Friday, October 05, 2012

Pat Conroy's response to the "censors, book-banners and teacher-haters" of Charleston, W.V.

Author Pat Conroy has witnessed his books being challenged and banned 
all over the country. Read a letter he wrote to the editor of the 
Charleston Gazette in response to one such incident in 2007, shared in
honor of Banned Books Week (from the Open Road Media blog):
October 24, 2007
I received an urgent e-mail from a high school student named Makenzie
Hatfield of Charleston, West Virginia. She informed me of a group of
parents who were attempting to suppress the teaching of two of my
novels, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music. I heard rumors of this
controversy as I was completing my latest filthy, vomit-inducing work.
These controversies are so commonplace in my life that I no longer get
involved. But my knowledge of mountain lore is strong enough to know
the dangers of refusing to help a Hatfield of West Virginia. I also do
not mess with McCoys.
I've enjoyed a lifetime love affair with English teachers, just like
the ones who are being abused in Charleston, West Virginia, today. My
English teachers pushed me to be smart and inquisitive, and they
taught me the great books of the world with passion and cunning and
love. Like your English teachers, they didn't have any money either,
but they lived in the bright fires of their imaginations, and they
taught because they were born to teach the prettiest language in the
world. I have yet to meet an English teacher who assigned a book to
damage a kid. They take an unutterable joy in opening up the known
world to their students, but they are dishonored and unpraised because
of the scandalous paychecks they receive. In my travels around this
country, I have discovered that America hates its teachers, and I
could not tell you why. Charleston, West Virginia, is showing clear
signs of really hurting theirs, and I would be cautious about the word
getting out.
In 1961, I entered the classroom of the great Eugene Norris, who set
about in a thousand ways to change my life. It was the year I read The
This letter first appeared on the Open Road Media blog during Banned
Books Week 2011.Catcher in the Rye, under Gene's careful tutelage, and
I adore that book to this very day. Later, a parent complained to the
school board, and Gene Norris was called before the board to defend his
teaching of this book. He asked me to write an essay describing the book's
galvanic effect on me, which I did. But Gene's defense of The Catcher
in the Rye was so brilliant and convincing in its sheer power that it
carried the day. I stayed close to Gene Norris till the day he died. I
delivered a eulogy at his memorial service and was one of the
executors of his will. Few in the world have ever loved English
teachers as I have, and I loathe it when they are bullied by
know-nothing parents or cowardly school boards.
About the novels your county just censored: The Prince of Tides and
Beach Music are two of my darlings which I would place before the
altar of God and say, "Lord, this is how I found the world you made."
They contain scenes of violence, but I was the son of a Marine Corps
fighter pilot who killed hundreds of men in Korea, beat my mother and
his seven kids whenever he felt like it, and fought in three wars. My
youngest brother, Tom, committed suicide by jumping off a
fourteen-story building; my French teacher ended her life with a
pistol; my aunt was brutally raped in Atlanta; eight of my classmates
at The Citadel were killed in Vietnam; and my best friend was killed
in a car wreck in Mississippi last summer. Violence has always been a
part of my world. I write about it in my books and make no apology to
anyone. In Beach Music, I wrote about the Holocaust and lack the
literary powers to make that historical event anything other than
grotesque. People cuss in my books.
People cuss in my real life. I cuss, especially at Citadel basketball
games. I'm perfectly sure that Steve Shamblin and other teachers
prepared their students well for any encounters with violence or
profanity in my books just as Gene Norris prepared me for the profane
language in The Catcher in the Rye forty-eight years ago.
The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave
anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the
genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty ofprogre
language. Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna
Karenina at a ball in St. Petersburg and lassoed a steer in Lonesome
Dove and had nightmares about slavery in Beloved and walked the
streets of Dublin in Ulysses and made up a hundred stories in The
Arabian Nights and saw my mother killed by a baseball in A Prayer for
Owen Meany. I've been in ten thousand cities and have introduced
myself to a hundred thousand strangers in my exuberant reading career,
all because I listened to my fabulous English teachers and soaked up
every single thing those magnificent men and women had to give. I
cherish and praise them and thank them for finding me when I was a boy
and presenting me with the precious gift of the English language.
The school board of Charleston, West Virginia, has sullied that gift
and shamed themselves and their community. You've now entered the
ranks of censors, book-banners, and teacher-haters, and the word will
spread. Good teachers will avoid you as though you had cholera. But
here is my favorite thing: Because you banned my books, every kid in
that county will read them, every single one of them. Because
bookbanners are invariably idiots, they don't know how the world
works— but writers and English teachers do.
I salute the English teachers of Charleston, West Virginia, and send
my affection to their students. West Virginians, you've just done what
history warned you against—you've riled a Hatfield.
Pat Conroy
This letter first appeared on the Open Road Media blog during Banned
Books Week 2011.

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