Why Is Arkansas Rep. Kim Hendren So Afraid of Howard Zinn’s Books? #BookBanning

Zinn coverArkansas State Representative Kim Hendren thinks Howard Zinn’s books are so dangerous that he’s introduced state legislation to prohibit public and charter school children from reading them.* Zinn’s most famous book, A People’s History of the United States, presents a view of history that focuses on the experiences of marginalized groups that mainstream history has forgotten or mischaracterized.

I don’t know the basis of Hendren’s problem with Zinn’s books, though I have my suspicion that it’s rooted in racism and sexism. Why else would a legislator target only Zinn’s books, which try to focus the spotlight on the experiences of people of color, the working class, and women? Some people have criticized Zinn’s book as “biased,” but really, what history book isn’t skewed in some way? As Zinn writes in the Afterword of A People’s History:

I know that a historian (or a journalist, or anyone telling a story) was forced to choose, out of an infinite number of facts, what to present, what to omit. And that decision inevitably would reflect, whether consciously or not, the interests of the historian.

Zinn’s method is no different from what any historian does. He’s just more honest about it than most.

Hendren is free to disagree with Zinn’s perspective of history, but he wants to do more than that. He wants to ban it. He wants to make sure that children in his state are only exposed to a limited, politically-approved version of history because, I presume, he believes new or “different” ideas will infect the impressionable minds of Arkansas’s youth.

Well, as I said in Please Stop Parenting My Children:

All I can say to folks like that is this: exposure to many different ideas doesn’t brainwash people. It’s the exposure to only one idea or belief system that does. If the mere exposure to new ideas is enough for those old beliefs to crumble, then its proponents should stop to consider why their beliefs aren’t more persuasive. In my opinion, an idea that can’t withstand a fair debate isn’t an idea worth passing onto the next generation.

If Hendren’s colleagues actually pass this short-sighted piece of legislation, they will probably find the law challenged in court under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (and other laws) — assuming Paul Ryan’s and Mitch McConnell’s Congress and Donald Trump don’t make civil rights lawsuits impossible by then (I’m serious about that; see Lawmakers Want to Take Away Your Right to a Fair Trial).

*Here’s a link to Hendren’s legislation, HB 1834 (2017): http://www.arkleg.state.ar.us/assembly/2017/2017R/Bills/HB1834.pdf

The Significance of a 71-Year-Old Mistake

On February 23, 1945, during a quiet moment in an otherwise intense and bloody battle of World War II, Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal captured a patriotic scene for the history books: the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima by the United States Marines.

It was the second flag raising of the day, the unimportant one. The six men captured in Rosenthal’s photograph were raising a replacement flag that was much larger than the original. Nevertheless, this is the Pulitzer Prize-winning image that found its place in history.

In the picture, the six men face away from the camera, focused on the task at hand.  It’s hard to count them, much less identify who they are.*

For seven decades, the world knew these six figures to be (1) Corporal Harlon Block, (2) Private First Class Rene Gagnon, (3) Private First Class Ira Hayes, (4) Private First Class Franklin Sousley, (5) Sergeant Michael Strank, and (6) Navy Pharmacist’s Mate 2nd Class John Bradley, whose son used the photograph as a vehicle for a book about his father, the other flag-raisers, and the battle of Iwo Jima.

Flags of Our FathersThat book is Flags of our Fathers, written by James Bradley and Ron Powers and published in 2000. In 2006, Clint Eastwood turned the book into a movie of the same name, starring Ryan Phillippe as John “Doc” Bradley.

Now, after a Marine Corps investigation, we have learned that Doc Bradley wasn’t in the photograph. Instead, it’s Private First Class Harold Schultz helping to hoist the flag on Iwo Jima’s highest point, Mount Suribachi.

Reading this news, I wondered: Why didn’t Mr. Schultz speak up about his role in the flag raising? Why did Doc Bradley claim the credit?  The two men passed away in the mid-1990s.

