My memories of clashes between my mother and a librarian over access to potentially objectionable books sound impossibly quaint now. My mother’s observation that the books in the children’s section weren’t challenging enough for me was a directive to explore the adult section of the Manhattan Beach Public Library. I sneaked past the circulation desk to avoid the disapproving Mrs. Brown and slithered into the W-Zs of adult fiction. The authors’ names on the spines were unfamiliar, but “Wodehouse” on a top shelf caught my eye and I pulled out one of the misadventures of Bertie Wooster, complete with gaspers, cocktails, and morning-after cures. I was allowed to check it out, but then I hadn’t handed over The Portrait of Dorian Grey. Another time Mrs. Brown refused to let me have a book from the adult section until she spoke with my mother, who coolly confirmed that I had her permission. Mrs. Brown pulled a sour face while the transaction was completed.
I have no idea what Mrs. Brown would have made of the new policy of the Hamilton East Public Library in Indianapolis to relocate sexually explicit YA books to which parents have objections to the adult section. In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, Daniel Lee looked at this “culture-war skirmish,” which John Green, a beloved Indianapolis writer whose acclaimed YA novels Looking for Alaska and The Fault Is in Our Stars were targeted, denounced the move as “political theater of the lowers and most embarrassing order.”
Green’s novels, which feature young characters struggling with class conflict, dysfunctional families, terminal illness, and chronic depression, who also chain-smoke, experiment with sex, binge-drink and drive, Lee suggested, would not have resonated with Booth Tarkington’s Penrod, whose Hoosier boyhood in the early twentieth century was unmarked by any trauma more devastating than surviving cotillions. Penrod, says Lee, “knew which bathroom to use.” He continues:
Yes, some young people today are in terrible situations. But it seems profoundly pessimistic—and ideologically loaded—to think most kids don’t live lives much like Penrod’s and worse, that they lack parents who are eager and competent to help when trouble comes.
Unfortunately, coverage of book bannings in public schools and libraries often contain glib comparisons, which score points at the expense of oversimplifying the difficulty of judging the contents of books in contention. Lee’s description of Penrod suggests he didn’t read Tarkington very carefully or he might have noticed that this once classic American novel about boyhood contains any number of awkward situations similiar to Tom Sawyer or Peck’s Bad Boy that don’t involve precocious sexual activity.
The cotillion episode, which Lee considered anodyne, is a good example of Penrod acting on impulse for purely selfish reasons. The day of the cotillion he discovers a basket of expired medicines, dentifrices, hair oil, condiments gone off, etc. in the stable put out for the trash. After he and his friend Sam set up a drug store to fill prescriptions, Sam mixes up some small pox medicine using the contents of the basket and part of a bottle of licorice water to make it look palatable. Penrod’s dog Duke the tester can’t keep it down, inspiring dreams of administering a dose to Professor Bartlett, which would cause the cotillion to be cancelled. Instead their frenemy Maurice Levy saunters by. Penrod resorts to a desperate measure to take out Maurice, so he, with two left feet, can squire around as the adored Marjorie Jones and hand off his partner Baby Rennsdale to Sam, whose partner has had to send regrets. Maurice is invited to drink as much licorice water as he can in one pull and the bottle of small pox medicine is substituted. He swallows it all, has a smoke, and heads home without exhibiting any ill effects to change for cotillion.
Left unsupervised to an extent unimaginable today, eleven-year-old Penrod has acted on enough ideas like this one to have earned the reputation as the worst boy in town. His family worries that he is headed for the penitentiary. The ladies in town tut-tut about the ineffectual Schofields when his mother and sister aren’t present. Certain families forbid their sons to associate with him. His peers, on the other hand, take vicarious pleasure in his antics like talking back to the teacher and managing to temporarily elude punishment by saying the outburst was due to weariness from comforting his distraught aunt, who has taken refuge from her drunken, abusive husband with the Schofields. A tall tale inspired by the silent film he watched when he should have been in Sunday school.
If Penrod’s reputation was affected by his friendship with the Black brothers, Herman and Verman, who live in the nearby alley, Tarkington didn’t come out and say so. What stirkes us now are the ambiguities of the power dynamics between the white boy and two “darkies.” Verman suffers from ankyloglossia and his words have to be translated by his older brother Herman. Herman is missing a forefinger, because his little brother chopped it off with an axe when told to as a joke. The boys’ father is in jail term for stabbing a man with a pitchfork. Penrod finds Herman and Verman so fascinating that he immediately proposes to Sam they could be the star attractions of a show. Equally troubling is the Rupe Collins episode. An older white boy from the wrong side of town comes around to play, which means he bullies and tortures Penrod and Sam. Verman whacks Rupe with a board to make him stop and gets called the N-word. Herman tells Rupe to lay off his brothers and his friends, setting off a terrific fight, in which the rules of fair play are suspended, while Penrod and Sam watch on the sidelines. Verman opens hostilities by striking Rupe with a rake because in “his simple, direct, African way, he wished to kill his enemy…and to kill him as soon as possible.” The brawl comes to an end when Herman grabs a scythe and threatens to cut out Rupe’s gizzard and eat it. It was probably just trash talk, but Penrod and Sam are too shaken by the brothers’ “unctuous merriment” after victory to say thank you.
Tarkington’s Penrod can’t be characterized as a book written back in the good old days when children were still innocent a hundred years ago. Daniel Lee’s assertion in the Wall Street Journal that in the novel still reflects the circumstances of many children’s lives today, was an oversimplification supporting the comforting illusion that classic books are alternatives to contemporary problem YA novels whose authors strive to let adolescents see themselves reflected. However the excessive realism is defined, the line where crosses over to the exploitative is always being redrawn in contemporary discussions. But the analysis will be more productive, the more carefully the books in question are studied, Regardless of when they were written, they are likely to be more complex than adult readers remember.