In 2018, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name was removed from a prestigious children’s literature award because of the “dated cultural attitudes” contained in her partly-fictionalized memoirs of growing up during Manifest Destiny.
Last year, North Korean defector Yeonmi Park claimed in an interview that while studying at Columbia University she was rebuked for enjoying Jane Austen and was told that Austen’s work had a colonial mindset and was subtly brainwashing her.
In 2020, the cofounder of the #DisruptTexts movement, which aims to “challenge the traditional canon in order to create a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum” and to “aid and develop teachers committed to anti-racist/anti-bias teaching pedagogy”, wrote on Twitter:
“Did y’all know that many of the “classics” were written before the 50s? Think of US society before then & the values that shaped this nation afterwards. THAT is what is in those books. That is why we gotta switch it up. It ain’t just about ‘being old.'”
Of course– there is no use sugarcoating it– a lot of classics contain questionable views.
From Heart of Darkness, one of the most racist books I have ever read, to Little House on the Prairie, which has received heat for its portrayal of Native Americans, it’s hard to find a book published long in the past that is devoid of any bigoted views.
Thinking of history, this is unsurprising. (Humanity is kind of a mess).
And there is no use pretending that Western society was never systemically racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. It is a fact that America (and the UK, and many other places) was not always a land of liberty and justice for people other than straight white and rich men, and unfortunately, many books in the so-called Western canon reveal this.
This has prompted people to question whether these books should still be read and taught in schools. I’ve even seen the slightly troubling declaration that we shouldn’t read anything published before 2000, because it would be just too racist.
But here’s why we should still read problematic classics.
Don’t Throw the Baby Out With the Bathwater: It Can Be Possible to Separate Problematic Content From A Book’s Overall Literary Merit
For some of these classics, the problematic aspects don’t necessarily negate the literary value of the work.
Take something like And Then There Were None.
My friends and I occasionally have long video call sessions in which we talk about books. Around the end of 2020, we were talking about our favorite books of 2020, and I mentioned that Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None had been one of my favorite reads that year.
“But isn’t that book like… really racist?” my friend said then.
I was a bit taken aback at this and I wasn’t sure how to respond at first.
After all, if you know what the original title of And Then There Were None is, you’ll know the title was indeed incredibly racist. But I do not believe that it is racist to read or enjoy the book. Here’s why: the title was altered a year after publication, the offensive content was removed from later editions, and the story itself is a brilliantly-written murder mystery thriller that has no racism in the actual plot.
By reading the book, you’re not excusing Christie’s racist title, which is no longer even part of the book, and there is plenty of merit to the story that has nothing to do with racism. And Then There Were None is a foundational book in the mystery-thriller genre. It’s one of the archetypes of the “locked-room murder mystery.”
So we should never excuse the original title of the book, but we also shouldn’t ignore the novel’s contribution to literature as a whole.
Agatha Christie in general has lots of things people may find offensive. She was a British woman writing 100 years ago. Her writing reflects the views of her society at that time. However, she is not called the queen of mystery for no reason. If you are willing to look past the problematic bits, her books are brilliant and I do not think they should be erased.
And this applies to many other classic authors. It’s not uncommon to, halfway through reading a classic, come across a sentence that makes you say, “well, that was horrendously offensive.” However, a lot of the time, these books have stood the test of time for aspects of them unrelated to offensive content. I think it’s possible to look past these issues to appreciate the novels for other reasons.
Charles Dickens’s books are full of anti-Semitism. Shakespeare is very “problematic” as well. Jane Austen too. Should we scrub these authors from the history of literature? Really? Think about what it would mean if we only read books that were published after 1950.
Again, to be very clear, I am not excusing racism. What I am saying is that old books with dated attitudes can have merit outside their problematic aspects that should be also acknowledged.
Problematic Content is Often A Product of Historical Circumstances Which Should Be Acknowledged Within Context
“Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”– Winston Churchill
Problematic content is usually a product of the historical context in which a book was written, and should be understood in terms of this context rather than ignored. This does not excuse it, but it does explain it.
The only way we can learn from our past is if we are willing to contextualize and reflect on it.
Let’s start by talking about Little House on the Prairie, a semi-autobiographical series written by Laura Ingalls Wilder about her childhood on the western frontier in the 1870s and 1880s. This was one of my favorite series from childhood.
The series starts with Laura’s family living in a cabin in the forest of Wisconsin, then follows them as they travel to Kansas in a covered wagon to start a new life, then to Minnesota, Iowa, and South Dakota.
