Professor Cohen's class studies frequently challenged and banned books

From 'Huck Finn' to 'Fun Home,' MU class studies frequently challenged and banned books

Written by Aarik Danielsen at the Columbia Daily Tribune

Just a month after its publication in February 1885, Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" was banned by the public library of Concord, Massachusetts. Backing this initial challenge? Louisa May Alcott.

"If Mr. Clemens cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses, he had best stop writing for them," the "Little Women" author reportedly said.

Mentioning this detail, Sam Cohen illustrates two points: first, banning books is practically an inherent American reflex. And any given book challenge is rarely about just one issue. Dissenters like Alcott cited the "bad grammar" and "bad behavior" threaded throughout Twain's novel, he said.

"It’s got 'ain't' in the first sentence, and 'without' used instead of 'unless.' ... So people got mad about that," the University of Missouri English professor added.

But often there's more to a challenge than what's said out loud, Cohen said. While he wouldn't speculate about any of Alcott's deeper-seated aims, he sees obvious patterns across today's book disputes.

Anywhere from 25 to 30 percent of today's hot-to-the-touch texts foreground characters of color and LGBTQ characters. Frequent "targets" — the term a PEN America report from April uses — tend to be challenged on the use of a particular term or scene, when the types of people or ideas these books represent form the true core of an objection, Cohen said.

Cohen remains a student of the fine print within and surrounding challenged texts. This semester, he's teaching Studies in English: Banned Books at MU.

The course begins with Twain's Huck Finn and proceeds through Alison Bechdel's 2006 graphic memoir "Fun Home." Between those bookends, students will read the likes of Ray Bradbury, Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut and Art Spiegleman's "Maus" series.

How banned books 'instruct and delight'

A course like Cohen's must be designed about a year in advance, he said; and no single moment precipitated his interest. Rather, he kept his "antennae up" as the frequency and nature of challenges, forever a hot topic in American culture, changed.

PEN America's report found "1,477 instances of individual books banned, affecting 874 unique titles" in the first half of the 2022-23 school year, a 28 percent increase over the previous six months. And to discuss the state of book bans is to discuss the state of Missouri: we ranked among the top five states in terms of prevalence, keeping company with Texas, Florida, Utah and South Carolina.

One more significant number shared in the PEN report: an outside poll finds "over 70% of parents oppose book banning."

In class, Cohen cannot help but reference the history of book banning in Missouri and across the United States. These texts serve as historic divining rods, revealing something about the concerns and outrage of a particular American moment, he said.

But this is not his ultimate aim. In a class of around 40 students — only two of which are English majors — he wants to present books which satisfy ancient aims laid out by the Roman poet Horace: to "instruct and delight." These titles articulate something about the world, and do so in captivating fashion, Cohen said.

"This is not a current events class. This is not a class on the history and politics of book banning," he said. "But it’s a class about works of literature. Because the subtext, which is not very sub, is 'Can you believe they’re doing this? They’re trying to keep this out of people’s hands? This great stuff.'"

By the end of the semester, students will finish two papers: one looking at an assigned book through a literary-critical lens. The other, examining the cases and context involved in a particular book's banning. But Cohen's class primarily revolves around discussion.

"What I want them to do day-to-day is what I want students in any class to do: closely read the book in front of them ... and talk about it and think about how it works, what it makes us think of, how it instructs and delights," he said.

Creating the syllabus, he found significance in assigning books written by Missourians — Twain, comic Dick Gregory's memoir, Kate Chopin's novel "The Awakening" — and those banned within our borders, like Morrison's "The Bluest Eye."

The class should situate students in their place and time, Cohen said, and in a much longer conversation. As students get their bearings, growing more comfortable and uncomfortable within them, he wants to see how these texts look through their eyes.

"What does a book that’s from 1885, that’s set in about 18-say-40, read in 2023 by people from 20 miles away from the place it’s set ... what’s it like to read that?" Cohen said of Twain's work.

Cohen recognizes these books' value, but certainly doesn't uphold them as perfect literature. While "Huckleberry Finn" feels fresh on this reading, he still doesn’t like what reads as a belabored ending, he said.

Book bans, from the silly to the very serious

Preparing his course, Cohen encountered challenges that seemed downright strange. Examining a spreadsheet, he thought he saw Lydia Millet's 2020 novel "A Children's Bible," which seemed plausible, he said. After a few emails with the author and her agent, Cohen realized the title in question was an illustrated children's Bible.

After the semester opened, he caught wind of a school district in another state pulling "Romeo and Juliet" until they could comb the text to see what it contained. The 425-year-old text.

More often, Cohen experiences sadness, anger or some heavy alloy of the two. He is particularly troubled by challenges to Spiegelman's graphic novels about the Holocaust and its generational effects, or to books like Morrison's and Gregory's, which express what it means to grow up Black in America.

The loss of this literature is the loss of lived history, he said.

"Novels and graphic novels capture history in a way that regular history books can’t. And (students) don’t read regular history books in school — they’re reading textbooks," he said. "Spending hundreds of pages looking at something through the lives of people who might have lived through it or actually did — that’s a thing you don’t get anywhere else."

This sort of rift in the American story drives Cohen past sadness, he said.

"I’m terrified that they’re not going to know what happened in the middle of the 20th century to millions of people — and some version of it is bubbling up in their own time and place," he said.

The way state politicians talk about Missourians when they talk about book bans is "insulting," Cohen said, as if students of any age can't be trusted to handle books.

But he sees reasons to hope in the presence of these still-living texts, and of a generation — his students' ages and even younger — who make themselves known at school board meetings, contribute to legal pushback against censorship, crease book bindings of their own volition. They are not just reading — they are thinking and doing, he said.