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.