Reading on Both Sides of History

[also published on The Inkwell, Inkitt's literary blog:]

Literature—and all art, for that matter—is like the face of the moon; always changing, always presenting a new face for the reader. It changes within our own lifetime, as a book read as a teenager no longer looks the same at thirty-nine. Imagine, then, the changes over a hundred years or more, when not only ] the readers but the society itself ‘grows up.’ Some works age well, being passed from one library to another, while others become shameful reminders of old ideas, old worlds, and old thoughts. Something of this latter aspect is conveyed by the author Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea) in a letter to her editor in 1966, about one of her favorite novels, Jane Eyre. Rhys grew up in Dominica, and outsider to mainstream British life, a fact echoed in almost every book she read as a child. As she explains,

“I came to England between sixteen and seventeen, a very impressionable age and Jane Eyre was one of the books I read then. Of course Charlotte Bronte makes her own world, of course she convinces you, and that makes the poor Creole lunatic all the more dreadful. I remember being quite shocked, and when I re-read it rather annoyed. “That’s only one side—the English side.”

In the novel, Rochester’s first wife is a madwoman from the Caribbean, shut up in an attic and hidden from the world (even from Jane Eyre, the governess, who believes her a ghost). The implication is that Bertha’s lunacy and her race are one and the same, and it takes the gentle, white Jane to redeem Rochester’s soul. Most English readers found this just and touching, but for a young woman of Bertha’s background, it was “dreadful” and “rather annoy[ing].” It’s one thing to read a book where a villain has your exact name or is from the same town or city, but quite another when your race or heritage is the villain in question. As Rhys pointed out, “that’s only one side,” and she set out to write the other side, a novel from Bertha’s point of view, in her sort-of prequel to Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966).

Of course, we can’t all write rebuttals to classic works of literature that cast aspersions on race and character. So what do we do with works that provide shameful reminders of outdated biases—especially when these biases are still around us today? For books aren’t the same as a commercial on TV or even a sitcom; a book has staying power, and long after a sexist beer ad is forgotten, a story is remembered, a book can be checked out at the library (or downloaded for a pittance). Books, even the most ephemeral, are designed to be remembered and re-experienced. Books shape our inner lives and our understanding of the world, particularly those we encounter as children and young adults. I still remember trying to wrap my head around the horrors of Poe’s short stories in fourth or fifth grade, the terrifying imagery of “The Pit and the Pendulum” stuck in my brain long before I could make sense of the words. I eagerly sought these images elsewhere, in movies and other (simpler) books, and soon had a predilection toward the gothic, all from a chance reading of Poe. 

The power of language is a profound transmitter of ideas, and these ideas can haunt our inner world, subtly shaping our grown-up landscape of thought and belief. Is there a danger of letting younger readers pick up a book full of racist sentiment or sexist language, even in an otherwise ‘good’ book? Or can a book still be good literature when marred by ideas that would ban its publication today? This is a sensitive subject, and many readers would deny it outright: “great books are great books forever, and readers need to ‘get over’ their hypocritical standards of political correctness.” While I can often agree with this, it’s rarely so cut and dry, particularly when we realize that books are not just written for ‘us’—whoever we are. There’s always “another side” as Rhys wrote, the side that didn’t get to write books in the past.

Take, for example, Native Americans: one of the classic books for children about native heritage is The Education of Little Tree, about the lessons learned from a Cherokee grandfather. Written by a self-described Cherokee, Forrest Carter, the truth is stranger than fiction: Carter is actually Asa Carter, a white supremacist who staged an attack on Nat King Cole and was suspected of murder (nor was he Cherokee). While none of this shows up in the book, it begs the question: should a known KKK member have the right to speak for Native Americans, or Cherokees, or anyone other than himself? Are there truly no young adult books of quality by indigenous authors? Sherman Alexie, anyone?

Of course, some books do bear the stains of their author’s beliefs. Take, for example, the enormously popular books of Ian Fleming, who created James Bond, or the numerous novels of Robert E. Howard, author of the Conan mythos. Though not great literature, these works wrote the template for virtually every spy thriller and sword-and-sorcery novel, a template that is gloriously sexist at its core. In each work, dashing, virile heroes rescue damsels in distress, frequently bedding and discarding them, and the few intelligent women are cruel, calculating women who eventually meet a gruesome end. It’s all in good fun, though, right? Of course, it might explain why so few women took up writing fantasy for so long...can you imagine a little girl reading Conan novels and thinking, like Jean Rhys, “I remember being quite shocked, and when I re-read it rather annoyed. “That’s only one side—the [male] side.”

So what do we do with the great authors who reveal the stain of their past? What of the Brontës, the Kiplings, the Lovecrafts, even the Shakespeares? Do we follow the parade of political correctness and ban these works from the curriculum? Place them behind the library check-out counter to safeguard them from young minds? Not even Jean Rhys would agree with this, as she took pains to distance her own work from Jane Eyre lest it unduly color that famous work. In the end, literature, like history, has to be taken on its own terms. You can’t re-write history in an attempt to make it innocuous, for what’s past is not past—it’s still here, in the room, shaping our lives and discussions. In the same way, everything we read today is shaped by books that were gloriously unaware of contemporary mores. Shocking and ugly they might occasionally be, but they still form a vital part of the living conversation of literature. No education is complete without reading at least some of these works, if only to see what history looked like “on the ground floor,” when the ideas were still taking shape—since writers are often the ones who shape them.

That said, the Great Books (or even the not-so-great) don’t teach themselves. I read Poe with extreme bafflement as a child, just as Jane Eyre puzzled the teenage immigrant from Dominica. Ideas need to be understood in their context and their moment in time, rather than assuming that all books exist in a never-never land of relevance. This is the role of good teachers, and not just K-12 teachers, but of anyone who can share a book and mentor a fellow reader. Simply throwing books at children won’t magically produce scholars and citizens, but it could create some seriously disillusioned and misguided young readers. Reading is a serious activity, since it involves our most precious values and beliefs. We need to guide our readers with equal seriousness, and make sure they understand the biases that shaped the past, as well as the ideas that are ‘writing’ the future. Ideally, these books should be the beginning of a conversation, and not the last word. If literature doesn’t inspire new writers and new thoughts, then we truly have nothing more to say. Rhys had the right idea after all, when she wrote (in another letter), “Take a look at Jane Eyre. That unfortunate death of a Creole! I’m fighting mad to write her story.”