Last week was Banned Books Week, so Chad and I headed to the library to look for something to read that at one point had been challenged or banned in the US. I was a little disappointed that the Winston-Salem Central Library didn’t have a display or any programs for BBW. Luckily I’d spent some time the previous week tracking down lists of banned books online, so we had a few books to look for.
We ended up getting Fahrenheit 451 — which I decided I wanted to read for BBW pretty much as soon as I got the tweet that BBW was coming up — and A Farewell to Arms. We got two copies of each, one for Chad and one for me, so we could read them at the same time and talk about them. My copy of Fahrenheit 451, by the way, was signed by Ray Bradbury, which as a book collector I find very cool. I have to wonder if the library is aware they have a signed copy on the shelves. As I said, very cool.
Although I’m familiar with Ernest Hemingway’s style from grammar and writing classes, I’ve never read any of his books before. Technically, I still haven’t, because while I breezed through Fahrenheit 451 in two days (and that only because I had to make myself set the book aside so I could get some work done), after five days I’m only on page thirty-eight of A Farewell to Arms. It’s, shall we say, not exactly my cup of tea. Too much telling instead of showing, and the grammar and writing style have the editor in me screaming for a red pen to mark it up and send it back to Hemingway for a re-write.
One thing I wouldn’t do, however, is something Scribner’s did when they published the book. Hemingway used some profanities in it, and instead of asking him to change that or passing on publishing A Farewell to Arms if he refused, Scribner’s replaced those words with dashes — and it’s remained that way ever since. Hemingway allegedly wrote the words back in by hand on two copies of the first edition, which he then gave to Maurice Coindreau and James Joyce, but no published edition has changed the dashes back to the original words.
Obviously since the profanity was redacted before the book even hit the printing presses, much less bookstore shelves, that’s not why A Farewell to Arms has been challenged or banned over the years. Instead, people primarily seem to object to sexual content in the book. When it was first serialized in Scribner’s in 1929, Boston banned the issues it appeared in because of the book’s sexual content. It’s since been banned or challenged in a number of US school districts for the same reason, including in Verona-Sherill, NY, in 1980, where it was challenged as a “sex novel”. Italy apparently banned it at one point for its portrayal of their army’s retreat from Caporatto. It was also banned in Ireland in 1939 and burned by the Nazis in 1933, but I couldn’t find any articles that explain why.
I’ve made it to the first “editorially redacted curse word” (“—- the war.”), but I haven’t gotten to the army’s retreat or anything more sexual than Frederick putting his arm around Catherine’s waist or asking her to kiss him — and Catherine eventually relenting. I have to assume it gets steamier than that. Then again, based on other books I’ve read that have been banned or challenged, that’s enough for some people to decide that they know best and no one should be exposed to that kind of thing.
Although the book really isn’t enticing me to read more of Hemingway’s work, I’m very glad I found it on my library’s shelves. Because I know there are people out there who do like it, or who will — and I absolutely believe they should be allowed to read it. Chad apparently is one of those people, because although he hasn’t finished it either, he’s much further along than me. When I asked him what he thought of it so far, he said, “It’s holding my attention.” He’s got a Master’s in history, though, and he finds reading about the war and Hemingway’s critique of it interesting.
In my next post I’ll talk about Fahrenheit 451, which I read for the first time when I was in high school, and which has stuck with me ever since.