Today on the Melville House publishing blog mobylives, they have a post about the fortieth anniversary of Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, which covers the decimation of the Lakota Sioux in the (then) Western territories of the United States in the late Nineteenth century. I’ve read Brown’s book–a classic, worthy read–so I was sort of skimming the post until I saw this:
In an interesting aside for book lovers, Giago notes that, “Just six days after the massacre, L. Frank Baum, an editor at the Aberdeen (S.D.) Saturday Pioneer, wrote an editorial calling for the genocide of the Sioux people. He later wrote the children’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Maybe some of you out there already knew this, but I did not. I was shocked. Still, as shocked as I was, I doubt I’ll turn off the television next time I see The Wizard of Oz (or maybe I will, but only because I’ve already seen it so many times), but it made me wonder: are there any circumstances under which you would stop reading an author’s books because you found out that he or she had beliefs or called for an action that you found morally reprehensible?
In this case, the damage is done, as they say. I have seen the movie, and I read a few of Baum’s books as a child. I probably wouldn’t have read them again, just out of sheer disinterest, but I decided to look up more about Baum. Right there on his Wikipedia page, it discusses his controversial attitudes to Native Americans and other races as well. But then it also says he was an advocate for women’s suffrage, even going so far as to work positive images of strong women into his books. And of course, Baum is hardly alone: lots of authors were (and are) misogynistic, racist, homophobic. Authors are often as complex as their characters. Do we hold one to a higher standard than the other? As a reader, I like characters who have flaws, even major ones, but who also have great traits. But in the real world, it’s easy to vilify people for their actions, easy to forget that people who have great flaws can also have great attributes. Writer Laura Caldwell discusses this in a post she wrote last week on The Outfit:
I find the whole vilification process not only distasteful, but false. We crime writers have been taught that a villain in a novel who is a 100% evil is, generally, just not interesting, in part because the character won’t strike the reader as true. I guess this is why, to date, I have not written about any serial killers. Yes, they do exist, but they seem so evil as to not be particularly fascinating to me. I don’t know what the answer is in terms of the media’s handling of news “stories,” but I do know what the answer is for me in my writing. I want to write people–characters–whether they’re considered good, bad or in-the-middle, who have complex reasons for their actions, who are motivated by one thing at one time, and then maybe something else entirely a few days down the line, just like the rest of us. Because really, the villains, “the bad guys,” are just like everyone else—maybe they’re just nastier, maybe they just care a little less about their consequences.
But is it simply easier to accept these types of people in literature? It seems to me that it is, mainly because in literature, there is nothing we must do, no need for us to act. If Hitler were simply a character in a story, he would terrify and amaze us, he would make us shudder and think, but then we would close the book and go on about our lives. I am not sure I would want the L. Frank Baums of the world removed from bookshelves, though. It seems too important in an historical and cultural context to have the whole picture.
Your thoughts on this topic?