According to Flags of Our Fathers, soon after the publication of Rosenthal’s image, Doc Bradley went on a highly publicized Bond Tour (selling war bonds), attended speaking engagements, and represented the flag-raisers (three of whom did not survive the war) at unveilings and other events. However, Doc Bradley described his fame in an interesting, self-deprecating way. He said:

We are not heroes… [a]nyone on that island could have been in the picture… we didn’t do anything out of the ordinary.

Later, Doc Bradley stopped talking about the picture altogether. As his son recalls:

He had trained us, as children, to deflect the phone-call requests for media interviews that never diminished over the years. We were to tell the caller than our father was on a fishing trip. But John Bradley never fished. No copy of the famous photograph hung in our house. When we did manage to extract from him a remark about the incident, his responses were short and simple and he quickly changed the subject.

Did Doc Bradley know he was not the person pictured in that photograph? Knowing little about the confusion and atrocities of war, I initially found it hard to believe anyone could make an innocent mistake about what part they played in raising a flag. Somehow, I felt as though Doc Bradley had stolen someone else’s valor by taking the credit for it.**

But my initial reaction was ridiculous. There are many benign explanations for Doc Bradley’s actions; it could be as simple as not personally remembering the flag raising in the fog of war, but then assuming he was there because that was the official story.

The fact that Doc Bradley is not in the iconic photograph may weaken the allure of his son’s book, but it does nothing to alter his heroism. As his son wrote in the book, presuming his father was in the photograph:

… Doc Bradley was indeed a hero on Iwo Jima—many times over. The flagraising, in fact, might be seen as one of the few moments in which he was not acting heroically.

Rosenthal’s picture captured 1/400th of a second of the Battle of Iwo Jima, a military action that raged for more than a month. In that time, Doc Bradley did what he was supposed to do as a Navy Corpsman, ultimately receiving the Navy Cross for his bravery. He dragged soldiers to safety, he saved lives when he could, and he comforted those he could not as their lives slipped away.

For the sake of history, it is nice to know the names of the six men pictured in Rosenthal’s photograph. However, the Marine Corps’ commandant, Gen. Robert Neller has said:

Although the Rosenthal image is iconic and significant, to Marines it’s not about the individuals and never has been… Simply stated, our fighting spirit is captured in that frame, and it remains a symbol of the tremendous accomplishments of our Corps – what they did together and what they represent remains most important.  That doesn’t change.

Everyone who assisted the effort at Iwo Jima is a hero, whether or not a photographer captured their actions on film.



*You can see a clearer version of the picture (compared to what is on the cover of Flags of our Fathers) on smithsonian.com.

**I also discussed stolen valor in my post about J. K. Rowling’s “Robert Galbraith” identity a few years ago.

Mr. AMB on Gone With the Wind (& Looking for the Past in the Future)

Gone with the Wind CoverWhen AMB recommends I read something, it’s the next book on my Kindle. But Gone With The Wind? Really?

The glamorizing of antebellum slavery and the appalling descriptions of the effects of African American enfranchisement are, to say the least, off-putting.

However, the political controversy surrounding the book wasn’t what made me reluctant to read it. To me, saying that there are “books people shouldn’t read” is almost as bad as banning books. The question should never be whether people shouldn’t read a book at all, but rather what context is necessary to properly understand the book. Anyone who reads Gone With The Wind as history, instead of as fiction, is a fool.

Rather, my concern was: do I really want to read a thousand-page romance?

It’s hard for me to imagine anything less interesting than the emotional convulsions of a 16-year-old girl trying to attract the attention of all of the boys at an antebellum ball. Yet, even in the earliest pages of the book, I couldn’t put it down. The prose is so rich, and the descriptions of Scarlett’s thoughts so vivid and compelling, that the reader is immediately drawn into the world. Having just finished the novel, I wish there were another thousand pages to read.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “There is one other book, that can teach you everything you need to know about life… it’s The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but that’s not enough anymore.” Maybe he could have filled that void with Gone With The Wind, a novel that takes the typical “serious” subjects of philosophical novels and dashes them against the rocks of reality. Scarlett is confused by high art, dismissive of any religious sentiment, and contemptuous of the “Cause” that guides her Southern contemporaries throughout the novel. That is understandable: none of those ephemeral concepts did her a lick of good in the fires of Atlanta or the desolation of Tara. She was saved, and saved those around her, through willpower alone.

