In this edition, This Week in History is going literary and celebrating the anniversary of several crucial moments in the history of world literature.
Since this week is also Veterans Day, I’d like to take a moment to thank the veterans who we usually honor here at This Week in History. Since we covered the history of Veterans Day last year, we’re keeping things fresh with a new roster of events, but feel free to revisit last year’s special edition. For now, let’s dive in!
On Nov. 14, 1851, 170 years ago, the American classic, “Moby-Dick,” was published in the United States.
Before the phrase, “Call me Ishmael” ever entered the American jargon, Herman Melville was a young sailor in the merchant marines of the U.S. Navy. Melville served in the South Seas, exploring several Polynesian islands and coming home with stories of thrilling adventures on the high seas. He decided to put pen to paper and tell his stories to the world. Unfortunately, few people wanted to listen.
“Moby-Dick,” the tragic epic of Captain Ahab’s quest for revenge against the giant whale who bit off his leg, was considered a flop at the time of its publication. Melville first published his story in London in October of the same year, then in New York a month later. Audiences were not impressed and Melville had to quit writing to find a job that would pay the bills.
Fortunately for Melville, future generations rediscovered his work through a different lens, though not before his death. Whether you read it, pretended to read it in high school or just made fun of its title, “Moby-Dick” is a staple of American literature that remains a staple of public school reading lists nationwide.
On Nov. 11, 1852, 169 years ago, “Little Women” author, Louisa May Alcott published her first book.
Before Americans could ever fall in love with Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy March, the young Alcott was a struggling writer who worked to support her family. Like the March family, the Alcotts were a once-great family of Concord, Massachusetts who rubbed elbows with great thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Such influences made Alcott quite the progressive, particularly in women’s rights, as she faced several difficulties entering the literary world as a female writer.
Alcott’s publisher requested that she write a “book for girls” and though she detested the assignment, she eventually agreed and wrote her most famous work. Unlike “Moby-Dick,” “Little Women” was an immediate success, inspiring several sequels and several on-screen adaptations, including the critically acclaimed 2019 feature film, showing just how timeless the classic remains.
On Nov. 8, 1900, 121 years ago, “Gone with the Wind” author, Margaret Mitchell was born in Atlanta, Georgia.
While “Little Women” looked at the Civil War from the North, “Gone With the Wind” looked at it from the South, or so one would think. Interestingly enough, while Alcott lived during the Civil War, and served as a nurse for the Union Army, Mitchell was born more than 30 years after the war ended.
Mitchell was raised in a generation of Southerners who sought to “rebrand” the Civil War as a fight well fought. Obviously, nobody likes to lose, so wealthy Southerners founded organizations that championed the “Lost Cause” myth: that the war was a fight for Southern rights and liberties, not slavery. The statues built to honor the Confederacy that we discuss today were built in this era despite the war ending more than a half-century prior. Mitchell’s saga of the shallow Southern belle, Scarlett O’Hara, is considered another example of the Old South being told through rose-colored glasses.
While the actual book was widely read, the subsequent film adaptation starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable is the main reason “Gone With the Wind” remains a part of modern popular culture. As one of the first major motion pictures ever made, it is understandably a classic of American cinema, however, its stereotypical depictions of enslaved Black characters and the whitewashing of the horrors of slavery are widely criticized. Nonetheless, “Gone With the Wind” is listed as No. 4 on the American Film Institute’s “The 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time.”
On Nov. 10, 1928, 93 years ago, World War I novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” was published in Germany.
WWI, though sometimes overlooked, was one of the most gruesome wars fought on the world stage. The world had industrialized, yet did not realize the power of their new weaponry. Casualties escalated higher than ever imagined, with 40 million soldiers and civilians left dead or injured. Those who returned home would not soon forget the horrors they had witnessed on the frontlines.
Many of this generation took to writing, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and author of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Erich Maria Remarque. Though a decade passed since WWI, Remarque’s book struck a nerve with those who had lived through the conflict and forced many to question what the carnage was all for.
Interestingly enough, “All Quiet on the Western Front” was one of the first of many books to be banned and burned by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. Its pacifist ideals were seen as “degenerate” by the Nazis and Remarque’s German citizenship was revoked, sending him packing for the U.S.
On Nov. 13, 1953, 68 years ago, an Indiana Textbook Commission member declared “Robin Hood” to be communist.
Speaking of banning books, while the U.S. prides itself on its freedom of the press policy, it should be noted that several classics have faced backlash, particularly in the McCarthy era of the 1950s.
The Red Scare of the post-war era was a witch hunt for anything and everything communist — not even classic fairy tales were safe. Mrs. Thomas J. White of the Indiana Textbook Commission demanded the Indiana state government to ban all mentions of the famed caper who “stole from the rich to give to the poor.” While nothing came out of this incident, it certainly makes you look at Disney’s red fox Robin Hood in a whole new light.
On Nov. 10, 1973, 48 years ago, North Dakotans burned Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five.”
Again with the burning! Interestingly enough, our most recent event seems the most archaic. Despite occurring in what we’d consider a “more-evolved” era, this event marks the entire backlash movement towards the free expression of the 1960s. While new interpretations of the world were gaining headway in major U.S. cities, like Vonnegut’s satirical approach to the horrors he witnessed in WWII, rural areas pushed back through public actions like book bans and burnings.
That’s all for this week, folks! I will end by wishing a Happy Veterans Day to all, and to all a good week!