From recent movie attempt to improve the Robinson Crusoe perspective: Crusoe (Aiden Quinn) and the Warrior (Ade Sapara) in Caleb Deschanel’s Crusoe Arthurian tales often show the process of rising slowly through violence and obedience in an aristocratic society — that’s what the boys are shown.
Dear friends and readers,
Another blog which is partly intended for my students. I was asked to provide a more sophisticated understanding of texts for my students, which would (inevitably?) lead them not only to want to publish, but to go about such projects in ways that ensure publication (what is the topic of converse this year, the actual self-interested goals of participants).
I didn’t quite do that because I know that most students don’t have a discipline, much less know what is the state of place in that discipline. Instead I assigned a couple of books which analyzed the cultural values behind our children’s language; the lack of choice; and devised projects so we could hear one another’s hard-worked upon papers, projects, hopes and dreams.
The first book was Bobbie Ann Mason’s Girl Sleuth: In search of Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton and Cherry Ames. I’ve written a blog summarizing, critiquing Mason’s book and setting it in the context of a short history of children’s literature.
Now I turn to Bob Dixon’s invaluable revelations — in the context of no talk at all about such things, his readings are revelations. Mason and Dixon function as two witnesses, two genuine cultural analyses of the values we find endorsed in classic and popularly distributed childrens’ books in schools and bookstores, and stories in magazines.
As Dixon says often what librarians and teachers present as their books and the reasons for choosing these are just lists or they simply describe a book through its blurb in praise or a rousing good tale …. As to popular series book, Mason says many of these books do not even turn up in schools and are not given prizes: they are just rewritten and distributed.
It needs also to be said first that many “classics” that young adults think they read — say Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe or Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels are a silently rewritten, dumbed-down, abridged and often sanitized or re-normed version of the original book.
And second, that everyone agrees much more common is to assign books with males as heroes; women writers will use their first initials to try to hide that the author is a woman. The book sells better. J. K. Rowling conforms precisely to both habits. Young male at school; she is J. K.
Bob Dixon (1931-2008), grapefruit juice in hand
Who was Bob Dixon? He is highly unusual in reaching us because he was anti-capitalism as presently practiced. I’d call him a progressive, a strong progressive. Born in country Durham in the UK, brought up by grandparents, ill from TB when young so did not go to public school, but got into university and became a writer, teacher, poet, peace activist. He did not try to take on the establishment when teaching the way J. L. Carr did.
Bob wrote much poetry but his best known books are Catching Them Young and Playing Them False in which he showed how the same elitist, sexist and racist attitudes and political ideas were being instilled through toys, games and puzzles, and he exposed the role of the commercial interests in priming the compliance of future consumers and the mass media.
His autobiography is called The Wrong Bob Dixon shows clearly how his childhood in a family broken by narrow attitudes towards his unmarried mother, his illness and the war had affected him, and how his life post war had been blighted by those same narrow attitudes and the political system that confines the ambition and natural talent and creativity of young people in the education system.
A tribute was paid to his memory in 2008 during a demonstration against war. He is not in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography nor the Literature Resource Center. The establishment erases him.
Those chapters I chose from Catching Them Young deal with issues of real concern today, sore ones: class; the imperialist-colonialist thinking and feeling which leads to devastating wars abroad; how religious allegory is used to squash an understanding of today’s world’s organizations and structures and bewilder any attempt to ameliorate the lot of most people on the earth.
From John Boorman’s Excalibur, an Athurian epic-romance:
Arthurian tales often show the process of rising slowly through violence and obedience in an aristocratic society — that’s what the stories from the point of view of a boy show us centrally
Snakes and Ladders
Dixon opens with Plato because with Plato begins the idea you can type people and also have ideal types everyone should aspire to. Dixon then asks the question why everyone we go we see a form of social apartheid and the visibilia of rank. Until the 19th century not only in the US but the UK the way the classes were explained were it’s God’s doings. Only by charity should or can you act to change this and that means only the “deserving poor.”
This is followed by a section on language and how language is used to differentiate and stigmatize people. Stigmatizing goes on all the time in all sorts of ways.
What we have is a literature that mirrors what is expected of a middle class child and norms. This is true of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake. We see this reflection in Bobbsey Twins, for example, on TV it’s been shown that the way people dress, the jobs we see that are given respect are middle and upper middle. Dixon suggests that working class norms are different, less demanding probably because less is expected. IQs and in the UK 11 plus exams where used to send some children to college and the rest to vocational schools and stop education early.
Dixon goes over fables and stories of people winning money and what they do with it: the moral here is to be happy with your lot. Know your place. It’s where you belong. We might say in the US this is not so (pp. 47-51).
Another important line of thought offered; this is the mantra of US public arenas. It’s asserted that anyone can have anything you want, you need only will it. Will it read hard, not for doctors’ wives just again.
Therefore if you don’t have everything you want, it’s your fault. It’s not the schools, lack of opportunities, connections, not knowing the right manners that stop you.