As I read Gone With The Wind, I kept thinking of psychologist Irvin Yalom’s observation, “The neurotic obliterates the present by trying to find the past in the future.” (Link.) All of the main characters are, in one way or another, stuck in a past that is – you’ll have to excuse this phrase – gone with the wind. Indeed, the whole of Southern society is stuck in the dream of rebuilding for themselves a world that will not and can not exist again.

Scarlett, however, has taken a truly Stoic view of the situation, putting aside nagging thoughts about the past and its principles with the mantra, “I will think about this later”– except, importantly, when it comes to Ashley Wilkes, into whom Scarlett has unwittingly channeled the entirety of her unreasonable nostalgia. Even Rhett Butler, described by Scarlett as “strong and unscrupulous, passionate and earthy,” is at core driven by a sentimentality so deep he does not even realize its effects.

As psychologist Donald Winnicott observed, “the absence of psychoneurotic illness may be health, but it is not life,” (link) and it is in that “illness” that Gone With The Wind comes alive.


For AMB’s take on Gone with the Wind, see: (1) Should We Change How We Talk & Write About the Civil War?; (2) How Young is Too Young to Read Gone with the Wind?

“Mommy, What’s a Tramp?”

A Wrinkle in Time Cover QuintetWe meet Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time on a dark and stormy night. As a hurricane batters her 200-year-old house, she’s consumed by worries about her missing father, her failures at school, and a piece of news she heard at the post office:

“[S]he’d heard about a tramp who was supposed to have stolen twelve sheets from Mrs. Buncombe, the constable’s wife. They hadn’t caught him, and maybe he was heading for the Murrys’ house right now, isolated on a back road as it was; and this time maybe he’d be after more than sheets.”

Looking up from the Kindle, one of my seven-year-old twins asks, “Mommy, what’s a tramp?”

“That’s a word people don’t seem to use much anymore. It can be offensive. What do you think it means in this context?

“A thief,” she answers after re-reading the passage.

That’s close. Consulting the New Oxford American Dictionary by clicking on the word in the e-book, my twins learn that a “tramp” is “a person who travels from place to place on foot in search of work or as a vagrant or beggar.”

They don’t notice the sexist “informal” definition a few lines below it, thereby avoiding the follow-up question: “Mommy, what does promiscuous mean?”


The meaning of “tramp” that appears in A Wrinkle in Time — a vagrant or beggar — developed in the 1870s, when the completion of the railroad enabled the unemployed to travel across the United States. This group of itinerant poor typically consisted of men, in part because they were less likely to receive charitable help than women were. As historian Kenneth Kusmer explains in Down and Out, on the Road: The Homeless in American History (citing the work of sociologist Theda Skocpol):

“By the end of the nineteenth century [], the world of the homeless had become an overwhelmingly masculine realm. This was not because women were less at risk to become homeless… Rather, it was mostly a consequence of the gender ideology of the Victorian era, which assumed that women were weaker and less able to care for themselves than men… [T]his mentality led to the establishment of numerous institutions to assist indigent women and children…”

However, there were women riding the rails too, often dressed in masculine attire to blend in and to protect themselves from physical and sexual violence. As historian Tim Cresswell describes:

“Many commentators during the period 1875-1939 referred to female tramps and prostitutes in the same breath, often making the assumption that the two were more or less equal (186).”

With this history, it’s little wonder that “tramp,” a word used since the 1870s to describe a typically “masculine realm,” would assume a sexual connotation when applied to women in contemporary times.

In the public’s perception, tramps of all genders challenged mainstream American values. Female tramps challenged gender norms, while male tramps were supposedly lazy criminals who repudiated the American work ethic. Considering these culturally-entrenched negative perceptions of the itinerant poor, it’s understandable that Meg was worried when she heard about Mrs. Buncombe’s sheets.

