Literature, with the naughty bits

Sunday, June 29, 2008


First Published: 1974

Author: Stephen King

Censorship History: If you Google "Carrie censorship," most of the hits are for Sister Carrie. Which is ironic, given that Carrie was in the top 100 challenged books for 1990-2000, and Sister Carrie didn't even crack the list. The censors, evidently, have bigger, dirtier fish to fry these days.

What's more curious, to me, is that most of the links for this Carrie lead to the same piece of text:

Considered "trash" that is especially harmful for "younger girls."
Challenged by Clark High School library, Las Vegas, Nevada, 1975. Placed on special closed shelf in Union High School library, Vergennes, Vermont, 1978.

That's it? You do get the odd note about parents requesting a blanket ban on all Stephen King books (he has three or four in the top 100, quite a respectable showing), and one columnist describes his books as being on an age-restricted shelf at her school's library (which actually seems like a great strategy for getting younger kids to read). If you search for "Ban Stephen King" you get lots of hits about his public stance against banning video games. But there's very little about any actual censorship of Carrie. One must conclude that either the would-be censors are keeping their efforts very, very quiet--which might not be a bad strategy if you're up against a fiction behemoth like Stephen King--or that the reports of Carrie's censorship are greatly exaggerated.

One can, at least, find an article in which King discusses censorship: "Run, don't walk, to the first library or bookstore you can find and read what they are trying to keep out of your eyes because that is exactly what you need to know." Amen.

In any case, Carrie is the sort of thing every high school student should read; if they did, high school might be a kinder place. The book's real power comes not so much from King's gift for horror as from his utter empathy for his title character. No one who reads this should ever again be able to dismiss a misfit with an easy conscience. King is relentless in finding not just the overt cruelty of Chris, the Queen Bee, but also the more passive cruelty of the good girls who go along with the group--the ones who are, in essence, just following orders.

What Happens: At 16, Carrie White, the class misfit, starts her first period in the shower in front of her entire gym class. The other girls mock her cruelly. She has no idea what is happening. It emerges that her mother is a religious fanatic who believes menarche is God's punishment to girls who harbor sinful thoughts. Mrs. White also beats Carrie regularly and locks her in a closet. Carrie, however, is not quite defenseless. She is discovering a mysterious ability to move things with her mind, and she begins to train this ability to protect herself from her mother.

Sue Snell, one of the girls from the gym class, regrets her role in teasing Carrie, and persuades her boyfriend to take Carrie to the senior prom as a way of helping Carrie come out of her shell. For a few blissful hours Carrie transcends her misery. The other students accept her. She is beautiful.

Then--in what is one of the best-known episodes in Stephen King's vast canon--Chris, the gym class ringleader, douses Carrie in pig blood. Carrie's vengeance is swift and only half voluntary. She dies, but not before taking out several hundred others.

And How About That Death Scene: Plenty of writers attempt to take you inside a character's head at the moment of death. Few do it in a way you suspect you will remember at your own death: Tolstoy in War and Peace; Toni Morrison in Sula; A.S. Byatt in Still Life; a handful of others. I'm going to have to add Carrie White's death to that short list.

A Confession: I was something of a Sue Snell in high school, only without the boyfriend and the sex and the good looks. I was a very good student and by most standards a good kid; I didn't sneak out or drink or even try one of Kris Nielsen's cigarettes; I didn't trust my body enough to wear anything close to revealing (although there were some really regrettable tie-dyed leggings around 1990); I had a mind, but I was just beginning to discover that it was my own.

I was the butt of a few jokes. But I was also privy to a few jokes on students even lower in the pecking order. To my eternal shame, I did nothing to stop them; sometimes I went along with them. There are a few regrets I don't suppose you ever get over. That's one for me. Reading Carrie opened that old wound as if it had never healed. There's a twenty-some year gap between Carrie's prom and mine, but that whole kill-or-be-killed world is apparently a constant, and oh, boy, does King nail it. If he nails the reader in the process, well, that's the point, isn't it?

What Else: If you want to get a look of carefully restrained pity from your librarian, check out Carrie and Sister Carrie on the same day, as though you think they're related, along the lines of Gone with the Wind and The Wind Done Gone.

Carrie was King's breakthrough. He was inspired by a couple of girls who went to his high school, miserable outcasts of an instantly recognizable type. He describes the whole process quite movingly in On Writing (another one that should be required reading for high school students). Anyone who thinks of King as a sort of pulpy genre author is in for a fantastic surprise, because his style here is quite inventive, and not in the self-conscious, faintly desperate way you associate with first novels. This is flat-out good.

