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Jack Smith

Are we of mice or men? Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom from literary censorship

January 16, 1986|JACK SMITH

We cherish our freedom of speech, as guaranteed by the First Amendment, but censorship is always with us.

I took the minibus over to the Central Library the other day to see its current exhibition on the censorship of books.

We think of censorship as a thing of the past, or something that happens only in dictatorships; but the impulse to censor what others say is as common as the cold, and as hard to get rid of.

It thrives in school districts, in fundamentalist communities, in city governments; and it has been known to infect the sentiments of postmasters and state legislatures.

The library's exhibition features large graphic panels setting forth the facts of censorship in the United States. Books that have been banned or suppressed are displayed in cases, or set out in the open on pedestals, for public reading. You are free to look through the pages that roused the censorious passions of the self-righteous.

Did you know, for example, that Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" was suppressed in Concord, Mass., as "trash suitable only for the slums"?

It was banned for children on the grounds, among other complaints, that Huckleberry "said sweat when he should have said perspiration."

More understandably, in 1957 it was dropped from the New York City list of books for junior and senior high school students and banned in several Midwestern cities because of its use of an offensive word for Negro. Even though that word has become taboo in our times as a symbol of bigotry, and with good reason, it is censorship to deny a great American classic to schoolchildren because of its anachronistic presence. Can't most children read "Huckleberry Finn" in that perspective?

In 1940 Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls' was declared "unmailable" by the U.S. Post Office--a fate that had already befallen James Joyce's "Ulysses," Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer," and D. H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover."

When I was a schoolboy "Ulysses" and "Lady Chatterley's Lover" were both still banned in this country ("Chatterley" was not cleared until 1959), a circumstance that merely whetted our appetites for this illicit literature. How we envied our friends whose sophisticated aunts or uncles had smuggled copies through customs! How much more enlightened my adolescence would have been had I been able to read, at a tender age, the poetically erotic story of Lady Chatterley's affair with her husband's gamekeeper.

Although Anthony Comstock has long since been laid in his grave, as pure, no doubt, as the day he was born, the censorious spirit to which he gave his name is not dead. Comstockery lives.

In 1982, in Tell City, Ind., a group of fundamentalists tried to suppress John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" on the grounds that it "took the Lord's name in vain."

In Island Trees, N.Y., when the school board removed nine books from the high school library shelves, (including Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" and Desmond Morris' "The Naked Ape") a group of students led by Steven Pico, president of the student council, sued the board, charging that their First Amendment rights had been violated.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. ruled against the board, holding that "they could not expand their claim of absolute discretion beyond the compulsory environment of the classroom into the school library. . . ."

Black writers have been routinely censored. Richard Wright's "Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth," was denied to students without parental permission in Island Trees, and Alice Walker's novel "The Color Purple," from which the current motion picture was made, was suppressed in Oakland because its "sexual and social explicitness" was considered inappropriate for high school honor students. Critics complained that it had "troubling ideas about race relations, man's relationship to God, African history and human sexuality." After nine strident months, the book was restored.

The exhibition also documents the notorious Texas schoolbook case, in which "creationists" pressured textbook publishers to honor creationism (the biblical myth of the Earth's and man's origin) and to state that evolution is merely a theory, rather than a verifiable fact.

"The willingness of publishers to collaborate in the censorship of their books," the library association notes, "dilutes the standards by reducing texts to the lowest common denominator."

The traveling exhibition was mounted by the American Library Assn. and will be here through Feb. 22. "Americans are highly pluralistic," reads one of its graphics. "Americans come from every nationality, race and religion in the world, and hold various opinions on every conceivable subject. As in the case of every other major democracy, people have organized in order to advance their viewpoints and support the interests of the groups they identify with.

"Because of libraries' critical role within our society, they often become the focus of many group actions. Special interest groups have pressured libraries to present only their perceptions, to remove, or not acquire, literature and information they consider offensive. . . .

"It is in the public interest for publishers and librarians to make available the widest diversity of views and expressions, including those which are unorthodox or unpopular with the majority.

"The answer to a bad book is a good one; the answer to a bad idea is a good one."

Of course there are arguments on the other side, too. In banning Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," an Indian history of the American West, a district administrator in Wild Rose, Wis., pointed out, "If there's a possibility that something might be controversial, then why not eliminate it?"

There goes Mother Goose.

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