Editor’s Note: The following is an essay by Thomas Cooley, Professor Emeritus of English, The Ohio State University.
As a writer and editor, I was heartened to learn that some people on Sanibel and in Fort Myers are getting together to ban books from the public library.
Morality aside—as it usually is—I’m thinking mostly of the economics of the situation. Banning books is good for sales. Always has been. I say this from personal experience, though not because I’ve been fortunate enough to have any of my own books on academic subjects banned by the public. To properly ban a book, somebody has to read it. Don’t they?
I have had success with textbooks. One of my textbooks on writing was adopted recently by the L.A school system. But I think that’s because teachers select textbooks, and the students have to read them. Maybe if more textbooks were banned, students would read them on their own. The English language is a pretty controversial subject with all those copulative verbs and different genders for nouns—though not as many as in French and Italian, as you would expect.
No, most of my enthusiasm for book banning comes from being an editor of somebody else’s work, namely that of Mark Twain, whose Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was successfully banned as soon as it came out in 1885. One member of the Public Library Committee that banned the book in Boston said he did “not wish to call the book immoral” but that it contained “little humor and that of a coarse type.” They all agreed that the author had “no reliable sense of propriety.”
As any writer would be, Mark Twain was pleased with the news, which he said “started a number of hitherto spotless people to reading Huck Finn—people who had not heard of him before, people whose morals will go to rack and ruin now.”
As the editor of the Norton Critical Edition of Mark Twain’s masterpiece, I can not realistically expect the book to do so much damage today, though it was promising back in the nineties when some people called it racist trash. I didn’t like racist, but trash was encouraging. People actually read trash. My main hope for the latest edition, which just came out this year, is that my scholarly footnotes will be condemned as critical race theory—and sales will double.