This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, January 8, 1997

January 8, 1997 - Grendel

A couple weeks back I picked up the December 28, 1996, Denver Post and read about the vicious beating of a woman in Grand Junction, the murder of a 6 year old girl in Boulder, and the state-sponsored slaughter of half a million people in Rwanda.

In the same issue I read that “Dougco wants driven students” -- an announcement about the Douglas County School District’s new International Baccalaureate program.

Saturday, December 28, 1996 wasn’t an especially unusual day for news. Pick up any newspaper, any day of the week, and you’ll find (among other things) ample evidence of human cruelty. It’s news -- but there’s nothing new about it.

So I find something ironic in the recent local concern about John Gardner’s “Grendel,” a retelling, from the monster’s point of view, of what may be the oldest example of English literature: “Beowulf.” The concern, as I understand it, is that some parents object to the violence in the story. Further, they have requested a labeling system for potentially disturbing literature in high school classes.

At the time it was written, “Beowulf” was a heroic tale told in installments, something like today’s movie trilogy “Star Wars.” And like all heroic tales, “Beowulf” dealt with basic human themes: sudden violence and gruesome death, to be sure, but also courage, strength, and loyalty.

The story has endured some 1200 years now, endurance being the only real test of a classic. But “Beowulf” isn’t easy going for modern audiences. That’s one of the reasons Gardner -- once a professor of medieval literature at the University of Southern Illinois -- wrote “Grendel.” It provides a doorway to a classic.

In the process, “Grendel” has become something of a classic itself. Most books fade pretty quickly, sometimes from one week to the next. But Gardner’s book, published in 1971, has been around, still generating thoughtful discussion, for 26 years.

Like titles from Dostoyevski’s “Crime and Punishment” to Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” “Grendel” looks at the psychology of evil from the inside.

But what distinguishes “Grendel” isn’t just the fact that it features -- like the daily newspaper -- acts of violence. Gardner (author of another book called “On Moral Fiction”) seeks to place that violence in a larger context, to explore the meaning of evil.

I respect parents concerned enough about what their children read and their schools teach to want to go public with their complaints. And there are certainly books that offend ME.

But we must remember that what some readers find “offensive” makes a poor standard for either the exclusion or the labeling of literature. “Romeo and Juliet,” to some, promotes parental disrespect, glorifies gangs, and advocates teen sexual relations. But is that Shakespeare’s real message? Almost every year, people try to get “Huckleberry Finn” removed from public schools because they find the word “nigger” demeaning to African-Americans. Is that the important point about Twain’s book?

As library director, I have received parental complaints about several Grimm Brothers fairy tales, from parents who find these stories TOO grim to be permitted on library shelves. There are parents who want gentler wolves, who want portrayals of life that are unremittingly sunny. For the sake of the children, they want dreams without nightmares. As a father myself, I understand. But that’s not literature. That’s Sesame Street. There’s a difference.

I would argue that the great value of a high school English class is precisely the fact that it exposes young people to the full range of adult literature, which by necessity includes much that is harsh and difficult, and gives them the opportunity to make sense of it. Grown-ups do have nightmares.

We don’t apply Hollywood-style ratings to newspapers. We shouldn’t apply them to classics, either. (Hollywood, remember, gave us the version of Scarlet Letter with a happy ending. Hawthorne’s book is a classic. The movie is not.)

Labeling the classics -- predicated on the incidence of sex and/or violence -- ultimately focuses on irrelevancies. It obscures the real value or message of a particular book, burying it in the prejudice and timidity of the hour.

If indeed the Douglas County School Board wants students who are “driven” to excel academically, let us hope it will encourage a broader exposure to the universe of classic literature, not a narrower, more politically correct one.

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