The OF Blog: Thoughts on Modern-Day Comstocks, Millennials, and YA

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Thoughts on Modern-Day Comstocks, Millennials, and YA

This past weekend, I have been busy reading the 2010 Library of America two-volume collection of 20th century critic H.L. Mencken's Prejudices.  Mencken has long been a writer to whom I turn whenever I feel debates about literature, politics, and social policies are becoming too confining and when I detect more than the faintest whiff of Puritanism.  In light of recent articles that I had read last week on the high school graduating classes of 2011 and on a Wall Street Journal article on recent Young Adult literature, it was comforting to read Mencken's first critical piece, "Criticism of Criticism of Criticism." 

The U.S., more so than perhaps any other "Western" democracy, has a conflicted history with literary expression and moral values.  In 1873, the anti-obscenity crusader Anthony Comstock managed to convince Congress to pass what became known as the Comstock Laws.  Things that today a plurality of Americans take for granted and a significant minority still oppose, such as information on abortions, prophylactics, "earthy" exchanges, and the like, were banned for trade or sell.  Even today, in a weakened form several of these regulations exist and debates still rage furiously in newspaper letters to the editor or on online forums regarding the enforcement and application of these laws.  Mencken's piece, which was first collected in 1919, references this in his discussion of American literary criticism:

As practiced by all such learned and diligent but essentially ignorant and unimaginative men, criticism is little more than a branch of homiletics. They judge a work of art, not by its clarity and sincerity, not by the force and charm of its ideas, not by the technical virtuosity of the artist, not by his originality and artistic courage, but simply and solely by his orthodoxy. If he is what is called a ``right thinker,'' if he devotes himself to advocating the transient platitudes in a sonorous manner, then he is worthy of respect. But if he lets fall the slightest hint that he is in doubt about any of them, then he is a scoundrel, and hence, by their theory, a bad artist. Such pious piffle is horribly familiar among us. I do not exaggerate its terms. You will find it running through the critical writings of practically all the dull fellows who combine criticism with tutoring; in the words of many of them it is stated in the plainest way and defended with much heat, theological and pedagogical. In its baldest form it shows itself in the doctrine that it is scandalous for an artist --- say a dramatist or a novelist --- to depict vice as attractive. The fact that vice, more often than not, undoubtedly is attractive --- else, why should it ever gobble any of us? --- is disposed of with a lofty gesture. What of it? say these birchmen. The artist is not a reporter, but a Great Teacher. It is not his business to depict the world as it is, but as it ought to be. 

Against this notion American criticism makes but feeble headway. We are, in fact, a nation of evangelists; every third American devotes himself to improving and lifting up his fellow citizens, usually by force; the messianic delusion is our national disease. Thus the moral Privatdozenten have the crowd on their side, and it is difficult to shake their authority; even the vicious are still in favor of crying vice down. ``Here is a novel,'' says the artist. ``Why didn't you write a tract?'' roars the professor --- and down the chute go novel and novelist. ``This girl is pretty,'' says the painter. ``But she has left off her undershirt,'' protests the head-master --- and off goes the poor dauber's head. At its mildest, this balderdash takes the form of the late Hamilton Wright Mabie's ``White List of Books''; at its worst, it is comstockery, an idiotic and abominable thing.

 What is the "purpose" of literature?  Is it, as Mencken derides brilliantly in his essay, to be a "Great Teacher," or are there other goals at play, many of which are also listed elsewhere in Mencken's essay?  To me, literature is one of the most dangerous weapons a society can ever wield.  A literate citizen can fell the mighty with well-timed, apt references to literary works that contain the essence of the whole spectrum of the human condition.  Its truths are often discomfiting, and its lies can beguile and destroy civilizations.  The wise fear the power in what they read; it is not readily controllable and its seductiveness alters its listeners irrevocably from the simple folks they may have once been.

The most impressionable humans are our young; the old are too rigid in their views to render themselves malleable enough to be influenced, or so certain received wisdom goes.  The youth are to be protected from the lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!) of the outside world, that world of pederasts, pimps, drug dealers, gang members, and other assorted malicious elements waiting to corrupt the minds, bodies, and souls of our young.  It is a quasi-rational fear; after all, we do see violence every day on the news or read it online or in print publications. 

