Odyssey Banned for Violence, Sexism; Is this the End of World Classics?

Vase showing Odysseus steeling himself against the Sirens. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Odyssey, Homer’s classic of world literature written in the time of Ancient Greece, was recently banned in Lawrence, Massachusetts for portraying ideas that do not conform to modern norms of behavior.

The move, reported recently by the Wall Street Journal, appears to stem from a “social justice” movement, created by Twitter users, called #DisruptTexts. Its proponents believe that any world literature that does not portray the norms that they hold today in terms of gender roles, violence and racial equality must be banned in the interest of shaping a new generation that will not be allowed to come into contact with concepts that they consider repugnant — or even just outdated.

Penelope, sitting at her loom patiently for twenty years while hubby Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan War, is not the model of female behavior that teachers who espouse this new type of book banning want their students to emulate.

But not only do they not want their students to emulate these behaviors — they want to ban books that contain they want to ban books that portray violence, traditional gender roles and racism, making sure that future generations will never learn about the many adventures of Odysseus and his companions as they made their way across the sea, fought against Troy and wended their way back home after twenty years away.

Ulysses and Circe by Annibale Carracci, c. 1590. Farnese Palace. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Books such as this, which provide a treasury of historical references and form the basis of educated peoples’ understanding of the Classical world, naturally contain violent images of battle and strife and portray the social milieu of the day.

Until recently, however, teachers would focus on the tremendous literary and historical merit of the world of Homer and other ancient writers, leaving their students to come to their own conclusions as to whether or not they would like to wage warfare or alternatively sit at home weaving while the husband is away at battle.

The Odyssey is “trash”

Shea Martin, who is described by the website called LoveliteraTea as a “queer, Black teacher, researcher, and organizer who dreams and works toward liberation with teachers and students across the country,” Tweeted “be like Odysseus and embrace the long haul to liberation (and then take the Odyssey out of your curriculum because it’s trash),” in June of this year.

“Hahaha,” replied Heather Levine, an English teacher at Lawrence High School in Massachusetts. “Very proud to say we got the Odyssey removed from the curriculum this year!” she added triumphantly.

Levine had no comment when Gurdon contacted her regarding her WSJ story, telling Gurdon that to even ask about the issue was “invasive.” There was also no comment from Richard Gorham, the English Department chairman of Lawrence Public Schools, who did not respond to emails.

Pendulum swings toward political correctness

But the politically-correct rush to judgment, which began in recent years with the banning of American classics such as Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and even more recent works such as How to Kill a Mockingbird — for the use of the n-word — has come back to bite society now that the floodgates have been opened.

Originally, the pendulum swung the other way, and it was conservative Americans who were originally guilty of banning books — despite the freedom of speech and expression explicitly enshrined in the Constitution. The first book to be officially banned in America was Thomas Morton’s “New English Canaan,” published in 1637. A massive, three-volume work, it contained not only Morton’s insightful observations about Native Americans, but also — raising the ire of those who had settled Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay Company — a biting satire of the Puritans.

As the centuries went on, it wasn’t just political positions that drew the ire of book banners, it was more often portrayals of sex that attracted the eye of censors and caused works of literature to come under scrutiny.

And the list of banned books in America is shamefully long, including Peyton Place,
The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Beloved, and The Lord of the Flies.

Eliminating hateful words leads to eliminating history

Banning classics such as the Twain masterpieces for including the n-word may have indeed stopped some young children today from being exposed to this extremely derogatory word in literature. But it has also resulted in an impoverishment of their world, according to Meghan Cox Gurdon, who wrote a story in the Opinion section of the Wall Street Journal recently.

The development spurs a range of questions in those who care about human history. Have we become so fragile as a society that we cannot tolerate the portrayal of different norms of behavior that were part of human life for millennia? How much of our cultural heritage must be thrown in the dumpster because this literature makes references to people who use words that we no longer use?

Can we afford as a society to arrogantly dismiss world classics such as the Odyssey as “trash” because they portray warfare and traditional gender roles — which were the norm on the earth for many thousands of years?

Are we to be deprived of one the earliest works of literature in the world because not everything that was described in it reflects our world today? Shouldn’t these instances actually be an opportunity for a teaching moment?

Asking for students’ opinions “harmful”

In her opinion piece, Gurdon quoted from an article by young-adult novelist Padma Venkatraman which was published in the School Library Journal, in which she stated “challenging old classics is the literary equivalent of replacing statues of racist figures.”

The concept that children shouldn’t be exposed to works of literature “in which racism, sexism, ableism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of hate are the norm,” is espoused by young-adult novelist Padma Venkatraman. She wrote in the periodical School Library Journal that no author must be spared in this attempt to scrub literary history.

“Absolving Shakespeare of responsibility by mentioning that he lived at a time when hate-ridden sentiments prevailed, risks sending a subliminal message that academic excellence outweighs hateful rhetoric.

“Racism in classics can’t be negated merely by alerting young readers to its presence,” she warned. “Unless we have the time, energy, attention, expertise, and ability to foster nuanced conversations in which even the shyest readers feel empowered to engage if they choose, we may hurt, not help. Pressuring readers of color to speak up also removes free choice and can be harmful.”

Students will suffer from poverty of language and culture

Some writers are simply not having this new form of discrimination and exclusion. Science fiction writer Jon Del Arroz told the Wall Street Journal “It’s a tragedy that this anti-intellectual movement aimed at banning classics is gaining ground among educators and the publishing industry.

“Erasing the history of great works only limits the ability of children to become literate.”

Seattle English teacher Evin Shinn tweeted back in 2018 that he would “rather die” than teach the American classic novel “The Scarlet Letter,” unless — as he stated — the work is used to “fight against misogyny and slut-shaming.”

However, the teacher seems to have lost the plot of the book, which is indeed castigates the narrow-minded pastors of the day back in colonial New England. Author Jessica Cluess replied to Shinn, saying “If you think Hawthorne was on the side of the judgmental Puritans … then you are an absolute idiot and should not have the title of educator in your Twitter bio.”

“Ritual self-denunciation”

But it was Cluess who was in for shaming, as Twitterers accused the author of racism, even, fantastically, of “violence,” demanding that her publisher, Penguin Random House cancel her contract.

She still has her contract with them — but perhaps only because she issued an abject apology for her statement, in that Gurdon said was like a Soviet-style “ritual self-denunciation” before the Communist authorities. “I take full responsibility for my unprovoked anger… I will strive to do better.”

However, even her literary agent, Brooks Sherman, denounced what he termed Cluess’ “racist and unacceptable” opinions before terminating their professional relationship.

The politically correct demands for censorship appear to be growing rather than dying down. Writer Del Arroz, who was one of the few fellow authors to defend Cluess, noted “Deleting the history of major projects only limits children’s ability to be properly educated.

“If there is anything wrong with classical literature, it stems from its non-teaching. Students who do not have the right to read fundamental texts can imagine themselves lucky… this is what people who support the #DisruptTexts campaign want — but compared to their better educated peers, they will suffer from language poverty and a scarcity of cultural references.

“Worst of all, they don’t even know it,” he concluded.


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