At every turn in most stories there are implications about social class, status and politics. It’s unavoidable because it’s implicit in our lives. What he is pointing out is the particular single perspective that is repeatedly imposed on children.
Dixon teaches us how to read: he makes points rarely made, e.g. “the germ of virtually every work of literature is conflict. The key is to look at the way the reader or view’s sympathies are aligned. I’ll give an example from a decent recent police procedural: Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren. It is very unusual for someone to sympathize with illegal immigrants in hiding. The story concerns the murder of two young woman who clean hotels for a living. The murderer is a male Bosnian who has raped one of them and wants to cover this up; they also know about a massacre that occurred that was covered up and he killed the other lest she tell once her sister was dead.
It’s not childlike for they are not presented as saints — no Uncle Toms — but real people interacting with real motives, of fear, desire for revenge, for jobs in hideous circumstances of wars brought about by ethnic rivalries is the way this show presents it.
Authors chosen not evil; they are middle class and this is their world, Nesbitt’s animal fables (p 58). I asked about the short answers the test about The History of Sandford and Merton so maybe I had better skip these two pages. But I”ll read them anyway (pp. 60-61). But little Tommy reminds me of little Trixie: how terrible to be rich they say; it’s our duty to accept and be glad our condition is no worse they say.
Forgotten is the idea that society is a contract and all of us are in it together and need one another and use one another.
Another problem is one we find in Dickens: the poor or working class are seen entirely from outside. Why do condescending, demeaning, implausible fictions continue to be shown? Downton Abbey showed two servants utterly abject before the master lord of the house; he is just generosity itself as he is not going to fire the aging woman but pay for her cataract operation. Won’t up her salary nor conditions of employment (pp. 67-69)
It’s an intensely class conscious world: He exposes a whole array of such books and only in the 1930 did they begin to circulate widely. takes these books and shows how the same paradigms are working out in classics movies for children are still made from: Francis Hodgson Burnett’s Little Princess, Secret Garden
Chapter ends on Tarzan of the Apes: Tarzan an aristocrat in leopard skins, heredity all.
Lagaan, a re-reading of British imperialism
Empire: Fiction follows Flag
This is an important chapter because it is so rare for people to go beyond showing racism in the US towards African-Americans and bring out the colonialist ideology that supports these terrible wars we partly fund by funding the gov’ts that pursue them.
A three page piece on Robinson Crusoe which I assigned. It’s a more peaceful book than some (p. 75) The ultimate arbiter and justification of all these is that Christianity is a better religion, the western way of life superior. At one time this was tooted unashamedly, now these ideas come in through the back door in the form of programs – in Iraq a number of laws passed to turn the essentially tribal structure of the society into a capitalist friendly one, and they passed laws against unions. They do not help women.
Killing an important part of this tradition (p. 77) as well as justification by Christianity, imperialist. Except later on as sex objects by and large women don’t turn up in these action-adventure tales and we will see very few in Ox-Bow Incidents which has some of the features of cowboy stories (p 78).
Many close imitations and (pp. 78-98) give us many variations on these foreign glamor stories, and ends on Kipling — who I think got a Nobel Prize – as to style he can write (1907). India is still a major realm in western literature; witness Jhumpa Lahiri.
The books mentioned here include authors that Mr Ellerbee’s son, Edgar in A Month in the Country, wants to win as a prize for church-going. Coral Island is the book Edgar longs for (p. 85). The aim of colonialism was to relieve unemployment at home — you could snatch land. Read the tones (p. 82). There has been change here: the Black Hole of Calcutta is now presented as part of the war of independence for India in films (p. 83) — but the presentation of the ungrateful (unnatural?) people who don’t appreciate our arms, and companies is found in the way Afghanistan is discussed today, Iraq and Iran (p 83). They don’t want us; we make things worse. The story of the Indian girl who fawns on the hero, saves him, wants to be Anglicized. That’s our Pocahontas myth (p 84). She’s really part English the way peasant girls turn out to be princesses. Part of fairy tale.
As a bye-blow these stores enforce kidnapping, child abuse and kidnapping, but I carry on. G. A. Henty, another author writing in this vein. Henty wrote hundreds of these action-adventure, sometimes science fiction, sometimes boys’ adventure-stories.
Later 19th century religion in retreat, more children are educated in schools, schools are placed where children may be indoctrinated in patriotism: the belief it’s in your interest to go to these wars and kill or be killed (p 89)
Rider Haggard (She, King Solomon’s Mines) a heady mix of sexism, imperialist wars, native Tarzan stuff. Kipling’s Jungle books: boy scouts come out of this era, Baden Powell drew heavily on the jungle books. 3. These show much cruelty to animals, don’t appear to take seriously they have feelings and an existence of their own.
These formulas remain unchanged, are only tweaked some so I didn’t assign anything on the later books except Heinlein as that allows us to see him in the context or generic background out of which his work comes and to which it belong (p. 114): Starship Troopers, a very popular glorification of war;
It ought to be a strange idea that “fighting and killing people” makes one a man only it isn’t. Ultimately all this destruction, death, maiming do come forward at the Met. I’ll come back to times where small tribes fought small tribes but the conditions have so changed that this evolved point of view functions very differently today.
