In this age of declining standards in education and indifference to the carefully written word, it was terrific, if a mite surprising, to hear Ronald Reagan striking a forceful blow for great literature last week. His vigorous defense of "Huckleberry Finn," in a speech before a convention of independent educators, was as welcome as it was well-taken. What is even more welcome is the possibility that this administration may be genuinely serious about the position of books in American life and may even be prepared to take steps toward strengthening it.
To be sure, Reagan's reading of "Huckleberry Finn" was a mildly selective one. It is true, as he said, that Huck develops a "hatred of bigotry" during his cruise down the Mississippi, but it is more than slightly questionable whether there is also in Mark Twain's novel a "love of his fellow men that Huck shows on every page"; Twain was skeptical about his fellow man, and so is Huck. Twain was also skeptical about his native country, and as a result Reagan's plea that our schools prepare students "to be as thankful for the gift of life in America in the 21st century as was one Huckleberry Finn in the 19th" is more than a little ingenuous. Like just about everyone else in political (or any other) life, Reagan chose to find in his reading what he was looking for.
But quibbling over matters of interpretation is hardly the point. What is important is that Ronald Reagan, who is held in reflexive contempt by the academic and literary communities, delivered himself of a more ardent defense of literature's role in life than any president since John F. Kennedy. You can disagree until the cows come home with Reagan's proposals for the education budget, but it remains that his words last Thursday were well chosen and well directed.
They were also part of what may just be a developing pattern. The activities of William Bennett, for example, have not been limited to rumbling through the china shop of higher education; he has also, in his first job as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and now as secretary of education, spoken with indisputable eloquence about the need to restore the humanities to their proper role in education. This, along with an overall effort to make schools at all levels more responsive to the needs of their students, appears to be his principal business for the next four years; that he tumbled into an unnecessary controversy over student loans is regrettable, but what is more so is that so many people are concentrating on this particular flap rather than the larger goals he has in mind.
Another sign of the administration's seriousness about these matters is that it seems on the verge of undertaking what a ranking White House official has called "a major new commitment to the provision of U.S. books abroad." This is in response to a report made two years ago by the late Curtis Benjamin called "U.S. Books Abroad: Neglected Ambassadors," which said that government programs to encourage the international distribution of American books were about to wither away. The Benjamin report resulted in the establishment by the United States Information Agency of a U.S. Books Abroad Task Force, which came up with substantial recommendations that soon will be put before the president and Congress.
Those recommendations, as summarized by Publishers Weekly last week, are rather too detailed and complex to go into here. What they boil down to, though, is the conclusion that books, because they "promote understanding of American foreign policy, culture, technology, society and values," are important in the "war of ideas" with the Soviet Union and other totalitarian states. The task force recommends various ways, both through the USIA and through a combination of public and private channels, for making American books more widely available internationally, especially in the developing nations, and at prices that are not unduly forbidding. We are talking about propaganda here, needless to say, but we are also talking about books. It is all well and good to mock Reagan as a nonreader, as the illuminati are so quick to do, but surely it says something on his behalf that a program that was allowed to fall into disuse by the administrations of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter may presently be revitalized by the administration of Ronald Reagan. There's plenty of time for hashing out the details; what is significant at the moment, and what should be applauded by anyone who cares about reading and writing, is that this administration seems to have found room for books as well as bombs in its foreign policy.
There's yet another step that Reagan could take to demonstrate his support for literacy, though at the moment it's primarily a gleam in the eye of a woman named Barbara Prete. She is the executive director of The American Book Awards, and a few days ago she was in Washington to sound out sentiment about an idea she's been tossing around for several months. Prete believes that the White House should hold a reception each year for the winners of the major American literary awards: Not a quiet little thing on a Wednesday afternoon, but a big deal, with bands and champagne and television cameras, all of it intended not merely to honor the winning authors but to say to the nation as a whole that books and reading are important.
It's an inspired idea, and for the White House a no-lose proposition. By honoring serious writers of serious books, the president immediately puts himself on the side of the angels; who can possibly fault him for praising good books? Furthermore, by honoring the winners of established awards rather than choosing the honorees himself, the president (a) embraces a broad spectrum of the writing and publishing communities, and (b) avoids whatever controversies might arise if the White House chose the winners.
The obvious precedents are the Medal of Freedom ceremonies, which briefly flourished under Kennedy, and the annual Kennedy Center Honors. Call it anything you like: For starters, what about "A Celebration of American Books and Authors"? At a ceremony held early each December, after all the awards are in, the president introduces each prize-winner, presents each with a presidential scroll embellished with the usual ruffles and flourishes, gives a speech saluting excellence in literature and citing it as the product of schools committed to the highest standards of literacy. The Marine Corps Band plays, Mary McCarthy dances with Gore Vidal, and the television cameras roll. A few nights later it all shows up as a one-hour special on public television -- maybe even on commercial television -- and everybody wins: books, authors, the president, everybody who reads and everybody whom we want to encourage to read.
Isn't it worth a try?