Trivia: Carrie was made into a notoriously bad musical, some say the worst flop of all time, in 1988. (Gee, I can't tell why it flopped.)

There's also a film version by Brian DePalma I hear is pretty good, and another film called The Rage: Carrie 2 that sounds pretty pointless and awful, what with Carrie dying in the first one.
FIRE CHIEF: Remember? Remember the horror?
SUE (trembling): Yes! Yes, I remember! Oh, the memory is so horrible!

Etc. There are times when the best compliment you can pay to a story is to let it end where it's supposed to end.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

R.I.P. George Carlin

No blog on censorship would be complete without noting the passing of George Carlin, one of the shrewdest and funniest voices for free speech. Everyone remembers the "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," but for my money this was his most inspiring line:

Why is everything like this? Why isn't it different?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Sister Carrie

Author: Theodore Dreiser

First Published: 1900

What Happens (Here Be Spoilers): Carrie Meeber, in her late teens, forsakes her small-town life to come to Chicago, hoping for work. She stays with her sister and her sister's husband in their humble apartment, and immediately realizes she wants a life less shoddy than theirs. She hopes for a comfortable position as a shop girl in one of the new department stores, but can't afford the stylish clothes that would secure such a job, and finds grueling, underpaid work in a shoe factory instead. Eventually she loses even that.

However, she catches the eye of Charles Drouet, an up-and-coming salesman. Drouet showers her with gifts and whisks her away from her sister. Soon they are living together. Carrie no longer needs to work at all; she spends her days reading. Drouet promises to marry her as soon as he makes a big enough sale to cover the expenses. He introduces her to friends as his wife.

He makes the mistake of introducing her to Hurstwood, who resolves to win Carrie away from Drouet. Carrie--who now has the luxury of time to think--has begun to recognize Drouet's shortcomings, particularly the hollowness of his promises of marriage. She admires Hurstwood's intelligence, extravagance, social connections and superior taste. She refuses to leave Drouet unless Hurstwood marries her. Hurstwood agrees, neglecting to inform her that he is already married.

Hurstwood's wife susses out her husband's duplicity and threatens divorce, a move that would leave him without property. It's safe to say Hurstwood does not respond well: He steals $10,000 from work, lies to Carrie, and flees with her to Canada, where he marries her in a ceremony that he only later reveals is a sham.

White-collar crime has apparently not changed much over the years. Hurstwood's employers fire him but agree not to press charges if he returns the money. But he is in too much disgrace to return to Chicago, or to work in the elevated social circles to which he is accustomed. He and Carrie move to New York. There, he struggles to find work. For the first time in his life, he must pay attention to a budget. Carrie, for her part, discovers the essential poverty of spirit that underlay all his previous generosity. When he does work, he neglects her in much the same way he neglected his first wife. Their resources dwindle.

Finally Carrie is fed up. She gets work as a chorus girl. In the past she has shown some talent as an actor, and the theater begins to recognize it. As her income grows, she leaves Hurstwood. Gradually she becomes a recognized star; the shows are trifling comedies, but she earns a handsome income. She also earns legions of male admirers but--to the bewilderment of her castmates--remains indifferent to their offers of wealth and wedded bliss. Drouet, now quite affluent, seeks her out; they reconcile civilly but she is no more interested in him than in the other suitors. She has discovered independence.

Hurstwood, on the other hand, continues his decline into poverty. The book ends with him, a ruined man, in the waning twilight of his life.

Censorship History: Sister Carrie was condemned early and often; like Ulysses it was censored and bowdlerized enough that we no longer have a single authoritative edition. (Bowdlerizing--named for the Reverend Thomas Bowdler--originally meant removing content "unfit to be read by a gentleman in the company of ladies." It has come to imply "withholding certain details and thereby weakening the whole," in much the same way that future generations will speak of Rumsfelding an invasion.)

Most censorship, of course, is less a comment on the work than on its times. Many early descriptions of Sister Carrie refer to Carrie as "a woman of loose morals." Given that she is the dupe of both Drouet and Hurstwood, neither of whom thinks anything of a little casual philandering on the side (and one of whom steals a great deal of money), it's pretty appalling that Carrie gets the blame. But I'm afraid it presents an accurate picture of just how circumscribed women's lives were in the 1890s. Poverty, not baseness, drives Carrie to accept Drouet's gifts and attentions. Her insistence on marriage reveals her awareness of social code; unfortunately, she is also more or less powerless to enforce her wishes, and at first she's too ignorant to to recognize the men's deceit. It's plain that she is not unique in her ignorance. Drouet and Hurstwood both expect her to believe their lies; women in their world do not ask questions. Carrie's society--the same society that sought to ban this book--kept women ignorant in the name of preserving their innocence.

