We’ve all had that experience of speaking to someone we admire only to be completely blindsided by an offensive remark. Your first thought inevitably is “Did you really just say that?”, followed closely by “Why did you have to say that? I really liked you.”
This gets even trickier when the people espousing derogatory remarks are your favorite writers. After all, there’s no rule that says the writers you like are necessarily good people. Still, finding out your most beloved author is, say, deeply sexist can manifest in how you read their fiction. So read on with caution because these awful quotes might just ruin these 15 authors for you.
1. Charles Bukowski
You know him as … the prolific writer of thousands of poems, hundreds of short stories and six novels.
But did you know he was also … pretty shitty when it came to women? Some argue that he wasn’t sexist but did have sexist tendencies, which is the kind of thing that sounds nice until you parse it for two seconds and realize that it means literally nothing.
Bukowski is certainly fascinated by women — they’re the ballast of the majority of his writing — but you get the sense that he’d rather sleep with one than sit with one. In a 1971 letter, he wrote:
... don’t wait for a good woman. she doesn’t exist. there are women who can make you feel more with their bodies and their souls but these are the exact women who will turn the knife into you right in front of the crowd. of course, I expect this, but the knife still cuts. the female loves to play man against man. and if she is in a position to do it there is not one who will not resist. the male, for all his bravado and exploration, is the loyal one, the one who generally feels love. the female is skilled at betrayal. and torture and damnation.
Granted, he was probably drunk while writing this, but come on, man.
2. Ezra Pound
You know him as … an American poet who contributed to the Imagism movement in the early 20th century.
But did you know he was also … anti-semitic? Pound believed that Jewish money-lending caused World War I and II. He went on Italian radio to claim “You let in the Jew and the Jew rotted your empire, and you yourselves out-jewed the Jew,” and “The big Jew has rotted EVERY nation he has wormed into.”
Pound was later imprisoned for treason, only to be found insane and confined to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in New Jersey, where he wrote letters arguing for his tolerance, writing, “I am ‘of course’ not anti-Semitic.” There is “of course” something about air quotes that makes it read like a reluctant apology.
3. Kingsley Amis
You know him as … late 20th century comedic novelist.
But did you know he was also … a bigot? Amis wrote letters soaked in homosexual and anti-semitic slurs. He referred to homosexuals as “queers,” “poofters” and “queens,” and called Jewish publishers “filthy lying profiteering bugger-the-author Yids.” Keep it classy, Kingsley.
In 1962, the novelist wrote that anti-semitism in all forms must be combated, but three decades later he also wrote, “It’s rather like being a Jew, no matter what you do or don’t do, you can’t help being one.” Guess he had a change of heart?
4. Edith Wharton
You know her as … a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and three-time Nobel Prize in Literature nominee.
But did you know she was also … anti-semitic and sexist? According to her biographer Hermione Lee, Wharton spoke on her deathbed about how she “hated the Jews” due to their role in the crucifixion. Earlier in life, she also turned down a charity solicitation for scholarships for women, saying, “I’m not much interested in travelling scholarships for women — or in fact in scholarships, tout court! – they’d much better stay at home and mind the baby. Still less am I interested in scholarships for female Yids ….” You could’ve just said you’re strapped for cash, Edith.
5. Louis-Ferdinand Celine
You know him as … a French novelist and writer of Journey to the End of the Night.
But did you know he was also … basically a Nazi? After gaining fame for his novels, Celine turned his attention to writing pamphlets. What kind of pamphlets, you ask? Why, ones with terribly fascist themes, of course! The complete collection of pamphlets have yet to be translated, but ranting excerpts have been translated from French to English. Essayist and translator Wyatt Mason looked at a particularly troubling excerpt from Ferdinand’s Mort à crédit (English translation: “Death of the Installment Plan”). In Mason’s translation:
All the same, you need only consider, a little more closely, the pretty puss of the average kike, male or female, to remember it forever….Those spying eyes, lyingly pale…that uptight smile…those livestocky lips that recall: a hyena…. And then out of nowhere there’s that look that drifts, heavy, leaden, stunned…the nigger’s blood that flows…. Those twitchy naso-labial commisures…twisted, furrowed, downward curving, defensive, hollowed by hate and disgust…for you!
6. T. S. Eliot
You know him as … publisher, playwright, essayist and winner of the 1948 Nobel Prize in Literature.
But did you know he was also … anti-semitic? In a 1933 lecture, Eliot said, “What is still more important [than cultural homogeneity] is unity of religious background, and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.”
