels but describes his early days in Brooklyn, to Tropic of Cancer, the one written first, which covers the time after his move to Paris, and is I think the more noted of the two, perhaps because it includes his love affair with cult personage Ana├»s Nin. I remember as a teenager devouring the very Tropic of Capricorn I'd sneaked through US customs, a full-immersion in Brooklyn in the twenties, as experienced by an irrepressibly high-energy, high sex-drive, very funny, quixotic genius.

(Genius and lust was the name Norman Mailer gave his book about Henry Miller's works.)

Some past Books in the City posts you might enjoy about banned books and censorship:

Mark Twain on banning Huck Finn

Banned Books Week dinner party

A funny story about censorship




Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 15:42
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