Nat Hentoff, the jazz critic, columnist and civil libertarian who died on Saturday, was known for his devotion to the Constitution, his somewhat-idiosyncratic political beliefs and promotion of jazz music. I knew him first as a young adult novelist. Hentoff’s YA novel, “The Day They Came to Arrest the Book,” follows a group of high school students and teachers during a debate over whether to ban Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” It’s a deft, if occasionally didactic, sketch of the positions that tend to emerge in free-speech debates. As such, it’s excellent reading for this moment in American politics and culture.
One of the useful — or depressing — things about reading Hentoff’s YA polemic, which was published all the way back in 1982, is how similar the novel’s conflicts are to our present debates.
Hentoff captures the ways conservative morality crusaders smoothly adopt the concerns of feminists and anti-racist advocates to advance their positions. One of his characters, Kate, a feminist student who is the book’s sharpest rhetorician, gets caught up with championing the students who object to “Huckleberry Finn” on the grounds that it contains racist language and attitudes, only to find herself reconsidering when she realizes she has overreached in trying to speak on behalf of all black students, as if they think identically. Barney, the editor of the school newspaper, is accused of being a self-hating Jew for his contention that he wouldn’t ban books that advocate Holocaust denial. The arguments that students are not perceptive enough to notice when authors are giving racist ideas and language to characters they want to present as despicable are familiar, and still condescending 35 years later.
It’s certainly discouraging that we haven’t managed to move our arguments beyond the same talking points. At the same time, “The Day They Came to Arrest the Book” should serve as a sensible reminder that we are not facing some new, unprecedented and hypersensitive threat to free speech. Anyone worried that school curricula will be permanently stripped of challenging works can probably take a deep breath and modulate their concern, while still mounting a full-throated defense of the value of reading books that might provoke some prickly responses. As Nora Baines, the American history teacher in Hentoff’s novel, puts it: “Show me a book that offends no one, and I will show you a book that no one, in the whole history of the world, has ever willingly read.”
The best part of “The Day They Came to Arrest the Book” is Hentoff’s vigorous argument in favor of engaged reading. Just as Mark Twain made his villains racists, the antagonists in Hentoff’s novel have one thing in common despite their varying motivations and tactics for wanting to ban “Huckleberry Finn”: They haven’t read the novel closely.
Of course it’s true that our responses to art are subjective. But there is a difference between arguing, for example, that Twain’s attempts to argue against racism by making his racists villainous fools are not effective, and suggesting that because fictional characters Twain created use racist language, then Twain himself had racist intentions and ideas. One of those contentions can be supported with evidence drawn from the text, and by comparing that text to the standards of contemporary debate. One of them is a much more substantial stretch.
The ability to read a text carefully, and to use context, the conventions of form and decisions that the author is making to inform our interpretation of that text, is as vital a skill in 2017 as it was in 1982. It’s a skill that will stand audiences in good stead when the stakes are small — say, for example, in rebutting the weird and unsupportable charge that “La La Land” is objectionable because it’s a movie about a white guy who saves jazz — and large, like when the president-elect of the United States denies that he did things that he did on stage in front of thousands of people and television cameras.
The people who embarrass themselves most in “The Day They Came to Arrest the Book” are the ones who trust someone else about what “Huckleberry Finn” is instead of using their own eyes and brains to make a determination for themselves. Our conversations about art and politics will be better and more interesting if we follow Hentoff’s advice to make sure our interpretations are informed, rather than merely fashionable.