ALAN v25n1 - Exploding the Literary Canon

Volume 25, Number 1
Fall 1997
Exploding the Literary Canon

Theodore Taylor

More and more, I'm wary of, or outright frightened by, the ever-vigilant advocates of political correctness when it comes to selecting books for classroom use.

Are the books indeed politically correct as well as thought-provoking and exciting; entertaining while traveling down old roads in a new way; attempting to add to the human experience through characters who are righteous and loving, criminally depraved and evil, or those who are content to spin their wheels through life?

That's a Mount Everest challenge for any writer - to handle all of those good ingredients and yet be politically correct. To begin with, the popular definition is becoming so loose and so dangerous that I fear that in ten years or less, someone will have a tape recorder at a quilting bee. George Orwell is very much alive.

Even in this supposedly enlightened time, the sanitizing of literature, plays, and films by one group or another, including the courts and government agencies, is actually pernicious and subtle censorship, in my opinion. And to me, it's scary. Interest groups form at the drop of an adverb.

I choose to pay no attention to political correctness. I will not have a politically correct person standing over me while I'm at the typewriter. I will not have a politically correct editor doing blue pencil work on any story that I write. If I am politically incorrect, that's too bad. I will surely suffer the consequences.

Writers have always gotten into trouble over one book or another, and nowadays, with apparently no restriction as to subject matter - and there shouldn't be any restriction, ever- ever-ever - the red flags are really up and flying. Writers have coped with teachers, school boards, and parents for years and that will surely continue forever. But now we face word hunters of all categories. They don't have guns. They have blurred magnifying glasses and word processors.

Let me give you an asinine example:

Tammy Wynist?
When the U.S. Postal service issued a commemorative stamp honoring women's rights activist Alice Paul, it bowed to those who object o the term "suffragette" because the diminutive ending "ette" is deemed disrespectful to women. So Paul is called a "suffragist" on her 78-cent stamp.
I take no stand on this, other than to point out that consistency demands certain other changes. For example, the Rockettes henceforth must be known as the "Rockists," and flirtatious women as "coquists." What total nonsense. (Jeff Lyon, Columnist, Chicago Tribune )

Pressures? I know about pressures.

In 1970, long before political correctness found itself to the American scene, I received the Jane Addams Peace and Freedom Foundation award for The Cay. Soon after, it was accused of being a racist book. In 1975, finally submitting to great pressure from the Inter-Racial Council on Children's Books and forcing The Cay's removal from many bookshelves for four years, the Jane Addams chairlady requested that I return the award after it had hung on my office wall for five years. I did so within the hour, not dusting it off. I sent it collect.

In the covering letter that I wrote to Bertha Jenkinson, I said, "I will continue to write stories as I see and feel them, knowing that I will make mistakes forever. I do hope that some small good will be in each one. I will also try very hard, as I have tried in the past, not to harm any human, no matter color; nor any living creature; nor any just cause, particularly that of human equality...."

Under the general subject, Exploding the Canon, I've had recent criticism about the unhappy ending, actually a tragic ending, of The Bomb, a book that would not have been published twenty years ago. It is a book about the people of Bikini Atoll in the North Pacific. Our government persuaded them to leave their paradise so we could explode two atomic weapons. The politically incorrect American governor of the Marshall Islands promised them that they could return in two years. He knew he was telling a lie to these deeply religious people. He said that God wanted them to leave; he talked of Moses; he said God had a pact with the atomic scientists. I know that this is true. I was there.

Instead of exploding two atomic bombs, we exploded 23. The natives are nuclear nomads, modern versions of the 1800s Trail of Tears with the Cherokee nation. Although scuba diving is now permitted, the natives, after 50 years, cannot go home. Buried deep in their beaches is Cesium 137. It will kill you. That, my friends, is an example of political incorrectness.

I realize that my teachers always prefer happy endings and quite honestly, in most cases, I do, too. If only the world were that way. We all go off-stage smiling. There are teachers who refuse to read or recommend any book with an unhappy ending. Yet there are some books which demand an unhappy ending. The Bomb did. The main character, along with his school teacher and the native minister, in their dramatic attempt to stop us from dropping an atomic bomb, are themselves atomized. Yet the attempt is heroic.

It is a book for young adults, not children, and I believe that truth should prevail. I've had the same criticism for several other books. But I'll continue to end books the way I honestly believe they should end. Since I write novels based on facts, The Cay and The Bomb being examples, I have no plans to change tears to the inner joy of warm feelings, despite vibrations from Washington.

The book that I'm working on now, tentatively titled The Flight of Jesse Leroy Brown, is a heroic tragedy, a love story, a story of personal achievement against great odds, the kind of story that I like to read as well as write. This one is also based on truth.

Jesse Brown, son of an impoverished sharecropper, fell in love with aircraft in the early 1930s. He'd sneak around the dirt airstrip at Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and watch the old biplanes, canvas covered, take off. Hoeing corn in the fields, he'd always look up when he heard the sound of an airplane. When he was in his teens, he decide to become the first Negro naval aviator in history; the first black carrier pilot in history.

He single-handedly succeeded in doing so against tremendous odds. One of his instructors at Pensacola said, "Black boy, you'll never sit in the cockpit of a naval aircraft."

