WINSTON-SALEM, NC (WGHP) — When Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus” was banned by the school board in McMinn County, Tennessee, sales of the book skyrocketed across the country, leaving bookstores are scrambling to keep up with demand.
However, for literature advocates, historians and pundits, the ban presented a red flag on a wave of bans on certain books from schools in the United States.
“One of the very first acts of the Nazis when they came to power was to ban books,” said Dr. Barry Trachtenberg, chair of the Rubin Chair of Jewish History at Wake Forest University.
Trachtenberg thinks the impact of the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel has changed since “Maus” Volume I, “My Father Bleeds History,” was released in 1986.
“When it first came out, there was actually quite a bit of controversy and outrage about the work because people were like, ‘how can you write Holocaust comics,'” detailed Trachtenberg. “As people started to read it and understand what Spiegelman was trying to deal with in the work, they realized it was a valuable tool for people to understand that trauma.”
“Maus,” which covers several important topics — the Holocaust, death, hate, the experiences of immigrants in America, and the relationship between parents and their children to name a few — details parents’ experiences of Spiegelman who grew up in Poland, fell in love and ultimately experienced the trauma of the Holocaust.
“Jews are portrayed as mice. Germans are depicted as cats. Poles are depicted as pigs and Americans as dogs,” Trachtenberg added.
According to minutes of a McMinn County School Board meeting, the novel was banned due to “inappropriate language” and an illustration of a nude woman.
“And there are a few cases where prisoners – after being brought to a concentration camp – have been stripped naked, and so there are naked bodies that are on display. But it should be added that these are mice that are displayed. These are not pornographic scenes. These are not sexually explicit scenes,” Trachtenberg said. “We can’t sanitize it and continue to teach about the Holocaust, and the truth is, I think that’s the point.”
Trachtenberg is among a group of scholars who believe the school board’s actions were driven by an agenda beyond swearing and drawing a naked mouse.
“I think the goal of the school board and its advocates is that they don’t want the real story of the Holocaust taught anymore, and that’s partly, I think, because of all the different ways in which the Holocaust is used in our current society,” he theorized.
At Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, late winter tends to be a bit of a slow season. Still, “Maus” sold out quickly, and the store has just been restocked.
“This book has been read for all these decades and with great respect and admiration,” said Scuppernong co-owner Brian Lampkin.
Near the front of the store, to the right of the cash register, there are several books stacked next to each other, each with a buyer assigned to them, waiting to be picked up. The copies of “Maus” included a large part of this group.
“The book is very popular. You know before censorship,” added Lampkin.
The ban prompted businesses across the country to donate the book. Educators are also looking for ways to bring the lessons “Maus” contains to students in McMinn County.
Dr. Scott Denham, Dana Professor of German Studies and Chair of World Literary Theory at Davidson College, offers a course on “Maus” specifically for such students.
“The book fits well into the TN curriculum and was the centerpiece of the unit the teachers had planned,” Denham said. “Removing the book effectively removes Holocaust education for these students this year.”
Denham expressed hope that other experts and experienced teachers will follow, offering free lessons on other books that school boards are trying to ban.
“Kids can handle tough materials,” he added. “Teachers can teach difficult subjects. Let them be. If an ideological school board interferes in this student-teacher learning community, perhaps others can offer temporary help.
Denham breaks the bans into a power grab driven by a political agenda.
“The kind of right-wing book bans we see here is nothing new,” he said. “It never works either.”
“These bans go back a long way. You know, Anne Frank’s diary was banned at different times for being too sexually explicit,” Trachtenberg detailed.
“The danger is that if you bend to the will of a certain group of parents, when do you stop,” Lampkin questioned.
To ban objectors, it looks like the beginnings of a more sinister goal.
“I think it’s just terribly dangerous, and the truth is, that’s how fascism starts. It doesn’t start from the top down where a leader comes in and makes sweeping changes in society. It happens in these insidious little ways,” Trachtenberg said.
“In the extreme, that leads to an authoritarian culture, doesn’t it? This leads to book burning, which happens again. It seems extraordinary that we can talk about it, ”added Lampkin.
As both men also point out, the most revolutionary literature tends to be the most heavily censored.
“It’s often about political authoritarianism like 1984 or Animal Farm. These are books that deal directly with censorship,” Lampkin said.
Every year, usually in September, a national event called Banned Books Week takes place, where groups often gather to read passages from books that have been banned. Scuppernong Books is a regular participant. This year, the event is scheduled for the week of September 18.
“We’ve seen that before,” Trachtenberg said. “We just have to push this back.”
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