The Modern Version of Book Burning - Intercollegiate Studies Institute: Think. Live Free.

The Modern Version of Book Burning

In 1933, the Nazis incinerated thousands of books in a mass conflagration that represented the old going up in flames and the fashioning of the new “from the flame in our hearts,” as the propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels instructed the gathered crowd.

Rather than make a spectacle of their own “book burning,” American institutions in the 1940s and ’50s cleared out library shelves of subversive content, censored books from public schools, and now, decades later, convince people of the uselessness of reading. What began as anti-fascism became a new form of fascism, though covert and smartly dressed. As Huey Long predicted: “Of course we’ll have fascism in this country, and we’ll call it anti-fascism.” The objectionable books currently on the metaphorical pyre are classics, Shakespeare’s plays, Sophocles’s dramas, modern poetry, or any other work taught in humanities and liberal arts courses. We must immolate the old to make way for the new.

The twentieth-century poet W. H. Auden feared that America would go the way of the fascists, and, in his poems and speeches, he repeatedly satirizes our wayward inclinations. When Auden moved to America in 1939, on the eve of World War II, he published “The Unknown Citizen” in the New Yorker, a poem that describes the uneventful, dutiful life of an anonymous American. In every way, the poem sounds as though it mocks the totalitarian regimes of Europe and the Soviet-occupied countries; yet, Auden points his finger in our direction. The references to the “Union” of “Fudge Motors, Inc.” (aka Ford Motors), the car and frigidaire, the “Installment Plan” (precursor to credit cards), and, unfortunately, the “Eugenicist” (probably referring to Dr. Clarence Gamble of Harvard Medical School), all indicate that the parody is aimed at America. Not to mention, the title is drawn from the grave of the “Unknown Soldier,” the American memorial to those unidentified fallen soldiers from World War I.

The poem concludes with this couplet:

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

As these last sentences attest, what is missing from this faithful citizen’s identity are freedom, happiness, and, most significantly, a voice. The reader wonders whether the unknown citizen would have known he was enslaved and unhappy, or whether he would have been silenced had he protested.

Falling In Line

On January 15, 1934, Auden delivered a talk at Harvard entitled “Vocation and Society,” in which he argued that, in a fascist system, being a productive citizen is one’s highest calling. You do the job that is asked of you, as does his “unknown citizen” who “satisfied his employers.” You respond appropriately to advertising by applying for lines of credit and consuming “everything necessary to the Modern Man.” And, above all, the poet notes, “Never interfere with [your children’s] education.” The creation of a modern totalitarian state depends on citizens falling in line, which means educating them from a very young age to love the things that the state supplies—material accumulation.

Just as the Nazis and the Soviets began brainwashing their children to play a part in the unfolding of their respective totalitarian utopias, so this unnamed—but seemingly American—society lauds the citizen who does not interfere with the programming of the young. From grammar school on, children must be formed as workers, laborers, who want mostly to make money and spend money. Auden claims that fascism necessitates an objective vocation imposed by the State, so that subjective vocational guidance becomes a revolutionary move. Reflecting on Auden’s contention, Alan Jacobs writes, “In other words, a humanistic education that encourages students to think vocationally is in itself a refutation of Fascism—perhaps one of the more lastingly powerful refutations imaginable.” Humanistic education as powerful protest.

In the audience when Auden delivered this talk was the president of Harvard, James Bryan Conant, a former chemistry professor who advised President Truman to release the atomic bombs at the close of the World War II. Jacobs mentions that Conant “de-emphasized the humanities, believing them to have little to contribute to the postwar pax Americana.” It takes little imagination to see the connection Jacobs implies between Conant’s complicity in the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and his denunciation of the liberal arts. No surprise that Auden called Conant “the real enemy.”

The “Resistance” Curriculum

When Auden taught college at the University of Michigan (1941–42), he instituted a syllabus for a course entitled “Fate and the Individual in European Literature” that has become famous for its extensive booklist: 6,000 pages, including Dante’s Divine Comedy, Augustine’s Confessions, Melville’s Moby Dick, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and four operas among other works. Auden taught these classics because he believed that education in the humanities was the surest way to confront fascism, to fight against the thought police of totalitarian regimes, and to safeguard against any society that tries to make a person into merely a consumer. Thankfully, the University of Oklahoma has repopularized Auden’s reading list for students in what is advertised as the hardest course you’ll ever take.

However, a majority of colleges and universities across the American landscape are going the way of Conant, decreasing their liberal arts options to make room for state-approved vocations. For example, in 2019 the University of Tulsa, premiere liberal arts institution, adopted a radical cut to remove 40 percent of its humanities programs. A philosophy professor at Tulsa, Jacob Howland, explains: “Many institutions below the top tier are scrambling to respond to the collapse of the higher-education bubble by jettisoning the liberal arts and pumping up the practical ones: health care, computer science, business, and other technical fields that promise to yield jobs immediately after graduation.”

As Auden predicted, when a person “occupies a college,/ Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge.” Americans are liable to focus on practical jobs that produce economically industrious citizens, rather than on those who know and love truth. By doing so, we may be propagating fascism unawares.

Good Interruptions

At the end of April, I finished teaching a yearlong course that began with Sophocles’s Oedipus trilogy and ended with a contemporary work (as did Auden’s course). For the final, students had a timed three-minute presentation to pass on wisdom. One of my business majors started her talk this way: “I want to be aware. I want to think about what I consume and absorb from outside of myself instead of mindlessly accepting all that the world tells me.” The student then admitted that she attended a Mowgli’s concert where the band professed a belief in loving others, but then sang a song with the lyrics “I’m good, I’m good. . . . Living life just like I should.” Instead of rocking out, my student paused and admitted, “I felt like I was hearing a rock version of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself.” The poetry we had discussed in class had interrupted her life. She could no longer enjoy the music she previously listened to without thinking about how the songs were shaping her desires.

In the twenty-first century, we no longer need to burn books, because most of the culture—especially our educational institutions—has convinced us to reject the reading of undesirable texts. But if we are to be free and happy, we must remain aware. We need to read books that are not bestsellers. Whether the books are ancient or new, we need to read books that challenge contemporary mores, that grapple with enduring questions, and that do not ignore our deep restlessness. More than ever before, we need to interfere with education, especially when parents encourage their children to major in disciplines that promote a false sense of job security, or when teachers advise students to get certifications and spend more time building résumés than engaging literature, philosophy, and the arts.

Auden worried that American culture was pervaded by what he termed the “middlebrow,” a group that “does not wish to become wise, only to be wise, to graduate cum laude.” What does it profit such a person to gain titles and recognition while standing on the ash heap of civilization?

It is my great hope that, over and above wealth, we will learn to prize wisdom.


Jessica Hooten Wilson is an associate professor of literature and creative writing at John Brown University, where she also serves as the Associate Director for the Honors Scholars Program and the Director of Giving Voice: A Festival of Writing and the Arts. She is the author of three books: Giving the Devil His Due: Demonic Authority in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor and Fyodor Dostoevsky (Wipf & Stock, 2017), Walker Percy, Dostoevsky, and the Search for Influence (Ohio State University Press, 2017), and Reading Walker Percy’s Novels (Louisiana State University Press, 2018). Visit her website at jessicahootenwilson.com.

Image by Elijah O’Donnell via Unsplash.

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