I did omit Roald Dahl (pp. 111-113); his are colonialist in thrust. I find Dahl’s books so nasty where horrible things happen apart from the hero, they startle me. I have read they are liked because they fuel children’s intense resentment, give children a chance to act out revenge. Alone among popular books they are sometimes analysed and critiqued adversely. I think it’s because they do encourage hostile emotions to adults. He makes adults uncomfortable. I have read by one student a real defense of Dahl’s relatively unknown Matilda which I admit to no longer remembering but thinking the student had understood what the manipulation was.
Fangorn Forest, just outside Fairfax county
Supernatural: Religion, Magic and Mystification
The basic paradigms or story lines and suppositions are found in early religious didactic literature where after all a belief in the supernatural is central. Religion depends on a belief in a supernatural realm and beings.
Dixon begins with Winstanley because many religious groups have been rebels against the social order; most of them ruthlessly squashed – by the present establishment and its religious leaders. Doctrines are important in order to control ways of thought. Do not want people believing in too wild ideas; you want to control the fantasy.
I read Pilgrim’s Progress when a girl. Its sales were once close to the Bible; it’s written in very simple English with simple allegories a child can follow. Copies that are sold today are often rewritten in modern English (pp. 121-22 for Robinson’s mindset).
We are taught hard lessons in such schools. Where we learn what social quietism, obedience is how children experience patience; you must learn to suffer, nothing against social order ever.
He points out such books teach children self-contempt: the way the girl sleuth presents an impossible ideal is what the girl cannot not coming up to and so gives her a false body image (“I am fat”), and illegitimate norms she must and yet cannot follow, so “feelings of personal worthlessness” and self-abasement are part of children’s religious literature. Awe is one favorite mood.
Books made cheap and they are used to reinforce from another stand point what we see in action adventure. We are to despise the poor, the losers they are called in US society. I believe Romney said he had no interest in the poor. Some huge percentage of the US population nowadays.
We have the usual suspects, books proselytized for and no explanation of their values given — J. R. R. Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin (who I know from being on a listserv with her — as a poet), Madeleine L’Engle, Richard Adams and C. S. Lewis. He does cite some that are good and changing the mode: I’ll cite The Golden Compass by Philip Pulman (heroine). We get action adventure female-heroes in these. As we do in modern detective novels. and police procedural there are a few. Alas, often sexed up sex objects.
Basically Dixon objects to teaching them to die as a matter of course, and teaching them they can be prostitute, Five hours as beautiful. I’s how they mystify life and make you accept whatever is by making all a mystery; they also allow us to defy laws of nature: gravity, death; great escapist quests, sometimes with animals that we can identify with. The works slide into science fiction and allegories. Allegory where acts and people easily stand for concepts part of the terrain.
Evil is this disembodied force or someone is simply shown as maliciously evil (usually the result of envy — you are not to envy others what they have; if you are outcast, it’s your fault
Evil not located in the poor; anyway this often takes place where poverty is irrelevant; rather it’s class and place antagonisms that are manipulated. Great love of ceremony and ritual (p 149).
I agree with Dixon that the asserted idea children like a black and white world has yet to be proved; but if it’s a childish way of seeing the world, why do adults promote it? (p. 150)
2008 cover for Wrinkle in Time
Dixon’s comments on Madeleine L’Engle are eye-opening: enforced conformity seems to stand for communism so it’s really a political struggle that she disguises with mysticism. Her idea is matter is getting unbalanced. Her books makes no sense of the world to children.
Watership Down: a kind of smug complacency, highly authoritarian military warren. The rabbits set up a police state. In another book Adams makes no distinction between the kind of suffering that is endemic in human nature in a society (so religion becomes a kind of comfort, a hoped-for protection) and the kind that can be changed by changing human social circumstances (p 154.)
To me the sickest book I’ve read for children is G. H. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. Dixon says the self-absorption it encourages makes all that happens outside the self unimportant. I remember it justifying death; a kind of medieval attitude towards miracles as what we wait around for. Devils everywhere who must be smashed. Lewis makes it explicit that the Narnia books have a Christian allegory at the center. Among other things he’s a fervent monarchist, ridicules progressive schools. He married for the first time late in life and part of his outlook is naive.
Ends on a book that shows some change. TwoPence a Tub by Susan Price. It sets up an actual debate. Death is God’s way of punishing these strikers. Does God want these people to suffer. The strike doesn’t achieve much: the men go back to longer hours and cut wages.
Political correctness is a phrase hurled at people who are perfectly sincere in wanting to improve the world. They don’t talk or act the way they do to obey some strange convention or impress others; they really want to see a better life for all.
What we see on TV, in the movies, read in books has a profound influence on what we do and act effectively towards gaining a good adult life for ourselves and others.
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