Old Books: How Do They Age and Should We Still Read Them?

Posted June 7, 2019 by Amber in Memes / 2 Comments

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One of the more cringe-worthy parts of reading classic literature is acknowledging that some of these “works of art” have not aged well.  Classics seem to be held up to a different set of expectations, but honestly?  We need to be able to have a dialogue about how some of the things that happen in these books are not okay.

For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on the aspects of classic novels that are blatantly racist.  This isn’t to say that sexism or homophobia or lack of inclusion isn’t a problem – however, there’s already a lot of territory to cover with just this one topic.

Today’s two cringe-worthy examples of racism in two generally well-loved books: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Gone With the Wind.

I will start off by saying I personally really like these books, horrible racism aside.  So I’m not just trying to bully two beloved classics – there are some fundamental problems in both of them that need to be addressed.

To start with Huckleberry Finn… it’s impossible to avoid racism here.  It’s in every word and every movement from Jim.  It is painful.  In fact, if you start typing “racism in” in a Google search bar, “racism in Huckleberry Finn” is one of the top three suggestions.  There’s a lot of conversation about Huckleberry Finn and whether or not the racism was intentional – meant as an educational tool and literary device to show the difference between societal morality and individual morality – or if it was just Mark Twain being racist.  Either way, there are many passages in discussion of slavery that make this book difficult to stomach at times.

Where Jim is a constant companion to Huck and often the topic of conversation in that novel, the appearance of racism in Gone With the Wind is different.  We’re still talking about slaves and slavery in the South, but slavery isn’t the subject of Gone With the Wind as much as it is the result of the setting.  There are a handful of black characters to note here, but I want to focus on Mammy, Prissy, and Big Sam.

I’m a lot more intimately familiar with Gone With the Wind, so it would be easy for me to write a proper essay on the issues of racism within this book.  I’m going to try and rein it in a bit, so bear with me here.

So.  Mammy, Prissy, and Big Sam.  All three of these characters are huuuge stereotypes.  While Scarlet is mostly pleasant to them (well, as pleasant as she is to anyone), these caricatures are not okay.  In this particular case, we have as follows:

Mammy:  The woman who would be Scarlet’s nanny and caretaker throughout her life, Mammy is a stereotypical black woman who is constantly fretting over Scarlet, talking back to her (but lovingly so) and is superstitious.

Prissy:  Prissy is the whining, fearful, “useless” ex-slave/servant.  Scarlet regularly slaps her and calls her names.

Big Sam:  We have a couple of run-ins with Big Sam in Gone With the Wind.  He’s the big field hand who only speaks English moderately well.  In our second run-in, he’s accidentally perceived (in the dark) as a possible rapist, and he kills a man.  So you know.  Red flags EVERYWHERE.

All of these are completely unacceptable portrayals.  They’re two-dimensional, and portray the black characters as less intelligent and lazy, and they are perpetuating stereotypes and I am not in any way okay with that.

It should also go without saying that both these novels use the n-word with too much comfortable regularity.  There are a lot (a lot) of other books that show concerning levels of racism or the white savior complex or some other … uncomfortable issue.  Everything from Peter Pan to To Kill a Mockingbird and back again.  Racism is a HUGE HUGE HUGE problem in classic literature.

Does this mean we need to stop reading classics?

In my opinion, no.

I do think it’s important to acknowledge that some aspects of these books are unacceptable.  We need to take them as they are, and acknowledge their faults.  It’s a terribly unfair thing to say, but a lot of problematic books are products of their time.  If Gone With the Wind were written today, it would be shot down SO fast.  Book Twitter would stop it before it even hit its publication date.  Too much of its content is not okay.  But it was written by a Southern woman in 1936, nearly three decades because the Civil Rights movement, and it is definitely a product of its origin (in both time and location).

They should have known better back then, but we know better now.

There are different parts of a book one can admire without necessarily supporting their entire content.  Additionally, because classic literature tends to be penned by those who are now deceased…  we’re not financially supporting people with racist, sexist, or other agendas.  In fact, many of these works are old enough to be in the public domain.  If we’re able to pick apart these books, enjoy aspects of them, and recognize where they are SO SO wrong… that’s important. Humanity need to acknowledge and atone for past mistakes, not bury them.

Using our two previous examples, there’s fascinating and wonderful parts of these books that still pull heartstrings and I do not believe either of these novels (or in fact, most classics) should be disregarded entirely based on problematic content.  In the middle of Huckleberry Finn is the story of Emmeline Grangerford, which was beautiful and depressing and hauntingly dark for something considered to be a children’s book.  In Gone With the Wind, we have Melanie Wilkes, who is the sweetest, kindest character I’ve ever read.  Around, beside, and behind the racism, both books have tiny gemstones tucked in the pockets.

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This week’s Book Blogger Hop asked:

What’s the oldest work (by publication date) you’ve read?

 

Short answer: Technically, that would be The Iliad, written in 890 BCE.  I guess it technically wasn’t “published” then, as the construct of what we refer to as “publishing” wasn’t going on in Ancient Greece… but I’m going with it.

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Are any classics that make you cringe at points… but you still enjoyed them overall? I know many people only read classics in school these days, but I’d be interested in hearing if I’m not the only one who thinks they’re still worth reading.  Let me know in the comments!

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2 responses to “Old Books: How Do They Age and Should We Still Read Them?

  1. Good discussion of this difficult issue! I think Gone With the Wind is definitely worse than Huck Funn (which I *do* think was written purposefully racist as a critique), but it’s still a book I really enjoy! I mean, I obviously come from a place of privilege as a middle class white woman, but I’ve always been able to enjoy a book even if there are cringy things happening. And I think (especially for its time) Gone With the Wind has so much to offer with a strong woman as the lead. I also think having it available to read critically allows one to grow, which is (after all) the whole point of books. 🙂

    • Amber

      I like to think Twain was writing satirically as well, but I wanted to err of the side of being overly cautious when I wrote this, because topics like this can be heated and I *really* didn’t want to say the wrong thing.

      Gone With the Wind is one of my absolute favorites. Prissy really makes me cringe, but generally, the story itself is fascinating and I love Scarlet (despite myself) and I love Melanie. I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels like this one deserves a place on our shelves. 🙂 Agreeing entirely with you – we can cringe at parts and acknowledge them and still enjoy the whole. And learn from it.