Everyone is a product of his times. We are not bound by them, but we are shaped by them, and in general we reflect the current mores and contemporary beliefs (at some point along a very long spectrum). This is no more or less true of writers, but it is more noticeable because most writers are fortunate enough to have their work survive them, and in a few cases, it survives them for decades or even centuries. Sometimes, that examination shows flaws, flaws that often stem as much from the times as from the individual.
I’m brought to this point by this blog essay on The Racism of H.P. Lovecraft. (I have a collection of Lovecraft stories, but I haven’t read them in many years, so I don’t recall if I’ve ever noted issues cited.) The author touches on the question: Should we continue to read these stories that would not be publishable today?
The most famous example, of course, is not Lovecraft, but Huckleberry Finn, which even those who decry its racism are hard-pressed to deny is a classic. The remedy, since the book can hardly be banned or even belittled, has been to censor it. And the counter-response is, “You can’t. It is what it is. It’s a product of its time.”
Of course it is. That’s what makes it a classic. You can’t understand what Twain was saying by blocking out the bits you don’t like. The fact that he writes against racism by using what we now consider horribly racist terms is an integral part of the book; you cannot understand the message without understanding the times, and you cannot understand the times without seeing the book as written. The medium is the message.
But what of other books, the not-classics? Does Huck Finn get a waiver? No, being the best of example of a bad pattern doesn’t get you out of detention. Yet the same principle holds for the “lesser works.” I read a lot of pulp novels from the 1930s. They’re light, they’re fun, and sometimes they’re racist. Because that’s when they were written. I don’t excuse them for it; I cringe, and I keep on reading them, because I still enjoy the stories (so long as the problem isn’t endemic) and because ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away. I could stop, throw the books into trash (can’t take them to the library, can I?), but it won’t make a difference. They were written 80 years ago. The authors are dead. I’d like to think (even though I know it isn’t true) that those attitudes are dead, too.
But they’re not. And if we toss out those books, or censor the offensive parts, we forget, we allow ourselves to forget, that casual racism was just that, casual. As in, it was a part of life. As if destroying the evidence will erase the crime.
Those who forget the lessons of history are bound to repeat them. If you want to be honest about today, you have understand something about yesterday, especially its sins.