Nat(han Irving) Hentoff Saul Maloff - Essay

Saul Maloff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[At the end of "The Day They Came to Arrest the Book"], George Mason High School and the community have just emerged from bloody struggle between the forces of darkness seeking to censor "Huckleberry Finn" and the forces of light. By a dramatic last-minute shift the latter have won a precarious victory, and Moore [the high school principal] is already plotting to unleash another assault when the balance on the school board is tipped.

The new members include a black "activist" for whom the great novel comes down to that single unspeakable six-letter epithet, a right-wing zealot and moralizer who wants God established and sin cast out and others of his persuasion gathered together in such organizations as Save Our Children From Atheist Secular Humanism (SOCASH). Against them stand an attractive, intelligent, principled librarian, the teacher passionately committed to democratic rights who assigned the book for reading alongside [Alexis de] Tocqueville, and other admirable people and good kids.

Nat Hentoff, himself well known for his devotion to the First Amendment, makes honorable efforts to give the most unsavory characters their due, such as it is. He is also fairly merciless in his portraiture. The black parent is obsessional, dogmatic, pompous; the mealy-mouthed white ultrist is wily, slithery, unctuous; Moore has further distinguished himself by excising from the school Bible some of the more awkward episodes (see II Samuel 13 and Judges 19).

Mr. Hentoff takes such scrupulous care that in places he almost makes it seem that there are indeed two rational positions on the novel from which we are all descended, and that is no small achievement, especially considering his own uncompromising partisanship. If the book is less a novel than a morality play, the arguments are lucidly and forcefully laid out—though we are never in doubt that Mr. Hentoff is steadfastly on the side of the seraphim.

Saul Maloff, in his review of "The Day They Came to Arrest the Book," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1983 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 6, 1983, p. 30.