I happened to be wandering around twitter a few days ago—I’ve been trying to collect evidence of “virtue signaling,” which is all the rage as you all know—and came across something that bothered me lots more than that. I don’t think that the author of the tweet was trying to signal anything one way or another. She had just got onto the platform onto which we all climb in order to complain about something that bothered her. But in so doing, she bothered me, because it is a subject about which I have strong feelings, and also desire to express them in public and online.
That’s the problem, really. There is a very thin, narrow, nearly impossible to walk line between talking about something that bothers you, and signaling your own virtue as you do so. I don’t manage it, frankly, and neither does anyone else. I’m sure all the clever people in the world of google and facebook and twitter could think of some algorithm to increase actual virtue, instead of stifling it, but honestly, I don’t think that’s their stated aim. They want us eventually to eat ourselves alive so they can dance on the rubble on the last day. Or maybe they aren’t thinking at all. And that is the other problem—blowing off steam online just relieves feelings, it is not about thought, though we all “think” that it is.
Ok, so, all that introduction aside, I’m not going to quote the tweet, because the person is a Christian, and I don’t think she is cosmically wrong or anything, and of course I think she has the right to be wrong (to have her own opinion–that’s just a little joke), but I think that the way in which she is wrong is so unhelpful, and so foolishly easy, that I myself would like to complain about it.
She was unhappy because an old children’s classic—The Secret Garden—has some racist sentiments in it. If you haven’t read it, and you should, the story opens with Mary, the protagonist, suddenly left alone in India because all of her relatives have died from a cholera outbreak, including her Indian nurse, to whom she is essentially abusive, as only an entitled, spoiled, undisciplined child can be. Mary is then despatched back to England to live with an uncle whom she has never met. Gradually she becomes a less sour, more self-controlled person, and learns the chief lesson of life, which is that other people are more important than she is and that gardening is a great way also to become holier and more virtuous.
This is one of my favorite books of all time. I’ve read it to all my children. I sometimes read it myself when no child is around. It is up there, for me, with other troubling works like everything by Laura Ingalls Wilder (who has also been canceled) and Rudyard Kipling, who, well, I probably don’t need to tell you what his problems are. If you don’t like the same books as me, that’s totally fine. There are thousands and thousands and thousands of books in English, go read more books.
The tweeter said she did not, of course, believe in canceling books, but she was looking for some respite and did not find it in the Secret Garden, which I can totally understand, because it is a stressful book. I have only read two of Frances Hodgson Burnett and both of them are stressful. As a child, I deeply regretted reading The Little Princess and from thenceforth often dreamt about the deaths of my parents and how I would be alone and poor forever. I would say, honestly, that there are no children’s books that I have read that provide any sense of “respite.” Adults who write books for children are always trying to shock children into reality, or prepare them for the worst, or any number of the troubles and monstrosities that are looming over the horizon.
So anyway, I looked Burnett up on wikipedia, because even though I love the Secret Garden, I didn’t know anything about her, and the first thing I learned is that her favorite book as a child was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She loved it so much she acted parts of it out and tried to make it into a play, which is lost to us because her mother made her burn all her early childhood writing. She was born in England, but the death of her father and certain poverty brought her and her mother and siblings to Tennessee, where they were indeed very very poor because the uncle who had invited them lost all his wealth at the end of the Civil War. Burnett started writing and made enough money to support her family until her mother died and her siblings married, and then she supported her husband on her writing income, and then her sons. She was prolific. Googling around, she even wrote something called The White People which I will probably try to read later this week. In other words, she was not the least clueless, even in modern terms, about some of the “issues” that plague us still, and I wouldn’t approach any of her work with the assumption even of anachronistic racism, that she ought to be forgiven for just not knowing any better. Going back and looking at the offending passage in The Secret Garden, Burnett is by no means “being racist.” The scene is as jaundiced as little Mary. It has the same deep tones of judgment that Wilder’s do whenever she brings up Ma’s hatred of the Indians.
In other words, it is very bad to go back and read modern virtues into the past, holding the long-dead accountable for sins they didn’t imagine to be sins. Though, I would say, doing that is what we do. We always judge the past, just as we will be judged, and it’s one reason literature goes out of fashion, and notes have to be made at the end of the page, and children have to learn how to read books and walk the delicate line between empathy and judgement. But it is also very bad, if not worse, to not see the nuance in a book for what it is, to assume some sin, where a more careful reading would show there is not, in fact, sin. It is as bad as doing it to a real live person—assuming that the person is saying or meaning something they are not saying or meaning, because they haven’t used the correct terminology of the day, or don’t see all the contours of acceptable tastes of the moment.
I think what I’m trying to say is—the way the conversation about race is happening is not virtuous. The future will look back on us and think that we were unkind. In our efforts to expunge all sin from our lives, we are sinning more. We are all Mary on the boat angry about everything, before she has gotten into the garden and learned to be alive, and to love other people.
And now my blogging hour is over—back to regularly scheduled programming.