Notes from the Front Lines of the War on Literature, Part I

J.S. Campbell

Editor’s Note:  This post represents the view of the author and not necessarily the views of the Hemingway Society and its Board.  We publish it on the blog to encourage thoughtful and civil debate about this important matter.


“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”
― Salman Rushdie

As my home state of Virginia has been making recent headlines for a brand-new wave of book banning, I found myself perusing the American Library Association’s (ALA) webpage listing of Banned & Challenged Classics. I discovered that no author currently has more books listed than Ernest Hemingway at three (The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and For Whom the Bell Tolls). No doubt, if To Have and Have Not were considered more of a classic work, it would have made the list, with the N word (among other racial slurs) being used more than twenty-five times in the first chapter alone. And yet, Toni Morrison, in her essential work of literary criticism, Playing in the Dark, devotes considerable time to discussing To Have and Have Not, including drawing the distinction between the racist first person description used in Part One of the novel for a fishing boat crew member (in her words, the book’s first Africanist presence), and the shift to a third person voice in Part Two, in which the character “becomes named (Wesley) and personalized.”

Then there’s the posthumously published The Garden of Eden, Hemingway’s unfinished work highlighting one of the most hot-button issues of today – gender, or more specifically, gender fluidity. The protagonist, David receives more than he bargains for, so to speak, from his wife Catherine, when she tells him, “I’m a girl. But now I’m a boy too and I can do anything and anything and anything.” There are multiple passages that could surely have it banned from high school libraries today, at least here in Virginia.

Tragically, we’ve been here before, or more accurately, have never left the over-heated dumpster fire that is censorship. Since Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan or, on a larger scale, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, certain groups of people (or worse, a particular government or educational authority) have been finding some reason or another to keep certain other groups of people from reading “offensive” books. Of course, the term used for the reason is not typically “offensive.” Rather it’s, more often than not, a word like “dangerous.” Dangerous to our children, their development, to society at large. Run for your lives, a free flow of words and thought menacingly heading our way!

Of course, for those that truly value free speech and literature, it doesn’t help the cause when publishers get into the act of censorship, i.e. the recent “edits” of Dahl's work. This is insanity at its worst and should be stopped and reversed immediately. Here is the CEO of PEN America’s take. One can only imagine how Hemingway’s work would read if Scribner hired the group Inclusive Minds for a little editing and replacement of offensive words.

This is all stemming from the battles in public education, which has increasingly placed itself front and center in the news (and elections), with parents’ rights becoming the new mantra. That concept has merit (a topic for a different time), but not when it is used as a Trojan Horse for a new wave of book banning, as it has become here in Virginia.

To date, Madison County Virginia has already banned 21 books from their High School library via the new school board policy that expands on the state’s also new policies concerning Instructional Materials with Sexually Explicit Content to include library books. No new policies regarding violence or hate contained in books, by the way, just sex.

One can only imagine what this would mean for any number of Hemingway’s short story collections that happen to include Up in Michigan, which troublingly concludes with the rape of main character, Liz. These collections, of course, could be banned, but then we would lose the following tragic but powerful passage describing Liz’s feelings in the aftermath, “She was cold and miserable and everything felt gone.” As, acclaimed Irish novelist Edna O’Brien puts it when speaking of the story and Hemingway’s perception as a consummate misogynist, “Many women feel that Hemingway hated women and wrote adversely about them. I would ask his detractors, female or male, to read this story. Could you in all honor say that this was a writer who didn’t understand women’s emotions or hated women?” We obviously know O’Brien’s opinion, but the answer to her question could very well be yes for many, and that’s the point. Not to be given even a chance to read the story would rob us of reaching our own conclusions.

Anyway, the librarian for the Madison County High School suggested a reasonable solution for the school board’s concerns about controversial books – parents could provide a list of books they didn’t want their kids to be able to check-out. Parental Rights thus preserved. Nope, a total ban was the way to go per the board.

It’s no surprise that the one of the initial books banned by the new draconian policy was none other than Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I can imagine that the school board, were very worried about that one. In response, Atwood herself, has written, “To those who seek to stop young people from reading The Handmaid’s Tale: Good luck with that. It’ll only make them want to read it more.”

To be continued


J.S. Campbell is a Substack journalist, author and poet. He is a Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction Finalist and has been published in the Virginia’s Best Emerging Poets Anthology – 2019 and the Poetry Society of Virginia Centennial Anthology.

J.S. Campbell 04/18/2023

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