“That Last Prelude” — Notes on Banned Books Week

MY FRIEND Nona asked me what I was reading for Banned Book Week. She’s a librarian and a researcher so for her it isn’t just idle interest; she’s passionate about it and what it means. I told her that I usually don’t plan for it; rather usually something just falls into my hands. I only recently finished In Cold Blood and that that had been on banned book lists for decades. But, she pressed. The idea this time around is to read one and pass it forward, I wanted to participate in this ring — a fight against censorship.

Once pressed, I have to say my pick was easy. For some reason, I was never assigned to read Kate Chopin‘s The Awakening in school — neither high school (don’t think it was banned from our school, just something that slipped through the cracks) nor college. And, even though I’m very interested in books about Louisiana, New Orleans and in particular the maze of Creole culture throughout, this one had made it to a place on my bookcase but hadn’t yet found itself on my “to read” pile.

I just dipped in yesterday and already, the way the story unfolds — a sort of dreamy, humid set-piece — the proceedings feel like a Seurat painting — or if set in motion, something that Merchant/Ivory would have filmed as a languid, lush retelling: The women in muslin, the overstuffed, horsehair pillows propped up in cane chairs facing the sea, the long-afternoons of work in the shade of the great-house galleries.

Published in 1889, Chopin’s slim novel wasn’t fully appreciated until more than a half a century later, when it was “re-dsiscovered” — coinciding with the emergence of American feminist movement in the 1970s. Already I can see what’s been set in motion, the portent prelude of what’s to come: the dissatisfied married protagonist Edna Pontellier being seduced by the sea, the full moon, and the thrill of Fredric Chopin’s (no relation) piano preludes played after dinner, impromptu. All of it in noisy concert with the frank, free-talking Creoles vacationing in Grand Isle, Louisiana, just off the coast of New Orelans.

Below from the Banned Books site a synopsis of a recent case of the book’s censoring:

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

Retained on the Northwestern Suburban High School District 214 reading list in Arlington Heights, IL along with eight other challenged titles in 2006. A board member, elected amid promises to bring her Christian beliefs into all board decision-making, raised the controversy based on excerpts from the books she’d found on the Internet. First published in 1899, this novel so disturbed critics and the public that it was banished for decades afterward.

Rachel Adams, a professor of 19th and 20th Century literature at Columbia University, writes in her introduction to the 2003 edition, that the claims of the book controversy were often exaggerated and over-reported, a scare tactic in their own right. Over the years, to build a defense, Chopin’s protagonist Edna has been faulted for many things — as a “self-indulgent sensualist…”she has been criticized as a character whose “awakening, only vaguely intellectual, is disturbingly physical.” A woman with agency, of course, proved to be one of the most controversial and contested figures of the time. But what’s even more disconcerting is that what Chopin was pressing at — a woman’s right to choose, to explore who she might be outside of the confines of expectation, outside what is known to her — is still something that is just important and gravely at stake in 2012 as it was in 1899.

You can click here for the list


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