However, today's youth generation occupies a paradoxical position.  It is strange for me, being at nearly 37 a member of the so-called "latchkey generation," to see youth so coddled and so protected by their parents.  What used to be a broadly-defined "don't go up and talk to strangers in vans" became a whole host of things to watch for:  bullies, drug dealers, gang members, etc.  "Just say no" morphed into something else in the aftermath of the 9/11 bombings.  The moral watchdogs, who seem to have been slumbering through most of my generation (although there were some rumblings about Judy Blume's excellent YA novels and whether or not "backward masking" of heavy metal records would lead to satanic conversions of susceptible teens), seem to be out in greater force these days, as witnessed by the WSJ article linked above.

Yet along with this comes a much greater explicitness.  I can remember as a child the infamous "a special episode" of Diff'rent Strokes.  It was an indelible moment in my childhood, as I never really knew of child molestation until then and it wasn't too graphic.  Perhaps in someways, the "Great Teacher" element is well worth having.  But things are different today than they were in the late 1970s and 1980s when I was growing up.  Back then, I didn't know hardly a thing about homosexuality and bullying was combated by balling your fists and gettin' your licks in before being sent to the principal's office.  But that was small town life in the last quarter of the 20th century; in the 21st century, the darker elements of adolescent suffering are surfacing in ways we managed to downplay or accept as "normal."  Children now are more vocal about their hurts, whether it be at the hands of strangers, purported elders, or their peers.  The "weird" kids of my youth are now often sent to rehab for suicidal ideation or attempts.  Cutting is talked about more, and more adolescents attempt to put a voice to what troubles them.

The YA literature of these times reflects this.  I have worked much of the past three years in treatment centers for emotionally troubled and/or drug-abusing teens.  I have heard from them or read in their daily journals descriptions of pain and suffering that can break one's heart.  When I was buying small gifts for two of the units (my own class of non-custody boys and a custody/non-custody girl's class), I had several girls request that I buy some of Ellen Hopkins' books for them to read.  Although I have not sat down and read her books in whole, I did look at the synopses and read a few reviews before deciding that those books were precisely what those girls needed to read:  stories of a drug-abusing teen girl going through emotional, physical, and spiritual hell and trying to claw her way out of it toward peace.  From what I could tell from thumbing through a few pages, Hopkins was direct and rather blunt with the situation; some of it seems to be based on personal events.  Six months later, those four books I bought are still being circulated as the girls come and go through rehab.

Perhaps critics like Meghan Cox Gurdon would approve of the tone; somehow, I doubt it, because it is direct, raw, visceral in nature.  Works like Hopkins or the more fantastical Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan are not going to win over critics who bemoan the loss of "innocence" (as if that existed for those who have experienced such hells as those mentioned above); the material is too "dark" and "violent" for them.  This is not to say that parents should let their children read materials unsupervised.  It might be best for there to be actual dialogue between parent and child over the material and a heart-to-heart discussion of these issues.  To condemn whole-cloth these stories, however, would be more than a grave error.  It would be a return to the worst excesses of the Comstock Laws and it would reinforce the Puritanism that Mencken and others railed against nearly a century ago.  The truth stings and never is this more readily apparent in our reactions to literary writings.


Amy said...

That piece sounds really interesting, I'm going to have to look it up now. I think you make two key points - firstly that parents and others imagine children to all be innocent and that if kids aren't it is their own fault and they don't deserve books to speak to them. The second is that they don't want to be involved and discuss the books, parents seem to like leaving kids on their own.

joe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
joe said...

A very interesting piece, instantly reminded of An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope and his life and work, especially the exquisite Dunciad. Have you read any of his work?

Lsrry said...

Yes, I read that a couple of months ago and it might be an influence on this piece, come to think of it.

Mark Lawrence said...

Very thought provoking. I would go further and say that not only is the artist not required to be a great teacher of 'the world as it ought to be', they are also not required to be a reporter of 'the world as it is'. The artist has no requirement upon them.

It may be that they seek to teach, report, or simply to spin out some of the stuff of their inner workings or imaginations (that may or may not reflect the wider world), but none of these are duties. And the critic likewise has no duty other than whatever set of rules or standards they impose upon themselves.

If someone were to set down a book on the nth page because the author has failed to provide them with the hero they expected, or to tread the path of redemption they demand, or has touched on some taboo, treated with insufficient respect some holy cow, or simply failed to write well enough ... that's not a failure to meet some critics' charter or conform with some social norm ... it's just the intersection of that book and that person. Commercial success will thin the herd through natural selection and in the end we'll get neither the art/literature we deserve or need, but simply the art/literature that survives.

What good or ill it might do and what filtering might be needed between it and our children ... I really don't know.

Hélène said...

Thinking about "what an artist ought to be" and "what a novel ought to be", do you know Kundera's essays (The curtain, The art of the novel...)? He managed to make me re-read most of those books !

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