Apart from this reference to “tramp” in A Wrinkle in Time and the occasional mention of Disney’s Lady and the Tramp or the similarly titled show tune, I rarely come across the term. If Google Books Ngram Viewer is any indication, though, it might be enjoying a small resurgence.

Tramp Graph

If so, I wonder what definition of “tramp” is on the rise.

Should We Change How We Talk & Write About The Civil War?

Gone with the Wind CoverPublished in 1936, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind remains an American favorite, despite (or perhaps because of) its antiquated and controversial portrayal of the American South on the eve of, during, and after the Civil War. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1937 and became a film in 1939. Polls in 2014 listed the film adaptation as our favorite movie and the novel as our second most popular book (behind the Bible).

However, Gone with the Wind’s popularity differs based on readers’ gender, generation, and whether they identify with those who lost the Civil War 150 years ago:

“Men go to fantasy, with The Lord of the Rings series being their second favorite, while for women it’s all about the Southern charm in Gone with the Wind. There is also a generational difference, with Millennials’ second favorite being the Harry Potter series while for Gen Xers it’s The Lord of the Rings series. Both Baby Boomers’ and Matures’ second favorite is Gone with the Wind.

There is also a race/ethnicity difference. For Whites, Gone with the Wind is their second favorite book while for Blacks it is Moby Dick and for Hispanics The Great Gatsby is their second favorite book. Regionally, Gone with the Wind is both Southerners’ and Midwesterners’ their second favorite book, but there is a battle between wizards on the coasts. In the East, The Lord of the Rings series is the second favorite while in the West it is the Harry Potter series.”

Harris Interactive.

It’s interesting that Gone with the Wind would be such a favorite considering that it’s more than 1,000 pages long. That’s quite a commitment, particularly for the average American reader. In 2013, the “typical” American read only five books, and one in four read none.

Sure, of those Americans who claim it among their favorite books of all time, maybe they only skimmed parts of it or have only seen the movie. However, Gone with the Wind is the type of page-turner that might appeal to someone who usually prefers soap operas to the written word. The novel’s protagonist, Scarlett O’Hara, is a beautiful and cunning woman who knows how to please and excite men, a skill she uses to survive the ravages and aftermath of war.

Gone with the Wind is an engrossing historical romance, but it is also a very disturbing fictional take on our history.

Full of racial slurs and stereotypes, the novel perpetuates myths about the South. In Margaret Mitchell’s fictional version of her homeland, the planters were charming aristocrats, the slaves were stupid and submissive laborers, and the ruthless “Yankee invaders” ruined everything:

“It was all over, the bright beautiful dream they had loved and hoped for, the Cause which had taken their friends, lovers, husbands and beggared their families. The Cause they had thought could never fall had fallen forever.” Chapter 29.

Gone with the Wind espouses romantic notions of the Old South that hide the brutal truth about slavery and those who wanted to maintain it.

These myths can also be found in the very words we use to describe this deeply troubling part of our past.

These days, the most common name for the war is “The Civil War.” However, in some places, the war has also been known by names that frame the South’s struggle as an honorable one: “The War for Southern Independence,” “The War of Northern Aggression,” and “The War Between the States.”

My husband, who grew up in Mississippi in the 1980s and 1990s, sometimes heard people say “The War Between the States,” but “Civil War” was the term he heard the most often.

Just as the name for the Civil War has changed, maybe it’s time for other terms associated with that time in our past to change too. That’s exactly what some scholars have proposed.

In an article reprinted in Smithsonian.com, historian Michael Landis recounts arguments that “slave-owners” should be replaced by “enslavers” and “plantation” should be changed to “labor camp.”  Using the term “plantation” causes anyone who hears or reads the term to focus on the physical property itself — and to likely picture a charming bucolic scene like Gone With the Wind’s Tara or Twelve Oaks — whereas “labor camp” puts the focus on the odious conduct that occurred there.

Professor Landis further proposes that “Union” should be replaced with “United States,” saying that the “United States never ceased to exist” as it responded to “a massive, murderous rebellion.”

