Friday, September 10, 2010

books, bonfires, lawyers

The Milton course this semester will be reading what I guess is a substantial chunk of his controversial prose – more than they’d like to, I imagine. “Controversial,” by the way, means “involved in controversies that aren’t particularly relevant to most of my students’ lives” – like who cares about the structure of church government anymore? or who among my 20- to 25-year-olds believes that divorce should only be allowed in cases of adultery, whatever Jesus said about it?

But there’s one hoary old text that never fails the “contemporary relevance” test: Areopagitica, the “freedom of the press” pamphlet Milton published in 1644, which was much on the mind of the Framers when they put that 1st Amendment into the Constitution, & which gets cited at every turn whenever someone wants to defend someone’s right to publish something.

As never fails to get pointed out, Areopagitica isn’t a clarion call against censorship in general (Milton does believe works of “tolerated popery and open superstition” should not be allowed): it’s a call specifically against pre-publication censorship, books being entirely blocked from publication. Books, Milton argues, ought to be published with the names of their authors & publishers attached, and only then assessed. If an anonymously issued book is found to be “mischievous and libelous,” then it should be burned by the hangman; one assumes that name-bearing books would be liable to the same treatment, & their authors and publishers liable for whatever bads they promulgate. This isn’t so very different from contemporary American law: though attempts to criminalize “seditious” writing tend to peter out, libel remains a powerful legal stick wielded by corporations and individuals against writers and publishers.

Three things of course made me think forward on my syllabus towards Areogpagitica, & the whole discourse of the ills that books might do: First, someone’s reminiscence of this Houston loony, who back in 2006 wanted to remove Fahrenheit 451 from the school’s curriculum because of its “cussing” (his daughter’s description) and “using God’s name in vain,” and because of its descriptions of Bible burning. All taking place, beautifully, during Banned Books Week. (The irony of course is overwhelming.) Which of course led me to think about this whole business in Gainesville with the publicity-seeking “pastor” who’s hit upon Koran-burning as his last-ditch fundraiser for his on-life-support Pentecostal congregation. (No links there – you’ve already heard more than enough about this guy.)

And finally, Kent Johnson – the premier gadfly of American poetry. His latest work, A Question Mark Above the Sun: Documents on the Mystery Surrounding a Famous Poem “By” Frank O’Hara, in press at the moment, is something of a thought experiment: what if “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,” a poem found among O’Hara’s posthumous papers by his friend Kenneth Koch, were not by O’Hara at all, but by Koch? Edmond Caldwell lays out the matter well in this post, as well as revealing the next, eye-popping development: a stern letter to Johnson’s publisher from the Kenneth Koch literary estate, strongly threatening legal action should A Question Mark be actually published.

Richard Allen addresses the legalities of the matter here, along with raising some questions about the letter’s authenticity, given Kent’s history of involvement with things – the Araki Yasusada business – that have gotten labelled “hoaxes” in some quarters. I don’t think KJ’s bluffing here; and I’d like to register outrage at the Koch people’s attempt to roll back the clock to the time before we all read Areopagitica. Hey, whatever you think of Yasusada or Kent Johnson in general, this is the moment to drop $20 for A Question Mark, if only to let Bertelsmann Inc. know that some American writing & thought is still taking place outside their umbrella of Mordor.


Anonymous said...


I'd like to write you 'off the record' about this. You can reach me at

I would email you directly, but I don't see a contact address here.


Micah Robbins

SafeLibraries said...

If you want to read a banned book, read the last book banned in the USA, namely, Fanny Hill, last banned in 1963.

No books have been banned in the USA for about a half a century. See "National Hogwash Week."

Thomas Sowell says Banned Books Week is “the kind of shameless propaganda that has become commonplace in false charges of ‘censorship’ or ‘book banning’ has apparently now been institutionalized with a week of its own.” He calls it “National Hogwash Week.”

Former ALA Councilor Jessamyn West said, "It also highlights the thing we know about Banned Books Week that we don't talk about much — the bulk of these books are challenged by parents for being age-inappropriate for children. While I think this is still a formidable thing for librarians to deal with, it's totally different from people trying to block a book from being sold at all." See "Banned Books Week is Next Week."

And then there's Judith Krug herself who created BBW:

"Marking 25 Years of Banned Books Week," by Judith Krug, Curriculum Review, 46:1, Sep. 2006. "On rare occasion, we have situations where a piece of material is not what it appears to be on the surface and the material is totally inappropriate for a school library. In that case, yes, it is appropriate to remove materials. If it doesn't fit your material selection policy, get it out of there."

Lastly, remember the ALA does not oppose book burning when doing so would interfere with its political interests. Go see what Judith Krug said about Cuban librarians: "American Library Association Shamed," by Nat Hentoff.

Mark Scroggins said...


does your comment have anything whatsoever to do with my post? I made no comment on the appropriateness of "Banned" as a designator; I simply underlined the irony of someone attempting to have *Fahrenheit 451* removed from a school curriculum during "Banned Book Week."

I have indeed read *Fanny Hill* -- at least a couple of times. It probably warped my mind for life. Gosh, I wish someone had kept it out of my impressionable hands, along with books by Freud, Marx, and Ray Bradbury.

Got any thoughts on Milton? Or Kent Johnson? Or the ethics of multi-billion-dollar publishers threatening micro-presses with pre-publication lawsuits?

SafeLibraries said...

"Got any thoughts on ... the ethics of multi-billion-dollar publishers threatening micro-presses with pre-publication lawsuits?

Yes. See OverLawyered and Common Good.

tyrone said...

The Aeropagitica almsot made me decide to do my dissertation on Milton whom I still love (but never get to teach--maybe there's a connection...). I've been very interested in the concept of the author--did a section on that in lit. theory last spring--and reminded the students that the "author" was once used to discover the writers behind pamphlets, broadsides, etc. considered heretical, seditious or both...

Steven Fama said...

Hi Mark,

Have you seen, by which I mean actually read the letter you characterize as containing a "stern warning" regarding the book?

Almost a half-dozen by my count have "blogged" about the letter, and what it purportedly says, and yet nobody has seen it? I don't get that.

Your reading of the Milton essay is solid, and interesting, because it is based on reading the entire thing. That's in sharp contrast to what you do with the letter. I just don't think it's right to draw conclusions when you've not read it.

Mark Scroggins said...


You're absolutely right: I haven't read the letter. I'm going on what Kent quoted of the letter in his Isola di Rifiuti post, and as well Richard Allen's assertion on We Who Are About to Die that Johnson's publisher has sent him a copy of the letter, which he believes is authentic.

Be that as it may, you're right: it's time to stop semi-hysterically blogging this business until a few more documents get out there.