Carrie's moral slips occur when she becomes aware of the differences between her material wealth and the wealth of others. This is a tragedy of capitalism more than anything else. The plot shows the natural consequences of income disparity. When Drouet first offers Carrie gifts, she is too poor to afford a winter coat (and that's a serious problem in Chicago). It's hard to blame her for choosing the comfort and surface respectability of life with him. Plenty of women make the same decision today. If the arbitrary lack of a ring is all that makes Carrie immoral, that proves Dreiser's point rather better than it proves the point of his censors. Of course, I'm making these observations from the perspective of a century, but Dreiser is always quite clear about Carrie's circumstances and motivations, and I imagine many women of Carrie's time read this and wondered what, exactly, was so terrible about her efforts to survive.

In any case, no amount of Bowdlerization can remove the implications of the plot, which remain quite radical: that capitalism is amoral; that wealth is neither always deserved nor always a reflection of moral character; that poverty is not noble; that we cannot always pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps; that pay does not always accurately reflect the difficulty of the job; that women are not innately moral and innocent but rather gain judgment from their experiences in the world.

It says plenty about the character of the times that Dreiser could be censored for implying extramarital sex but that the casual sexism of some of his commentary--the broad observations about women's consciousness of fashion--could go unremarked. (As for the accuracy of these generalizations, all I can say is, Go to a literacy conference, Theodore, and discover the depths of frumpiness to which women can sink when they give most of their effort to meaningful work.) And as far as I can tell no one has found much issue with Drouet's description of a client as "a regular hook-nosed sheeny." These biases are allowable, I think, because the occasional sexism of the commentary pales next to the near-revolutionary independence of the female character, and because the "sheeny" comment serves to illustrate Drouet's small-mindedness. (Or, sadly, perhaps it was the sort of thing people said all the time then, and no one noticed anything amiss.)

Off-the-cuff anti-Semitism notwithstanding, the Nazis banned Sister Carrie in 1933. It's a safe assumption that if your work is banned by a fanatical dictatorship, you're doing something right.

What Else: Dreiser has taken a lot of lumps over the years for his writing style. Dorothy Parker notably opined,

Theodore Dreiser
Should ought to write nicer.

But it's not as though Dreiser is unlettered, or his sentences are artless in the same way that, say, Dan Brown's are artless. One gets the sense that Dreiser is wrestling constantly with the language to make it do his bidding. He has examined all the available words and found them lacking; none is quite precise enough. Where some writers would go for the word that comes nearest the point, and others would try for a metaphor that would transcend the words, Dreiser just keeps cramming words into the sentence, hoping that in combination they will refine his meaning as singly they cannot.

That said, his syntax is far more complicated than most American writers would even attempt today. And it's not just that long, complicated sentences have gone out of vogue; it's that must of us don't know how to string together clauses and phrases the way even second-rate hacks did in the 19th century. (Take a good hard look at some of Poe's sentences, for example, and remember that he was considered inferior in his day. Then imagine a roomful of MFA students being asked to parse a sentence, and blanching in unison.)

Anyway, I think what's really happening here, stylistically, is that Dreiser is ushering in the era of American modernism. (This is not itself a modernist book--it's naturalism--but it's a giant departure from what had come before.) He wrote at a turning point in American literature, a turning point he helped to cause, and Sister Carrie--his first novel--sometimes justaposes the flowery 19th-century high style he must have grown up reading with the cleaner, harder modern lines and ideas he was starting to choose for himself. The last sentence--which will haunt you--leaves no doubt that Dreiser ultimately comes down on the side of the modern.

For all the jabs at Dreiser's language, there is real craft in the images he chooses--for example, the bum Hurstwood ignores early in the action, who foreshadows Hurstwood's own fall. And when Dreiser gets it, he nails it. Describing Hurstwood on the social scene: "It was greatness in a way, small as it was." Describing a community theater production: "The applause and good nature of the its surprise at not being tortured, went to the extreme of hilarious commendation."

