Literary world in a frenzy over themes of sequel to Harper Lee classic _lowres

Associated Press/Universal file photo -- Harper's Lee novel 'To Kill A Mockingbird' was made in to a film starring Gregory Peck as attorney Atticus Finch, a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a black man accused of rape. Lee and her publisher announced this month that this summer they will release the 88-year-old author's second book, 'Go Set a Watchmen,' a kind of sequel to 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'

Every time some school district bans "To Kill a Mockingbird," newspapers will unite in mockery of the poor benighted souls who reject great literature on account of a certain racist term.

But no newspaper in the land would dare print that word, so our denunciations of censorship must be liberally sprinkled with asterisks. Readers must sometimes wonder whether we are maybe a little confused.

Biloxi, Mississippi, has just become the latest district to yank "Mockingbird" from the syllabus, yielding to pressure from parents who figure that a word too scabrous to appear in a newspaper does not belong in a book their kids are forced to read.

Those newspaper asterisks, of course, serve no purpose whatsoever, because the entire human race knows immediately what the word is. Furthermore, you hear it all the time. It seems to feature in just about every rap number, and black banter has embraced it with good humor.

Still, that word retains an ability to offend and only the dregs of white society would ever use it in conversation. Sometimes, however, depending on the time and place in which they are set, literary works must resort to it in dialogue if they are to ring authentic.

Such is certainly the case with "Mockingbird," in which the innocent black defendant Tom Robinson is convicted of murder in Jim Crow Alabama despite the best efforts of enlightened white lawyer Atticus Finch. It is true also of Huckleberry Finn, which chronicles antebellum adventures along the Mississippi.

No rational reader could accuse Harper Lee and Mark Twain of writing racist tracts, but that does not preserve them from mass disparagement, and those oeuvres have frequently been proscribed over the same epithet.

The last time was in Accomack Country, Virginia, where both got the heave-ho late last year to spare the sensibilities of the black kids who make up 37 percent the enrollment. The books were not only removed from lesson plans but banished from school libraries.

Biloxi is something of a piker by comparison; the school district there merely removed the book from the eighth-grade curriculum. Kids who want to read it still have access to it on campus.

This may not have been fully blown censorship, therefore, but it was enough to bring out some big guns in protest. Former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, “When school districts remove 'To Kill a Mockingbird' from reading lists, we know we have real problems.” U.S. Sen Ben Sasse, R-Neb., opined, “Our kids are tough enough to read a real book.”

Since Sasse is himself the author of a book that argues our mollycoddled kids are ill prepared to compete in the global economy, his reaction was hardly surprising.

But parents and students will evidently never quit taking offense at the written word. It happens so often that the American Library Association sponsors an annual Banned Books Week that features public readings. Even harmless children's books are not immune. Harry Potter has been a frequent target of religious parents who believe its more imaginative passages glorify witchcraft. Intellectual freedom will never be much valued in such circles.

Mockingbird did not fall into disfavor because the Biloxi school board failed to see that it espouses principles of justice and tolerance, as its vice president made clear. “There is some language in the book that makes people uncomfortable,” vice president Kenny Holloway said while acknowledging its educational potential. He just figured, “We can teach the same lesson with other books.”

Maybe so, but the inculcation of moral precepts is not the only, or even the principal, purpose of a novel. Literature is for pleasure mental stimulus too, and the American canon would be much reduced without "Mockingbird" or "Huckleberry Finn."

As far as complaining parents are concerned, however, their kids cannot enjoy a book that uses the offending word some 50 times. Given the state of race relations in this country, it is perhaps understandable that feelings get hurt in class. The objectors would probably want "To Kill a Mockingbird" gone even if the printer stuffed it with asterisks.

Email James Gill at Gill1407@bellsouth.net.