As a writer there are several things that one can do to gain notoriety. We can blog continually (like this writer does), tweet constantly, post annoying Facebook threads or simply do what writers have done for centuries and that is write something that upsets the norm. The truth is that writers, at least some of the best ones, have upset the status quo so much that often they have been hunted by millions and have been banned by entire governments.
But this is what we do. Writers are tortured souls who are unhappy with the status quo. They sit around thinking about how the world could be a better place and use their prose or verse to upset the balance, to become sappers to the works of society’s machine.
I have put together this list (and it is imperfect, mind you) because I have recently felt like one of these writers who has upset the balance, and hope to be one of these people who changes the world. All of these writers asked the question: “Do I dare disturb the universe?”
(These are in no particular order, by the way)
Mark Twain – Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is considered by some to be the great American novel and by others to be a racist diatribe. One month after its publication, the book was banned by nearly every library in the country, the Concord, MA library calling it “trash and suitable only for the slums.” Of course, the book includes over 300 uses of the ‘N’ word, which is offensive to all. My students vote whether or not to read it each year, and they always choose to read it. Each year the question arises about it being a “racist” book, but after students read it cover to cover, laughing through the satirical renderings of late 1800’s politics and social issues, many of them feel strangely that the character of Jim in the novel becomes Huck’s surrogate father. This flies against the idea that the book is racist if Jim is indeed intended by Twain to be Huck’s surrogate father. One particular scene in the novel that causes students to scratch their heads is where Jim and Huck are separated on the river by a passing steam boat and Huck plays a trick on Jim, staying out in the water to fool Jim into thinking Huck is dead, which is a recurring theme in the novel (death/rebirth). Huck begins to feel guilty and says he would “almost kiss his (Jim’s) foot to get him back”. The picture of a southern white boy “humbling himself” in front of an African-American man and asking forgiveness is a picture that is unforgettable to my students, and is a symbol (however brief) of how Twain felt about equality.
Alice Walker – If there is one writer who upsets the balance of the discussion of rights it is Walker. Her most famous book is The Color Purple which includes a rape scene in the very first chapter followed by many violent scenes throughout, but this is not what makes her noteworthy on this “rocking the boat” list. The author is consistently upsetting the status quo by challenging what it means to be “in authority” or drawing us toward the idea of who has that authority in our lives. According to her novel, Celie is oppressed by the men and the culture that surrounds her. She is never really free of it, and finds out through letters from Africa that women in that country are oppressed as well. There is an underlying message in the novel (through the sewing of pants and other symbolism) that we are only placed in an oppressive situation, allowing ourselves to be oppressed. We must all find ways to break the chains of oppression in our lives. For Walker that oppression is sexism and racism, but through this novel my students often see the oppression that surrounds them that is much more universal.
Salman Rushdie – This British-Indian author came under fire from the Muslim world when he published The Satanic Verses. Recently I read a story that an Iranian group has increased the bounty on Rushdie by $500,000 so that now they are offering $3.3 million for his execution. In a recent memoir, Rushdie writes about his experiences living in exile and under police protection for so many years. His infamous book mentioned above is actually an exploration of alienation as an immigrant to Britain and the dreamlike quality of that experience. However, many Muslims see it as an attack on their religion and he is thereby hated and hunted for his penning of the novel. M.D. Fletcher wrote that the controversy “embodied an anger arising in part from the frustrations of the migrant experience and generally reflected failures of multicultural integration, both significant Rushdie themes.”(Reading Rushdie: Perspectives on the Fiction of Salman Rushdie. Rodopi B.V, Amsterdam). Whatever the case, Rushdie’s novel and any positive messages it may hold are drowned out by the screaming anger of those who feel it is an attack upon their religion.
Martin Luther – If there is one writer who with his words started more trouble it is Luther. This humble monk read the Bible daily because he spent time copying it down as the printing press had not yet been invented. He looked around him, and this tortured soul saw that the actions of the Church did not match up with the text of the Bible as he read it. One balmy Halloween in 1517, after sending a kind letter to Albert of Mainz pointing out the sale of indulgences and other things he felt were bad practices, Luthor nailed these 95 theses to the door of Wittenburg Chapel for all to see. The manhunt began, and soon Luther found himself before Pope Leo X, was asked to recant, to which he replied that he could not recant and pleaded with the ruling officials of the Church at the Diet of Worms to see his argument as fact. They did not, and declared him an outlaw after excommunicating him. This was a noble thing for him to do, and he was peaceable about it throughout the entire ordeal (his famous “here I stand” speech a fabrication). Later, though, he rocked the boat another direction when he spewed out some very anti-semitic statements, but they can’t all be perfect.
Henry David Thoreau – Emerson wrote much about being a Transcendentalist, and even tried to form a commune, but it was Thoreau who took the philosophy to heart and probably started something so profound that it had ripple effects down through history. It all started with a poll tax that Thoreau would not pay because he felt that the money was going to fund the Mexican-American war. He was thrown in jail for it, and while in jail he wrote probably the most influential works regarding passive resistance ever penned: On Civil Disobedience. He posited that a man accomplishes nothing by taking up arms against their aggressor, but if one simply resists the urge to do so and thereby simply does not participate then those aggressors have to re-think their strategy. “What if they gave a war and no one came?” This idea is seen again in the life of Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others who chose to protest peacefully without violence or bloodshed on their minds. If only everyone had the same method of protest when they saw injustice in their governments, we would not have flag burnings, dead ambassadors, bombed out villages, and saber rattling by world powers. It was a great idea and needs more emphasis especially in a world of nuclear weapons and other horrors. Did people die during the civil rights movement? Yes. Did people die in India during their marches for independence? Yes. Thoreau’s point was that if enough people choose not to participate in the bloodshed, the bloodshed goes away. It is an optimistic view of humanity, granted, and some will never have this view, but Thoreau believed in us. I want to believe in us, too.