In class last week, I was talking with my writing students about assumptions we, as writers, sometimes make about our audiences. (Moral of the story: We, as writers, should not make assumptions about our readers.) For the day’s reading, I assigned an essay by novelist Ursula Le Guin, “Unquestioned Assumptions,” from her book The Wave in the Mind: Tales and Essays. LeGuin, a fantasy writer best known for her Earthsea books, evokes a fable-like quality in her writing. Her work is wonderful.
The essay, however, written for aspiring writers, urges them not to make assumptions about their readers. Near the essay, she uses Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as an example of a book that makes people uncomfortable because it challenges people.
“Look again at Mark Twain,” she writes. “Huckleberry Finn is still getting bad-mouthed, banned, and censored, because it’s characters use the word nigger and for other reasons, all having to do with race.”
I teach in a school of communication; we have the First Amendment painted on the wall in big letters. The rights enshrined therein have always been deeply important to me. For that reason, I’ve always thought people who’ve tried to ban Huckleberry Finn—who try to ban any book—are idiots.
But as I continued on through Le Guin’s paragraph, my thoughts unexpectedly went in a different direction. In her words, I suddenly heard echoes of a different controversy. Take a look:
Those who allow [Huckleberry Finn] to thus be abused in the name of equality include people who think teenagers are incapable of understanding historical context, people who believe education for good involves suppressing knowledge of evil, people who refuse to understand a complex moral purpose, and people who distrust or fear secular literature as a tool of moral and social education. A dangerous book will always be in danger from those it threatens with the demand that they question their assumptions. They’d rather hand on to their assumptions and ban the book.
One could just as well think about recent monument controversies in this very same context.
I don’t know what Le Guin would think of any of the monument controversies (she died in Jan. 2018), nor do I want to appropriate Le Guin’s words for a purpose she did not intend, so I don’t want to wade too far into the discussion using her paragraph as a springboard. I don’t see her passage as an intrinsic defense of monuments, for instance.
But her words did give me something to think about—in fact, a whole lot of things. Most enlighteningly, at least for me, they provide an interesting lens through which to look at the monument discussions themselves.