Hauling away the pedestal

It’s an unsteadying moment, realizing one of your favorite authors is pretty obviously racist.

For various reasons, I tend not to speak much of my personal religious faith when I write. I’ve mentioned my evangelical upbringing at times, generally in the context of discussing my eventual rejection of its beliefs, and I’ve made reference to a familial connection to Judaism (which I cherish) from time to time. But that’s as far as it goes, and as far as I’m inclined to take it.

However, I will cop to loving C.S. Lewis.

If you’re an evangelical kid, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” is pretty much required reading. Its plot features an allegory of the death and resurrection of Jesus so obvious that its liberal sprinkling of fantasy (a genre fundamentalist Christians often view with suspicion, what with the sorcery and all) is given a pass. I was in elementary school when I first read it, and am pretty sure I saw the cartoon version when I was in second grade.

I adored it. Fauns! Magic wands! Turkish delight (which, when I finally tasted it in real life, reignited a flicker of childlike wonder)! Plus God wins!

But I didn’t stop at “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” I read the entire “Chronicles of Narnia” series, and learned lessons I suspect would have given my evangelical Sunday school teachers pause. Lewis’s theology is more expansive than that of my upbringing, and there are hints of universalism in his writing. Given that I have non-Christian relatives (see above), I found this alternative to the “they’re all going to hell, sad to say” point of view very appealing.

I loved those books. I love them still. And yet…

There are none-too-subtle traces of anti-Arab sentiment in a couple of them. The fictional Calormenes, despite the Scheherazade-like splendor with which they are described, are depicted with orientalist disdain. At one point toward the conclusion of the series they are taunted with the slur “darkies,” and it is not clear if the author is entirely unsympathetic to the speaker.

Troubling as those parts are, however, the book that stopped me short when I reconsidered it not too long ago is “The Pilgrim’s Regress.”

“Regress” is Lewis’s first novel. It’s also an allegory (one that, I believe, he eventually came to consider too heavy-handed), in this case about a young man’s rejection of, and eventual return to, the faith of his childhood. I read it as a conflicted (gay) teenager, and again as a young man myself. There was much I could relate to in the way it described the protagonist’s struggle, and it was in its pages that I first saw reference to such great minds as Spinoza and Rabelais.

There is, however, the problem of Lust. In “Regress,” the figure of Lust is represented by a young woman (“girl” in the book), or actually several young women. (Lewis also clearly has trouble with female sexuality, as his eventual treatment of Susan in the Narnia books makes pretty plain.) The young women are brown. The degree to which they represent lustful temptation corresponds with how brown they are.

Even the most charitable reading, giving Lewis as much benefit of the doubt as possible, makes this at best incredibly, stupidly racially insensitive. For those who read it and see a more overtly racist message, I can’t think of a good reason to argue. (In noodling about the internet, I came across this explanation of the choice of brown for the girls’ skin. I think it is… a very generous reading.)

While not my favorite of Lewis’s books, “The Pilgrim’s Regress” is one that meant a lot to me when I read it. And so the moment when I realized “dear God, that’s really racist” about the “brown girls” was genuinely unsettling. This was, after all, a novel from which I’d drawn many moral lessons, some of which I still hold to this day.

I am embarrassed to admit I had this realization (triggered for reasons I cannot even recall) far later into my adulthood than I’d consider comfortable. I’m genuinely abashed that I didn’t notice “brown = morally corrupted” the first or second time I read it. I have no particularly compelling defense. I was raised in a time and part of the country where racial sensitivity wasn’t given much mind at all. A pathetic excuse, to be sure, but sadly the best I have.

I realize that the question of holding works from different eras to the standards of our own is fraught. I’m perfectly capable in the abstract of sifting the wheat from the chaff of any given artist or writer’s oeuvre. But when the person in question is one whose writing has actually informed one’s moral view of the world, it harder to shake the evidence of his own failings in that regard.

The question of how to deal with writing I love with racially indefensible content has taken on added weight for me recently. Of my children, three are racially different from me. When the terms used are slurs or insinuations about people like them, it becomes even harder to explain why the work is still worth reading on balance, at least to them in the near future.

This issue has been on my mind as my children have gotten older. My oldest can happily sit and listen to whole chapters at a time, and so my husband and I have introduced him to E.B. White, as well as the first Narnia book. And among the favorites I’m planning to read to him is Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories,” one of my own beloved books my dad once read to me.

In one of the stories, a character refers to himself as a “n*gger.” [Author’s note: I have given a lot of thought to how I would reference that word. While I feel that honest discussions of it qua word are appropriate and can be had respectfully, and while I find “the n-word” avoidant, I opted for this method out of respect for its uniquely offensive nature.]