May I Suggest a Nice White to Accompany That: Devil in the White City takes place in the same Chicago. Larsen's architectural history will give you a thorough idea of the backdrop of Carrie's life. Dreiser's description of Carrie's relative poverty and artlessness will help you understand how the killer in White City was able to prey on so many similar young women.

And perhaps you could follow with The Jungle as a nice digestif, for further meditations on income disparity, or A Room of One's Own, for thoughts on women's independence. Carrie's trajectory is essentially that of Woolf's hypothetical Judith Shakespeare.

And on a Personal Note: As the Field Guide grows, my life seems to mirror the books to a degree that is sometimes alarming. I had to borrow a hacksaw for a home improvement project the week I was reading American Psycho, and found myself walking into a crowded bar with the saw concealed in a shopping bag. But with this book it was less creepy. Dreiser knows Chicago very well. Carrie sees Joseph Jefferson on stage, for example; and here I was, a woman who came to Chicago to act, reading this novel the week of the Jeff Awards. The utter realness of Carrie's world lingers with me.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Author: Mark Twain

First Published: 1885

What Happens: Twain warns in his preface that "persons attempting to find a plot...will be shot." So the, ahem, sequence of events takes place after the end of Tom Sawyer. That novel ends with Tom and Huck each in possession of $6,000. In the sequel Huck has been taken in by a kindly widow, but his violent, alcoholic father soon gets wind of Huck's fortune and comes to town to claim it. Pap kidnaps Huck, who eventually flees. Huck meets up with Jim, a slave who has run away from the widow's farm. The town assumes Pap has killed Huck. Huck and Jim escape on a raft down the Mississippi. They hope to get to the town of Cairo, where Jim can pass himself off as a freeman, but they overshoot and wind up in slave territory, where Jim is in constant danger. A picaresque series of escapades ensues; Twain is at his best describing the townspeople along the river and the contradictions of human behavior. A pair of shysters, the King and the Duke, tag along, bilking the townspeople as they travel.

The King and the Duke print up false billets to collect rewards on Jim as a runaway slave; the last of these has resulted in his imprisonment. Huck sets out to free him. Then, in the much-discussed (and much-maligned) last section of the book, Huck encounters Tom, who has come to visit his Aunt Sally. Tom, under the influence of countless gothic adventure novels, insists on complicating the rescue to a degree that places Jim in physical torment and prolongs his confinement for a month--even though, as it turns out, Tom knows all along that Jim is actually free, because the old widow has died.

The Obligatory Discussion of the Problem Ending: Twain has indeed created a bit of a Problem Ending, in much the same way that Shakespeare (or Bacon, as Twain would have it) wrote a few Problem Plays. I think the real problem comes at the beginning of the end, when Twain gives Tom precedence in Huck's story. Huck has matured on his journey; Tom is still a boy. For the ending to feel more related to the rest of the story, pragmatic Huck would need to triumph over romantic Tom. The two would free Jim using Huck's practical means and thereby get into really serious trouble. (George Saunders, in his excellent introduction, suggests that Twain may have avoided this route because he sensed that the trouble might be so serious as to turn the novel into a tragedy.)

Once Twain has chosen to give Tom the reins, I don't see any better way for the story to proceed than the way Twain has written it. The great human comedy has become something closer to parody or farce, and a farce has to progress to a crowning punchline. Having established the meaninglessness of the events from the moment Tom insists on his complicated plan, Twain has to progress to the crowning meaninglessness: Tom has known all along that Jim was already free. (And yes, that was two meaninglessnesses in one sentence, and I don't see any way around that either.) Tom's machinations result in his getting shot; that's fitting too, since under narrative logic he should be most punished for the stupidity of his actions. It all works as narrative and as comedy.

The problem is, we've already seen much better comedy: the life along the Mississippi, through Huck's singularly frank and sometimes naïve vision. Huck and Jim have emerged as people we care about, and they must go back to being pawns who are battered by the blows of farce. The ending feels odd not because it's inferior writing--it is still Twain, after all--but because it's not quite part of the same book. It would have been fine as a short story, and Tom's revelation would have worked the same way an O. Henry ending does. However, I have already devoted enough attention to it that I fully expect to be shot.

Trivia: Jane Austen spoofed gothic novels in essentially the same way in Northanger Abbey: A too-susceptible character imagines drama in innocuous situations and thereby gets herself into trouble. The device is a bit more successful there, because it's the central gimmick of the plot, and the heroine's snooping eventually does create enough real complications for the climax to be satisfying. Perhaps that has something to do with Twain's well-documented distaste for Austen: "Jane Austen's books," he said, "are absent from this library. Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn't a book in it."

