It’s a memory that refuses to die and it took place on the front steps of the old brick high school that overlooks Buddy Bufford Field back home. Angry classmates swarm around Skipper Hardin and me, furious because we had the gall to read Charles Darwin’s books on the theory of evolution. Even worse we were so bold as to talk about Darwin’s theory in class. Blasphemy! They thought Darwin’s books should be not just banned, but burned.
We survived that encounter with ignorance but to this day it illustrates a dangerous authoritarian mindset. If you don’t approve of a theory, a belief, or a certain aspect of life, just make it go away. If a book runs contrary to your beliefs, ban it. That will solve the problem.
No it won’t, and you need look no further for proof than the now-dead USSR and its efforts to silence writers like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago and Boris Pasternak, author of the breathtaking Doctor Zhivago. Though the books these men wrote were refused publication in the USSR, they were smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in other countries. Both men earned the Nobel Prize for Literature as a result, honors that turned the fat faces in the Kremlin as red as Russian beets in a bowl of borscht.
All this book-banning business came bubbling up yesterday when I read a post by Aida Rogers, whose anthology, State of the Heart, features essays from nationally and regionally recognized writers who’ve written short essays on their favorite South Carolina places. Yours truly is in it and Pat Conroy wrote its masterful foreword. Aida shared a letter Pat wrote to a newspaper in West Virginia some six years ago. A student at George Washington High School, Mackenzie Hatfield, asked Pat for help when some parents asked high school officials to ban his novels Beach Music and The Prince of Tides.
I’ve spent a lot of time up in that area of West Virginia, Kanawha County to be specific, where the banning took place. Most of the people I met there were open-minded. Obviously not all were or are. And I’ve spent some time around Pat Conroy and he’s a straight shooter who tells it like it is. So when Mackenzie Hatfield turned to Pat for help, you can be sure help was on the way. Read for yourself the letter Pat wrote. I understand the ban on his books was “temporary.”
A Letter to the Editor of the Charleston Gazette
October 24, 2007 – on teachers, censorship, and banned books.
I received an urgent e-mail from a high school student named Makenzie Hatfield of Charleston, West Virginia. She informed me of a group of parents who were attempting to suppress the teaching of two of my novels, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music. I heard rumors of this controversy as I was completing my latest filthy, vomit-inducing work. These controversies are so commonplace in my life that I no longer get involved. But my knowledge of mountain lore is strong enough to know the dangers of refusing to help a Hatfield of West Virginia. I also do not mess with McCoys.
I’ve enjoyed a lifetime love affair with English teachers, just like the ones who are being abused in Charleston, West Virginia, today. My English teachers pushed me to be smart and inquisitive, and they taught me the great books of the world with passion and cunning and love. Like your English teachers, they didn’t have any money either, but they lived in the bright fires of their imaginations, and they taught because they were born to teach the prettiest language in the world. I have yet to meet an English teacher who assigned a book to damage a kid. They take an unutterable joy in opening up the known world to their students, but they are dishonored and unpraised because of the scandalous paychecks they receive. In my travels around this country, I have discovered that America hates its teachers, and I could not tell you why. Charleston, West Virginia, is showing clear signs of really hurting theirs, and I would be cautious about the word getting out.
In 1961, I entered the classroom of the great Eugene Norris, who set about in a thousand ways to change my life. It was the year I read The Catcher in the Rye, under Gene’s careful tutelage, and I adore that book to this very day. Later, a parent complained to the school board, and Gene Norris was called before the board to defend his teaching of this book. He asked me to write an essay describing the book’s galvanic effect on me, which I did. But Gene’s defense of The Catcher in the Rye was so brilliant and convincing in its sheer power that it carried the day. I stayed close to Gene Norris till the day he died. I delivered a eulogy at his memorial service and was one of the executors of his will.
Few in the world have ever loved English teachers as I have, and I loathe it when they are bullied by know-nothing parents or cowardly school boards.
About the novels your county just censored: The Prince of Tides and Beach Music are two of my darlings which I would place before the altar of God and say, “Lord, this is how I found the world you made.” They contain scenes of violence, but I was the son of a Marine Corps fighter pilot who killed hundreds of men in Korea, beat my mother and his seven kids whenever he felt like it, and fought in three wars. My youngest brother, Tom, committed suicide by jumping off a fourteen-story building; my French teacher ended her life with a pistol; my aunt was brutally raped in Atlanta; eight of my classmates at The Citadel were killed in Vietnam; and my best friend was killed in a car wreck in Mississippi last summer. Violence has always been a part of my world. I write about it in my books and make no apology to anyone. In Beach Music, I wrote about the Holocaust and lack the literary powers to make that historical event anything other than grotesque.
People cuss in my books.
People cuss in my real life. I cuss, especially at Citadel basketball games. I’m perfectly sure that Steve Shamblin and other teachers prepared their students well for any encounters with violence or profanity in my books just as Gene Norris prepared me for the profane language in The Catcher in the Rye forty-eight years ago.
The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language. Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a ball in St. Petersburg and lassoed a steer in Lonesome Dove and had nightmares about slavery in Beloved and walked the streets of Dublin in Ulysses and made up a hundred stories in The Arabian Nights and saw my mother killed by a baseball in A Prayer for Owen Meany. I’ve been in ten thousand cities and have introduced myself to a hundred thousand strangers in my exuberant reading career, all because I listened to my fabulous English teachers and soaked up every single thing those magnificent men and women had to give. I cherish and praise them and thank them for finding me when I was a boy and presenting me with the precious gift of the English language.
The school board of Charleston, West Virginia, has sullied that gift and shamed themselves and their community. You’ve now entered the ranks of censors, book-banners, and teacher-haters, and the word will spread. Good teachers will avoid you as though you had cholera. But here is my favorite thing: Because you banned my books, every kid in that county will read them, every single one of them. Because book banners are invariably idiots, they don’t know how the world works—but writers and English teachers do.
I salute the English teachers of Charleston, West Virginia, and send my affection to their students. West Virginians, you’ve just done what history warned you against—you’ve riled a Hatfield.
One final note, Makenzie Hatfield used her experience with the Conroy controversy to apply for the Lewis Scholarship, available only to students from West Virginia. She got the scholarship, which allowed her to attend Washington and Lee, where she became an accomplished double major in archaeology/anthropology and geology. Good for her. The world will always need people of action and accomplishment, especially when the weak-minded and weak-willed try to take our freedoms away.