On a certain level, the story itself is less problematic than what I encounter with Lewis. The character is presented as a sensible, admirable man treated respectfully by the author. It’s easy enough to wave the word away as a deeply unfortunate sign of its era, while explaining why it should never, ever, ever be uttered in any context now. With my oldest, who is racially similar to my husband and me, it’s how I imagined I would handle it.

But the inadequacy of that explanation becomes unmistakable when I consider trying to explain to my children that the word was used, and all too commonly still is, to denigrate people like them. It’s harder to look past it.

I’ve seen editions of the book that edit out the slur, and replace it with the anodyne “just me.” That certainly seems like an easier choice for now. But at some point, unless I want to run the risk they’ll come across the original language and be surprised by it on their own, I need to pull my old childhood copy off the shelf and confront its presence with them.

If nothing else, these considerations and realizations serve to remind me of how limited a person’s understanding of the world can be, no matter how well-intentioned that person may be. I suspect I am far more oblivious to the true reach and pervasiveness of racism than I’d like to think, despite a desire to be otherwise. The best I can do, I suppose, is remain willing to question even those parts of myself and my past that I treasure. I may not like what I find on closer examination, but it’s my duty not just as a person, but as a parent.

Photo by sfjalar

Daniel Summers

Daniel Summers is a pediatrician in New England, formerly known hereabouts under the pseudonym Russell Saunders. He contributes to The Daily Beast, and his writing has appeared in Salon, Cato Unbound, iO9, and The New Republic. You can follow him on Twitter @WFKARS


  1. As a fan of Lewis, I, too, am occasionally bothered by his racist and sexist and his homophobic assumptions (he tended to be quite charitable to gays–albeit in a way that we’d probably find condescending today–in his published writings, but he shows baser feelings in his letters). I couldn’t make it through Regress–not because of the racist implications, but because I just found it boring (maybe it wasn’t the right time in my life for me to read it).

    I do dissent a little from your comment about his treatment of the character Susan. To me, his notion of what she’s tempted by betrays a certain sexist undertone on his part, but he needed to get across his message that some people choose to forget Narnia, and he needed to provide a real-life-seeming temptation that a young or not-so-young reader could grasp.

    Changing a bit, I have a similar problem with Hemingway’s Sun Also Rises, one of my favorite novels. The first two or three times I read it, for some reason either I didn’t notice or wasn’t too bothered by the antisemitism. Now I’m quite bothered by it. Of course, there’s a ready explanation that the antisemitism was only the characters’ and that the novel itself isn’t antisemitic, and that explanation sounds plausible. Still, it bothers me.

    Finally, have you found this site: http://readingwhilewhite.blogspot.com/ ?
    It explores racism and children’s literature. (Disclosure: one of my relatives is an author there, so I’m a little biased.)

  2. One of the things I’ve come to realize recently is that the racism of HP Lovecraft is really one of the things that makes his works appealing to me. Not, mind you, the blatant racism you find in works like “Medusa’s Coil”, but the sort of subtle, metaphorical racism of “Shadows Over Innsmouth”. His constant equating of non-anglo-saxon blood and culture with his weird alien fish god.

    And that’s why Lovecraft is so fascinating. Because I’m not scared of the things he’s scared of. I live in a world where the racial and cultural impurities he was horrified by are the reality of me, my friends, and my neighbors. Where the quantum uncertainty of his cosmos is harnessed in the device that lets me drunk-text my boyfriend. His imagined dark and terrible future is our world today, and I happen to think today is great. But the strength of his fearful imagination is such that his stories are compelling, not just in spite of, but because of how mistaken his fears are.

  3. I was never a Lewis fan growing up. My appreciation for him came later in life, long after I had come to more or less expect old artists to end up being products of their times. I did follow a similar path in regards to Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, though. I was very into both of them in junior high and high school, and it wasn’t until I studied them in college that I learned how much of their art was driven by anti-semitic ideals.

    When you learn that kind of stuff, it’s kind of hard to know what to do with that knowledge. My reaction then (and now) is someone nebulous. I still admire their genius, and I certainly able to separate the music from the man when listening to either. But it’s also true that I listened to each a whole lot less after learning more about what they were trying to communicate.

  4. Yeah Lewis, Kipling, Poe, the stable of authors who had lamentably outdated and immoral views but wrote rip roaring verse and prose. One simply has to deal and explain around it, one certainly does not try and discard the baby with the bath water.

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