The main line under fire in Little House is one where Laura writes: “There were no people; only Indians lived there” and when Pa states “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” In the books, Laura’s mother also constantly expresses fear and hatred of the Native Americans.
To understand why these people would say such things and have such disregard for their fellow humans, you need to consider the historical context within which Laura’s books are set. Imagine you’re a white Christian growing up in 19th-century frontier America, you’ve never met a person who was not white, and the only things you ever heard about Native Americans were negative things. They don’t speak the same language, they have customs that seem strange to you, and they are acting hostile towards you but you don’t understand why because your government told you you have the right to be on this land and you’re just acting in your own self-interest to get a better life for you and your family.
There was no opportunity for the Ingalls family to come to some sort of modern understanding of race relations or the mistreatment of Native American tribes by the US government. They didn’t have understanding of the context of them settling on this land. All they knew was that they felt threatened by people who looked and acted differently.
Most bigotry stems from a place of ignorance and fear. Would the Ingalls family have been racist had they lived in 2022? I doubt it. Their comments were a product of their circumstances. Again, that does not mean we should excuse it, but we must acknowledge history in order to learn from it.
So we should keep reading these books, but make sure we are able to understand them in the context of history. Reading Little House as a kid didn’t make me racist. Instead it helped me understand the complexities of our country’s history.
If you want to give kids better representation of indigenous people, maybe pair Little House with a different book that acknowledges how Manifest Destiny harmed the Native American tribes. Educate kids about the Trail of Tears and the manipulation by the US Government. Give them the full story, and you’re making them better-educated members of society.
It’s clear that social norms and morals have changed dramatically over time, and people in the past did not operate within the same framework of ethics or knowledge as modern people did. It’s hard to break with the norms of your society. The opinions you have now are largely shaped by the fact that you grew up in the 21st century– how can you be certain that you would not have been a bigot as well if you lived in the 19th century? So many people were.
It’s so easy to assume that you would be on “the right side of history” had you lived back then. But would you really? You’re looking back at these people from your perch in the 21st century, where you were probably educated in a multicultural society in which you had from a young age an understanding of liberal values and the common humanity of people. You’re living in a society that has mostly evolved past bigotry of the kind that was rampant in the 20th century and earlier.
The people living back then had no such understanding of modern morals. Was society problematic in those days? Obviously, yes. But it’s presumptuous to assume that you would be definitely immune to conditioning from a racist society.
Should we make a blanket excuse of people’s behavior in the past by dismissing it as “just a sign of the times?” No, of course not. Just because something was normalized then doesn’t mean it should be normalized now, clearly. But should we stop reading anything published before 1950? I think that’s a terrible idea.
It’s important to remember that judging history through a modern lens is not always productive, and shoving the not-so-pretty parts of history under the rug in the name of modern comfort does nothing to diminish it. I would rather have kids know about the attitudes people used to have so they can see how far society has come.
The Definition of “Problematic” Can Be Subjective
I think we’d all agree that, say, a KKK rally is racist and problematic. But would we all agree that To Kill A Mockingbird is offensive and should not be read?
Harper Lee’s classic novel has been banned and challenged for supposedly upholding a narrative of “white saviorism.” Basically, it’s offensive because the hero of the book, Atticus, is a white guy coming to the defense of the falsely-accused Black man. I for one don’t think this is offensive. At all. In fact I think it’s ridiculous to find it offensive. It’s actually a very an anti-racist book.
The Books in the So-Called Western Canon Are Historically Relevant
The “Western Canon” as a construct is often considered to be controversial, because it’s full of white men. But in any case, the books included in the canon have some sort of historical context that is relevant to the development of the West (because it’s the Western Canon after all)
I remember one of my high school English teachers lamenting about how the curriculum is full of “old dead white men.” It is, which is boring.
But I think to get rid of these books would be a detriment, because they are literature that represents the history and culture of the Western world. Whether or not you want to deny it, the fact is that white men dominated Western society for a long time and that’s why we have this literature. It’s not fair but it is what happened.
Should we read other books as well? Yes. Should we expand the canon to include more voices that were excluded at the time of their writing? Yes. But I don’t think this requires us to totally scrub literature of those classic novels that were written by white men. (I want to write another post on decolonizing literature)
In Conclusion: No, We Shouldn’t Cancel Problematic Classics
It’s hard to escape problematic classics. Like it or not, literature has been and always will be steeped in the zeitgeist in which it was written.
This does not mean we should excuse bigotry in problematic books, but it also does not mean we should throw out classics that have literary merit outside of their dated attitudes. Instead, we should acknowledge history and learn from it. After all, no one wants to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Sources and Other Articles
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