This time on Literary Counterparts, steel yourself for The Most Shocking 2014 Literary Revelation in Steven’s Life. 2014 is only about halfway done, but I’ve confidently bestowed this award because no book can possibly outdo what I just went through.
- Our Nig by Harriett E. Wilson (forward by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.)
- The Education of Little Tree by “Forrest” Carter
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Our Nig was discovered by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. as a single manuscript. No other copies, I believe, are known. It was written in the pre-Civil-War north by an African American woman, and is a fictionalized account of her real life struggles with Northern racism, indentured servitude, and torture. The story is affecting to read, especially given the situation in which it was penned—Wilson, a single mother, ailing and infirm, wrote it in desperation, hoping it might earn enough to help her care for her son. (It did not. Gates reports finding the death certificate of the child six months after the book was published.)
Gates here has produced what he hopes to be an authoritative reproduction of the original, suitable for study by other academics. It’s worth anyone reading it, though, and his introduction is excellent, providing valuable context.
Have you heard of The Education of Little Tree and the controversy that surrounds it? It’s mindbending, and wins the award for Most Shocking 2014 Literary Revelation in Steven’s Life. Maybe you already know all of this, but I came into it innocently. Little Tree is Forrest Carter’s memoir about growing up during the Great Depression with his Cherokee grandparents. It was full of likeable characters and unusual details, but some of it was making me wonder. I told my wife at one point, “I just finished this scene where a guy gets bitten by a rattlesnake and they draw out the poison with a flayed pigeon, and I’m not sure it would really work like that? I should look this up.”
I looked it up … and received The Most Shocking Literary Revelation in Steven’s Life of 2014. The Education of Little Tree is a sham, invented from whole cloth, containing even made-up “Cherokee” words and rituals. But not only that! The author, Forrest Carter, was real-life Asa Earl Carter, KKK member and professional racist who wrote George Wallace’s “Segregation Forever” speech. It still makes my head spin. I read all I could find on the subject, overwhelmed that this nice book about a boy and his grandparents was written by the same man who wrote “Segregation Forever.” Sidenote: one of the first people to expose Forrest Carter’s real identity was none other than Henry Louis Gates, Jr—the rapidly-emerging hero of this essay.
After that shock, I didn’t finish Little Tree. It was too disturbing. Of course there are legitimate mysteries here—why it was written, what “Forrest” Carter was hoping to accomplish, etc. Part of my mind is still chewing on it. But I decided to move on to some lighter fare.
Are you a fan of so-called “Golden Age” science fiction? I devoured Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars books and many others when I was younger, but as an adult I find the charms of that era’s sci-fi fading. When I read Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End a few years back it left me cold, as did Asimov’s Foundation.
Nonetheless, when Fahrenheit 451 crossed my desk shortly after I received The Most Shocking Literary Revelation In Steven’s Life of 2014, I thought it would be a relaxing read. After all, it’s held in high esteem, and is trotted out once per year during censorship week. It is the yule log of censorship.
And now, having just finished it, I can say with total confidence that we need to find a better book for this purpose. Fahrenheit 451 is terrible. Let me refresh your memory of one of its central tenets: the question of who is to blame for the book-burning that goes on in its science fictional scenario.
Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? … Don’t step on the toes of the dog lovers, the cat lovers, doctors … Baptists, second-generation Chinese, Italians … all the minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. [Censorship] didn’t come from the government down. … minority pressure carried the trick.
Equating cat lovers with second-generation Chinese-Americans is what we in the business call a “stretch.” But beyond that, placing the blame for censorship on the shoulders of people groups who are already enduring racism and outsized portions of poverty … well, I was nonplussed, but I pressed on. This is after all a small percentage of the total book. However, it’s difficult to ignore when Bradbury keeps bringing it up:
Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book.
The writing is very energetic, I’ll give it that. Every sentence in Fahrenheit 451 hits you like an effing baseball bat. But once the stars clear, you can’t help but notice that Bradbury just compared Little Black Sambo to a report on the connection between smoking and cancer.
When I finally turned the last page of this acidic stew of hardboiled hysteria, paranoid delusion, and masturbatory self-righteousness, I saw there was an afterword by the author. Maybe Mr. Bradbury would explain something about his problematic choices. Maybe in later years his opinions matured, and he wished to express some regrets …?
For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant … to interfere with aesthetics. If Mormons do not like my plays, let them write their own. If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent typewriters. If the Chicano intellectuals …
You get the idea. True freedom of speech requires the silence of your audience.
That bit about Irish people renting typewriters rankled especially. They rent them, I presume, because they are too poor to buy. It’s insulting on the one hand, but also a missed opportunity. Bradbury doesn’t take half a second to appreciate his own privilege, even while dismissing someone who’s poor as yet another potential “censor” of his own work.
It got me to thinking about the other two books I read this month. Our Nig was created against incredible odds by a woman of color who had the deck perfectly stacked against her. Obviously she had talent, and it’s an indictment of our culture that she wasn’t helped to develop it. The U.S. has always had a flair for marginalization, often abetted by our weird philosophy of individualism that blames people for suffering from mass hatred. Our Nig sank instantly into oblivion.
Compare with Little Tree, written by a white male white-supremacist politician masquerading as a Cherokee. It was printed widely, went on to win the Abby Award, and was later made into a TV show.
I know I’m being kind of unfair. Literature is complicated, and lots of things figure in the success or failure of a book. But I’m standing by my unfairness here, because gender, race, and class are important determiners, even if not the sole ones, and such things should be talked about more than they are (although Mr. Bradbury has long since gotten his fill).
To conclude his firestorm of afterword invective, Bradbury employs a sporting metaphor: “All you umpires, back to the bleachers. Referees, hit the showers. It’s my game. I pitch, I hit, I catch. I run the bases.”
It’s a reasonable symbol of Bradbury’s opinion of culture—that it seems appropriate to him to play a team sport like baseball by himself. Finally, he’s got it the way he wants it.
Lonely out there, Ray?