What does one do when one is reading a book that is entertaining but turns out to be blatantly racist? Does one stop and refuse to read it? Does one relegate it to the status of those books which, as Dorothy Parker famously said, deserve not to be set aside lightly, but thrown with great force? I pose this question as an ethical problem, not merely as a matter of taste.
The book in question is Mr. Standfast, by John Buchan, a man more famous as the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps, which was made into a movie by the young Alfred Hitchcock some twenty years after its publication. John Buchan was a career diplomat who served in South Africa in the aftermath of the Boer War and as an intelligence officer in WW I. He is perhaps most famous, however, for becoming the Governor General of Canada in 1935, and by most accounts, he did a good job, as evidenced by his declaration, as Doug Saunders reports in this article, that Canada’s strength as a nation depends on its cultural diversity.
As one of his first public acts, Buchan created the Governor General’s Literary Awards, among whose later recipients number Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munroe, Margaret Atwood, Yann Martel, and Rohinton Mistry. By most accounts, then, Buchan was a fairly good guy, a champion for diversity and the arts, and a pretty good story-teller. So what am I to feel and to think when the first-person narrator of Mr. Standfast expresses open derision and contempt for conscientious objectors? Or when I read passages in which he makes fun of certain characters’ profound desire for peace, for an end to the debilitating war that has cut short hundreds of thousands of lives, hopes, and aspirations, an end to a war that has robbed not one but several generations of their hopes and dreams? What am I to feel when I see another passage which documents a disgusting contempt for the budding African movement towards self-determination, lines so replete with a complacent sense of superiority that I hesitate even to bring myself to quote them here? Such lines are particularly offensive to me because I have been reading Njabulo Ndebele’s excellent book, Fools and Other Stories, which offers a compelling view of life in Soweto, South Africa. So it infuriates me when Hannay, the narrator of Buchan’s novel, reports on “a great buck nigger who had a lot to say about ‘Africa for the Africans.’ I had a few words with him in Sesutu afterwards, and rather spoiled his visit.” It is significant, I’d argue, that the narrator offers neither the Sesutu words themselves, nor a translation, nor even a summary of them, an omission that renders his boastful declaration of a logical victory over the African speaker both empty and bombastic.
And yet I don’t think the answer to my anger and dismay about this is to throw Mr. Standfast across the room. Or perhaps it is to do just that, but then to go and pick it up again, after my temper has cooled, and go on reading it. Certainly my enjoyment of the novel will be less than if I had not encountered such ugly things in the narrative. After all, I would like Stevie Smith’s poems much better if I hadn’t come across baldly antisemitic sloganism in her Novel on Yellow Paper. (As it is, I like Smith well enough to have named one of my cats after her.) Rather, I think the lesson to be learned here is that racism comes in many forms; that, in all probability, it resides in every single human being. Furthermore, we must remember that we cannot eradicate racism by simply looking the other way, by trying to ignore its presence–either in our heroes or in ourselves.
Only by confronting racism dead on, by calling it by its true name without trying to excuse it, can we quash it when it rises up, as it will continue to do for the next few generations at least. At the same time, we cannot afford to dissimulate, as the Introduction to my edition of Mr. Standfast (Wordsworth Classics, 1994) does when it attempts to excuse Buchan: “Some of the language and many of the attitudes find little favour today,” the anonymous editor explains, “and have prompted some commentators to label Buchan with a number of those epithets that are fashionable among the historically illiterate. It should be remembered that Buchan was a high Tory politician, and also that the views he expresses are relatively liberal for his time.” No–this isn’t good enough. Let us admit once and for all that in this book at least, Buchan wrote as if he was a deplorable racist.
But let us also admit that the novel in question is a mere snapshot of him taken in 1919, and that it is unfair to judge the entirety of his life by this snapshot. It’s possible that he changed by the 1930s; but even if he didn’t, we can learn from his example. We can look at his works and see how very far we’ve come, and we can, without dissimulation or censorship, confront his racism for what it is: we can critique it, we can condemn it–and then we can move past it. If we choose not to, if we set the book down, then we miss out on the experience of reading it, and I’d say that would be a victory for racism, because it would shut down our capacity to explore human experience in its great variety.
I am not willing to foreclose on such experiences. I believe that I am strong enough as a reader, indeed, as a person, to encounter racism in literature and to move past it so that I can gather a more complete picture of human culture, not as it should have been, but as it was. Distasteful as it can be to read reflections of ugliness, we must continue to do so if we want to try to understand our past and to control both our present and our future.
For me, it’s simply a matter of honesty. And so I will grit my teeth, shake my head, and continue reading Mr. Standfast. If it’s a good book, or even a spectacularly bad one, I may even write about it here in a few weeks.
7 thoughts on “A Reader’s Dilemma: On Books and Racism”
Because one does not agree with the authors point of view does not mean that one should throw the book across the room. As you point out, his attitude may have changed over the years. I confront my own racism on occasion when I have a negative reaction to someone just based on his looks, without knowing anything about the person. Even though I can rationally deny that I harbor stereotypical reactions, I believe we are “hardwired” to be at least suspicious, if not overtly racist, toward someone different from ourselves. Deep in our ancestral brain, this was a necessary defensive mechanism. One can only acknowledge the veracity of those feelings and not act on them
I agree, Hal. I think you bring up an excellent point, although it may be hard for some of us to admit this.
Odd how the attitudes toward what should be censored change with time. I grew up in a Dutch reform neighborhood. My ninth grade English teacher, fresh from college and filled with civil rights fervor, assigned John Howard Griffen’s “Black Like Me” as a reading assignment. She aroused controversy not because the book was filled with the “N” word, but because of the occasional four letter words that appeared in dialogue. (Griffen, who briefly “self identified” as black, was arguably ahead of his time.)
Under pressure, she advised us to skip certain chapters to avoid exposing us to the same words we used daily among ourselves. I found the whole affair laughable, having read the book the summer before on my own.
Today the pendulum swings the other way. “Huckleberry Finn” comes out in bowlderized editions, and statues of Southern Generals disappear in the dead of night. What we need to guard against, IMHO, is making the past, good, bad, and ugly, disappear down the memory hole. Times change, but history must be seen in full context.
I generally agree with this comment, and find it troubling that history surfaces in this day and age only as a touchstone to unsolved problems in our society. I suppose that’s inevitable in some ways, but it does point to a failure to appreciate history as history rather than as some kind of contemporary expression. We can never see history in a completely full context, but we are obligated to try.
P.S. As a Dutch-American, I’m still awaiting reparations from the English for The Boer War.
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I’m still waiting to be repatriated into England, myself, since I’m not sure I support the American Revolution….
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