Banned Books Awareness: “As I Lay Dying” by William Faulkner

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\"\"As I Lay Dying, by American author William Faulkner, was published in 1930.  The title derives from Book XI of Homer\’s The Odyssey, when Agamemnon says to Odysseus: \”As I lay dying, the woman with the dog\’s eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades.\”

As I Lay Dying is Faulkner\’s disturbing account of the Bundren family\’s journey to bury Addie, their wife and mother in Jefferson, Mississippi, as she requested.  The story is told, in turn, by each of the family members- including Addie herself; the often soulful narratives in the novel shift at times from dark comedy to deepest tragedy.

Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949 for his novels prior to that date, among them As I Lay Dying.

Since then, this classic American tale has gone on to directly influence a number of other critically-celebrated works, including Graham Swift\’s Last Orders and Suzan-Lori Parks\’ Getting Mother\’s Body: a Novel.  The Grammy-nominated music group, As I Lay Dying, is also named after this influential novel.

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked As I Lay Dying 35th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.

So why would such an important and inspirational novel be the subject of banning attempts?  Reasons include \”God\’s name being used in vain\”, abortion, profanity, promoting secular humanism, and obscenity.

In August of 1986 at Graves County High School in Kentucky, a 16-year old student returned home and related to his mother that he was being asked to read a book about reincarnation.  The mother read the assigned book, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and concluded that it was “secular humanism”.  She contacted the school and initially was content with their offer to have her son read Moby Dick instead; but then decided autonomously that the entire student body “required protection from Faulkner’s dangerous novel”.

At the school board’s monthly meeting the following month, board member Johnny Shelton demanded to know why the book was being taught in the school.  Initially the principal, Jerald Ellington, refused to cave to the insistence that he read aloud several highlighted passages from the work.

He relented and began reading the random highlights.  He began with “If there is a God, what the hell is he for?”  Continuing to read aloud, passages included references to God, abortion, curse words, and phrases such as “bastard”, “goddamn”, and “son of a bitch”.

The principal proclaimed that he found nothing wrong with Faulkner’s words and told the school board that while some of his teachers didn’t necessarily condone those words, the singling out of the passages must be read in the context of the character’s personality as it related to the overall story.

He explained that the school chooses its books following recommendations of the American Library Association; and the school’s review procedure which allowed all sides to express their opinions.  No matter what the outcome of such reviews, parents still had the right to request their child be assigned a different book.  He warned that none of these procedures were followed and that both the incident and the rising tensions of the meeting were encroaching on First Amendment rights.

The board grew angry, ignored the principal’s warnings, and demanded the book be removed by the next day.  They voted unanimously right then and there to permanently remove the book from curriculum and all 30-some physical copies from the school.

The entire discussion, and subsequent decision to ban Faulkner’s novel, lasted a total of five minutes.  According to the school board attorney, none of the board members had ever read the book, but that a few said they had “thumbed through it”.

The school’s English Department was devastated and took the decision very personally, feeling abandoned by the school board.  The department consisted mostly of Sunday school teachers and even one minister.

As I Lay Dying” has been banned from several other school districts for its language and themes; some of the bans were quickly reversed.

*To read the previous discussion thread visit my original posting of this article on Facebook*

Sources: American Library Association, goodreads.com, Wikipedia, “Banned in the U.S.A.”

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