Jesse proved him and others like him wrong.

I was attracted to this story not only because of his feats but because of his family. Though they never had running water or electricity, the Browns also succeeded. John Brown was an incredibly strong man, mentally and physically. So was Julia Brown. Formerly a teacher, she was determined that her six children would go to college at a time when there were no scholarships. She taught them to read by the time they were six. Jesse went to Ohio State before he went into the Navy to reach his goal - in the cockpits of fighter aircraft.

As these stories sometimes end, in real life Jesse died tragically - and heroically - in frozen Chosin Reservoir, in North Korea, under attack by Chinese Communists. At his side was a white man, his wingman, who loved him like a brother.

As another white man, I suppose I'm not politically correct in writing The Flight of Jesse Leroy Brown. But I think it is in good hands. I'm working with his widow, his brothers, his fellow Navy officers and pilots, now retired. They all want his story done.

It is for young adults.

To finish, I'd like to read an "implosion" rather than an "explosion." Long ago, I received a call from a lady revered in the field of young readers books, Zena Sutherland, of this city. She wanted to know if I'd write a piece for the Saturday Review of Literature, of which she was a staff member. I quickly agreed.

"A Wish for My Grandson" represents my thoughts in 1981 and remain so now for all young readers.

Could I persuade the reading preferences of my 12-year-old grandson for the next two precious years, when he stands at the threshold of his adult reading experience, I would place on his shelf a series of newly-written, backward-looking books. Christopher Robin has seen films of the moon shot of the 1960s and recently witnessed the launch and return of the space shuttle Columbia. He knows quite a lot about computers, and there were a few electronic wonders under his tree the Christmas past.

But now, more than ever, I want him to understand the wonders of make-believe, so that he has a thoughtful and needed cushion from space flight and computers and the beeping of TV games. I have an idea that a true regard for make-believe will come in handy long before he thinks of himself as an adult, whenever that will be.

So I would elect to place several new fantasies, good ones of the pure oldfashioned variety, on his shelf. The fantasies I have in mind will not take place on Mars or in "Star Trek" regions, but in another type of wonderland, somewhat like the one that Alice visited.

Along the way, for every computer that he meets, I hope he will know a tree and a field, a bird and a beast in that precise four-to-one ratio. For every four books about the marvels of our time or the promise of the future, I would persuade him toward 16 books about the marvels of nature as it was long ago.

I hope he will realize that the marvels of our time have been purchased at a high cost and that the total bill has not yet been received. Perhaps he will become angry or at least begin to ask questions about the prices to be paid, probably within his lifetime: I want him to ask what happened to the bald eagle before he asks about the payload of Columbia's cargo bay.

I would persuade him towards stories of truth and love and warmth and trust between human beings, where machine is present but incidental to flesh. I hope these stories will tell him that there is no greater mission in life, nor higher plateau of success, than to love and be loved.

Alongside that splendid picture-textbook on man's adventure to the moon, I would recommend four new adventures where man or boy or girl's next move could not be checked with Houston or Cape Kennedy but had to come solely from within. If he had one leg in Neil Armstrong's space suit, I would prefer the other to be firmly encased in the brush-torn buckskin of Daniel Boone.

Not too long ago, we went to London in a Boeing 747, an elderly man and a wide-eyed boy on a sight-seeing prowl of the town. Thinking back about that effortless flight, I so much wish that he could have read, immediately on landing at Heathrow, a new children's version of Lindbergh's adventure or one about that eventful day on the great dune at Kitty Hawk.

The social issues?

I would suggest several "turned-in" books on blacks, Hispanics, and Indians. By "turned-in" books, I mean those that go to the core of historic and social issues. He has seen and smelled a ghetto but does not relate it to a slave ship. I would urge him to make that crossing from Guinea, and attempt, in some way, to identify with it.

I would hope he'd read several books on the early history of California, his home state, so that he will know for a fact that Mexicans were here long before he was, that the American Indians walked down the Bering Straits from Asia in the very dawn of this country.

Books on other social themes, ethnic or otherwise, if they focus on roots, not riots, cause and not pessimistic calamity, would be prime candidates for space on this shelf. He is neither too young, nor too tender, to understand them. His mind will be stronger for having read them, his eyes clearer.

He has seen some pretty good displays of indifference in the late 1970s and early 1980s, so a few books on past acts of heroism and self-sacrifice would be a welcome addition.

From time to time, he has heard adult barrages of criticism: moanings and shoutings about what is wrong with practically everything on earth and about how bleak his future may be. If this is true, it is not a condition of his making. I hope he will make things better for the children he may father.

A backward look at the nobler efforts of the human being might balance this area and give him the hope which he so richly deserves. There are some things of which to be proud.

In this day, Christopher Robin needs a special type of life fuel to run ahead. He can best get it, I believe, by looking back - back through books.

He is now 27 years old - a writer of video games for teenagers. "Stonekeep," which takes 9 hours to play, is his latest. In February, he'll be a father and I'll be a great-grandfather. I will update this piece according to gender.

Theodore Taylor, prize-winning author of many books including The Cay, The Weirdo, and a recent book of "red-blooded sea stories" called Rogue Wave delivered this speech at the 1996 ALAN Workshop in Chicago.