Censorship History: We tend to think of Huck Finn's censorship as being one of those tragic cases of the smothering of all non-PC thought, but the book raised hackles from the beginning. Though today's readers may see racism in Twain's writing, his views on race were shockingly progressive to many of his contemporaries. Even more shocking was the book's true emotional climax, in which Huck realizes that saving Jim from captivity will mean going to hell--and he chooses to go to hell. A horrified Louisa May Alcott opined, "If Mr. Clemens cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses, he had best stop writing for them."

Huck Finn is still in the top ten of the American Library Association's list of most challenged books, and that's no mean feat when you consider that American Psycho is #60. Huck's challenges nearly all have to do with the word nigger and the sometimes minstrel-ish potrayal of Jim. (Interestingly enough, African American writers Toni Morrison and Alex Haley have spoken in defense of the book.)

Huck Finn has quite a few things in common with another book that gets challenged on similar grounds, To Kill a Mockingbird. Both authors grew up in the South, and certain assumptions color their writing despite their best efforts. Both of them show racism through the perception of a child--and a white child at that, a child just beginning to be aware of his or her own prejudice. If it's clear from the discussion of race that Huck predates Mockingbird by almost a century, it's also clear that the device endures as a way to present honest portrayals of the adult world.

However, where Mockingbird's Scout is naïve because she is priviliged and quite young, Huck is naïve because he is ignorant and largely unschooled. He has unthinkingly absorbed many of Pap's worst traits. Pap is the anti-Atticus; he thinks Huck is putting on airs by attempting to read and write, and he rails against perceived slights from every corner of society, blaming the government, the rich, and eventually even "free niggers" for his drunkenness and poverty. Pap's drunken monologue is instantly recognizable. Twain is unsparing and pretty much letter-perfect in depicting the weaknesses that underlie human cruelty, and what was not yet called addiction. (In many ways, today's clinical vocabulary weakens our ability to describe characters, reducing them to collections of symptoms rather than true people who bear some responsibility for their actions. We fiction writers will have to find some ways around that.)

Huck, Twain, Racism, and Bus Rides: Twain's father owned slaves, and Twain's perception of race and racism evolved considerably between childhood and adulthood. I have to imagine that, consciously or not, part of his impetus for writing Huck Finn was to convey his awakening to the injustice of racial prejudice. (The book was published twenty years after the end of the Civil War, so he's not lobbying for abolition here; he's talking about basic human interaction.)

To me, it's pretty clear that Twain wanted to contrast Jim--who protects Huck, sacrifices for him, listens to him, conspires with him, and ultimately loves him--with Pap, who drinks, extorts, picks fights, abandons and then kidnaps his son, turns instantly and savagely violent, refuses to work, and sees Huck as a meal ticket. Later, when Huck and Jim are joined by the King and the Duke, it's quite obvious that Jim is the kindest and most honest person on the raft. It's unfortunate that Twain sometimes pushes Jim's guilelessness to the point of idiocy. But let's think for a moment about how many other Southern writers of the time were willing to see nobility and humor in the hearts and minds of slaves. Likewise, though many characters--including Huck--discuss the innate inferiority of the people they always call niggers, it's clear that the beliefs belong to the characters, not to Twain.

That said, a few days ago I was reading the book on the bus, fairly early in the story, when Huck is revealing some of his more unfortunate beliefs. A black man sat down next to me. We met each other's eyes and smiled, and I surreptitiously marked my page with my finder and shut the book. After a moment he glanced at the cover and said "Huck Finn, huh?"

I gabbled about how long it had been since I'd read it, how it was funnier than I remembered. I asked if he had read it, and he shook his head no, still smiling. The word nigger hovered unspoken between us. Was he supposed to accuse me of reading something offensive? Was I supposed to mention the topic we're not supposed to notice any more, the thing you don't talk about with strangers? We rode on in silence. After a few more stops I got off the bus.

I suppose it's something that we could ride on a bus side by side: that he could take the seat next to me without fear of reprisal, that I could look at him and see a person capable of legitimate offense. When strangers can honestly talk about race, though, we'll really be getting somewhere. Whatever the book's limitations, I think it's obvious that's what Twain really wanted, and I have a feeling it's more or less what his censors want too. That day might come sooner if we could start the conversation with a point of commonality--such as, say, all reading the same book.