Volume 78 / Number 15, September 10 - 16, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since
1933

Talking Point

Palin’s book-censoring bent is blast from the past

By Jerry Tallmer

Here we go again, as Ronald Reagan might put it.

I used to, God help me, have to write editorials betimes for a daily newspaper in this city. And every so often — almost every few months — the need for the same old obligatory edit would come round when somebody (or bodies) out in the sticks somewhere was/were hot to ban this great book or that great book or all books altogether.

But the blue-nosed censor was not usually running for vice president of the United States of America.

Actually, though the story began to ooze out only last week, it goes back 12 years to when Sarah Palin, the snowbird firecracker, was just taking office for the first of her two terms as mayor of her hometown, Wasilla, Alaska, pop. (then) 6,000.

My first awareness of it was a passing reference in Gail Collins’s Op-Ed September 3 column in The New York Times to, among other “unexpected revelations” about Palin, Ms. Collins’s “own personal favorite, the threat to fire the town librarian who refused to censor books.”

About that time, cyberspace began to buzz after a Sept. 2 Time magazine article on Palin, far down in which a half-dozen (ill-written) lines quoted John Stein, her predecessor as mayor of Wasilla:

“Stein says that as mayor Palin continued to inject religious beliefs into her policy at times. ‘She asked the library how she could go about banning books,’ he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them. ‘The librarian was aghast.’

“That woman, Mary Ellen Baker,” Time mag continued, in inadvertent Clintonese, “couldn’t be reached for comment, but news reports from the time show that Palin had threatened to fire Baker for not giving ‘full support’ to the mayor.”

By the time the Republican National Convention was wrapping up last week, the Internet was awash with a harking-back reprise of the Mary Ellen Baker [a.k.a. Mary Ellen Emmons] story by the Anchorage, Alaska, Daily News, and lists upon lists of the great books Sarah Palin either (a) had sought to ban, or (b) would ban if somebody put a list in her hand.

Which gets us, as noted above, into déjà vu all over again. All the old titles that come up, over the decades, over and over again:

“Brave New World,” “Catch-22,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Canterbury Tales,” “The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau,” “Death of a Salesman,” “Leaves of Grass” (by that faggot!), Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, most of the works of William Shakespeare, “Lord of the Flies,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” … .

Hey, wait a minute! “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” D.H. Lawrence — the novel with which Barney Rosset and his Grove Press battled through the courts to break the U.S. government’s censorship chokehold once and for all (almost).

Barney, who’s 86 now and hasn’t lost one speck of his flinty fire, lives right here in the Cooper Square area. Call him up. Barney, have you heard? About this Sarah Palin’s itch to ban books?

“Yes. It started coming out some months ago. A very small story. I don’t even know if it named her.”

So what do you think?

“I think it’s terrifying. So reminiscent of Nazi Germany. Well, it worked in Germany for a while, and here it lasted until counteraction by people including ourselves.”

Barney’s Grove Press fought a lot of other fights, broke a lot of other barriers, and incidentally published most of the important path-breaking drama of the last half of last century. Early on, he had to choose between “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” as a test case.

“I did that deliberately. You have to pick your battlefield. ‘Lady Chatterley’ was more famous.” In time he would also win on “Tropic of Cancer.”

One has to remember that Sarah Palin, for all her propensity for guns and sarcasm, is a very self-styled religious lady. Evangelical, they call it.

In the good old days, when I was writing those editorials for Dorothy Schiff and Jimmy Wechsler, the anti-book-banning exhortation usually started with an everlasting line from John Milton’s “Areopagitica,” published in 1644:

“As good almost kill a man as kill a good book: …”

But I think today I will, in the present instance, allow John Milton to finish his sentence.

“…[W]ho kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye.”

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