Whatever you may think of this proposal, it serves as a good reminder of the significance of word choice, and how different descriptions convey different judgments. We must be careful to consider what messages we’re implicitly sending when we use certain terms over others.


Amelia Elkins Elkins by AM Blair: Did I Treat Louis XVI Unfairly?

Louis and Me

It’s impossible to slander—or, in this case, libel—the dead, but that doesn’t mean I want to perpetuate myths about a long deceased person.

Louis XVI of France has been dead for 222 years, the victim of the “hot blade,” released by revolutionaries looking to change the social, economic, and political order of their country.

I mention the unfortunate French monarch in Amelia Elkins Elkins, my newly released retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, at the end of Chapter 3, when Amelia (a modern Anne Elliot) contemplates a lawsuit on behalf of her mother’s estate:

Amelia Elkins Elkins_A Retelling of Persuasion_Passage

Louis XVI has often been portrayed as weak, stupid, and lazy, stereotypes I vaguely remember learning as facts in my European History class in high school. About a decade before that class, Newsweek referred to the French king as the “stout and stupid Louis XVI.”*

Suspecting that Louis XVI is a more complicated historical figure than is often portrayed, I had originally written the sentence in Amelia Elkins Elkins slightly differently (see below). However, I revised it on the advice of an astute reader who said, “I think it’s okay to risk treating Louis XVI unfairly for the sake of comedic timing.”

Original versus Revised from Amelia Elkins Elkins

I agree that the revision is better. It’s a simpler sentence now, even if — potentially — somewhat unfair to Louis XVI.

Ever since accepting that revision, I’ve wondered how unfair I’ve been to the unfortunate ruler. To shed light on this question, I read Alison Johnson’s biography of the king, Louis XVI and the French Revolution (2013), an attempt to refute common perceptions of Louis XVI’s drive and intellect.

It’s an interesting and accessible read, one that references sources we’re unlikely to see in many history books, like the Mayo Clinic’s website. Johnson’s Louis XVI is a highly-educated, family-oriented man who loathed bloodshed and privately suffered from phimosis, an often painful condition in which the foreskin cannot fully retract.

Poor guy, for so many reasons.

So, like England’s Richard III, whom I’ve discussed several times on this blog, Louis XVI has his supporters. Like most modern-day historians attempting to rehabilitate the image of a long-dead person, Johnson has embarked on a challenging task. The paucity of unbiased contemporaneous accounts of Louis XVI and the few writings left behind by the man himself are major limitations.

As Johnson explains:

Excerpts from Johnsons Book

I left Johnson’s book feeling more sympathetic toward Louis XVI, but still unsure of what to believe about him. What I do know, though, is that the original version of my sentence in Amelia Elkins Elkins, which doesn’t take a position on Louis XVI’s drive and intellect, is more accurate than the final one, which does.

I hope that no one offended on behalf of Louis XVI will take it out on my book. 😉


*This example is in Johnson’s book.

**Image: A portion of the cover from Louis XVI and the French Revolution (by Alison Johnson) coupled with a portion of the cover from Amelia Elkins Elkins (by moi).

***If you’re interested in Amelia Elkins Elkins, see here. Thanks!

From Reality to Fiction: The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

A Fall of MarigoldsIn Susan Meissner’s A Fall of Marigolds, we meet two women separated by a century but both profoundly affected by tragedy: the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Clara Wood and Taryn Michaels’ alternating stories are also connected by a unique scarf, one with a cascade of marigolds and the name “Lily” stitched into its edge.

I bought this book because of my interest in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 people.* The vast majority of the victims were women, some of whom jumped to their deaths to escape the burning building.

Clara’s portion of the novel begins five months after the fire in Manhattan’s Asch Building, where she worked in a doctor’s office a few stories below the Triangle Waist Company (“Triangle”). On the 8th and 9th floors of the building, in both the novel and in real-life, rows of young women, often the primary breadwinners for their immigrant families, made shirtwaists, the fashionable blouses of Gibson Girl fame.

The Fire:

What we know from the historical record is that the fire broke out on March 25, 1911 on the 8th floor, possibly due to a discarded cigarette. The flames spread to the 9th floor, where workers were trapped in a building that the New York City Fire Commissioner had already cited as a fire trap (for many reasons). In violation of the Labor Code, the stairway doors opened inward instead of outward, and the company kept the door to the stairway locked to prevent theft.

The Trial:

That locked door became the focus of the criminal manslaughter trial of Triangle’s owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, which took place in December 1911.

Meissner’s novel mentions the trial briefly in Chapter 17:

“Miss Wood?”

I heard my name as though it had been spoken from behind a brick wall.

“A trial?” I murmured, but my voice sounded far away.

“Yes. The owners are being charged with manslaughter.”

I raised my hands to my ears instinctively.

“Are you all right?”

I sensed an edge of alarm in [Ethan’s] voice.

This trial is well known in legal circles because of the courtroom cross-examination prowess of Max D. Steuer, the defense attorney who eviscerated one of the prosecution’s key witnesses, Kate Alterman, a Triangle employee.

According to Professor Stephan Landsman:

One direct examination [Alterman] described in heart-rending detail the fire and its deadly consequences… Max Steuer then proceeded to destroy Miss Alterman’s credibility. … Steuer had Miss Alterman repeat her story three times. After each retelling he emphasized the striking similarities in the narratives.

Among the phrases Ms. Alterman used repeatedly were: “a red curtain of fire,” “I pressed [my pocketbook] to my chest to extinguish the fire,” and “like a wild cat.”**

Mr. Steuer asked, “You never studied those words, did you?,” insinuating that Ms. Alterman’s testimony was the result of prosecutorial coaching.

Lawyers prepare their clients for trial, but we cannot make up their stories for them. That said, I’m not so sure that a witness’s repeated use of certain phrases suggests that the testimony is fiction. Also, while I don’t know what New York’s evidentiary rules were at that time, my feeling is that Steuer’s famous cross-examination may have been objectionable as both repetitious and harassing (in violation of today’s Federal Rules of Evidence 403 and 611(a)).

I also wonder whether the insinuation that the witness was coached (and therefore untrustworthy) would’ve been quite as convincing to the all-male jury had Ms. Alterman been Mr. Alterman, and a native English speaker instead of an immigrant with a heavy accent.***

Overall, it was a challenging case for the prosecution because they had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it was the locked door that caused the death, rather than panic, which Steuer asserted could have prevented the workers from opening the door or escaping another way.

Essentially, Steuer blamed the victims. He said:

You ask these girls, pursued by these flames at that time to use reason. It is impossible. The panic drove them. The panic kept them at the door; and the panic prevented it being opened.

In the end, Triangle’s owners were acquitted. However, their role in creating an unsafe workplace wasn’t forgotten. It changed public sentiment on workers’ rights.

Social Change:

As Professor Arthur F. McEvoy wrote:

[The Triangle Fire] made clear in a new and powerful way that industrial accidents had causes whose roots lay in employers’ near-total power over the workplace environment; causes which government had the capacity and the responsibility to address.

Shortly after the fire, the New York legislature set up a factory safety commission, in which Frances Perkins, the future Secretary of Labor under President Roosevelt, was involved. Perkins was responsible for 1930s New Deal reforms like the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act that still impact the American workplace today.

However, unfair workplaces persist.

In the United States, for example, most employees can be fired for virtually any reason other than certain forms of discrimination, but those cases are typically very hard to prove (and they’re becoming even harder to prove thanks to the Supreme Court).

Sweatshops making products for American consumers still exist too, as John Oliver highlighted recently in a spot on Last Week Tonight.

A lot has changed in the past century — thanks to increased regulation, workplace deaths have fallen by 90% — but workplaces similar to Triangle aren’t only found these days in history texts or fiction.


*Some sources say that 147 people died as a result of the fire.

**The transcript of the trial is available through Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, but it appears that the section that contained Ms. Alterman’s testimony is incomplete. Instead, portions of her testimony appear in the “Library notes.” For a compilation of primary and secondary sources related to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, see here.

***Women were not permitted to serve on juries in New York until 1937.