In his book T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form, Anthony Julius also argues that the anti-semitism in Eliot’s poems is “unmistakable,” saying, “It reaches out like a clear signal to readers.” He points to the poem “Burbank with a Baedeker,” which reads, “The rats are underneath the piles. / The jew is underneath the lot. / Money in furs. ...”
7. Roald Dahl
You know him as … the wonderful and whimsical children’s literature author. James and the Giant Peach! Charlie and the Chocolate Factory! Matilda! What’s not to love?
But did you know he was also … racist against Africans? When Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was first published, the Oompa-Loompas were a tribe of 3,000 children from “the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle where no white man had been before.” Dahl goes on to explain that “Wonka keeps them in the factory, where they have replaced the sacked white workers. Wonka’s little slaves are delighted with their new circumstances.” Oh yes, people love working long hours in factories and being called Oompa-Loompas!
8. H. P. Lovecraft
You know him as … the writer of highbrow horror fiction.
But did you know he was also … racist? In his essay “The Genetics of Horror: Sex and Racism in H. P. Lovecraft's Fiction,” writer Bruce Lord argues that, “Early apologists viewed Lovecraft's racism as an unimportant element that occasionally surfaced in the background of his literature; today it is viewed as a key element in understanding Lovecraft's fiction and the nature of the world he created with it.” Lord points to the Lovecraft stories “The Street” and “The Horror at Red Hook,” arguing that both display “Lovecraft’s simplistic racism.”
Many also cite what is arguably Lovecraft’s most famous (and best) short story, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” as evidence for his racism. The story details a man’s repulsion with the residents of Innsmouth, who have bred with the “wrong kind of people.” Now, some will argue that naming this plotline as racist is a stretch, but it’s worth looking into Lovecraft’s personal life: Lovecraft spent the worst years of his life living in New York during the 1920s, and much of his disdain for the city can be credited to the high population of immigrants. His short story “The Horror at Red Hook” is a fantastical take on living in the heterogeneous Red Hook. In a letter to Frank Long, Lovecraft articulates his negative attitude toward Red Hook, describing the residents as:
monstrous and nubulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoids and moebal; vaguely molded from some stinking viscous slime of earth's corruption, and slithering and oozing in and on the filthy streets or in and out of windows and doorways in a fashion suggestive of nothing but infesting worms or deep-sea unnamabilites.
9. Ernest Hemingway
You know him as … one of the most influential novelists of the 20th century.
But did you know he was also … a misogynist? Hemingway, in both his personal life and in his writing, seems to associate women with frivolous gossip and neuroticism. Many of the women in his fiction are made up of sexist stereotypes that characters confirm with their inner monologue. The protagonist of his short story “Soldier's Home,” for example, discusses how he prefers girls from France and Germany because “There was not all this talking.”
In a 1943 letter to his editor Maxwell Perkins, Hemingway spoke candidly about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s relationship with Zelda Fitzgerald. He wrote:
A woman ruined Scott. … But why couldn’t he have told her to go to hell? Because she was sick. It’s being sick makes them act so bloody awful usually and it’s because they’re sick you can’t treat them as you should. The first great gift for a man is to be healthy and the second, maybe greater, is to fall [in] with healthy women. You can always trade one healthy woman in on another. But start with a sick woman and see where you get. … Anyway let’s leave the subject. If you leave a woman, though, you probably ought to shoot her. It would save enough trouble in the end, even if they hanged you.
10. Flannery O’Connor
You know her as … a Southern Gothic writer who was awarded the 1972 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction.
But did you know she was also … racist? Brad Gooch’s Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor argues that being racist was one of O’Connor’s defining traits. Summarizing Gooch’s work, Maud Newtown writes that O’Connor:
... actively goaded a friend, deeply committed to the civil rights movement, with racist jokes. Not only did O'Connor tell the jokes, she apparently relished them, saving them up and spinning them out in a series of letters that have never been published.
11. Norman Mailer
You know him as … a prolific writer, the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award.
But did you know he was also … sexist and homophobic? Mailer was an opponent of contraception and abortion, saying “I hate contraception … it’s an abomination,” which is a pretty terrible thing for someone who once argued “a little bit of rape is good for a man’s soul” to say. Mailer’s hate for women ran deep; he stabbed his second wife twice in the neck and was accused of domestic violence by his fourth wife. He claimed homosexuals contributed to the “womanisation of America” and blamed being gay on a loss of the “notion of one’s self as a man” — because, you know, real men stab their wives.
12. Dr. Seuss
You know him as … the author of your favorite children’s books.
But did you know he was also … racist? If you thought Mike Myers dressed as the Cat in the Hat was the worst thing Theodor Seuss Geisel is responsible for, think again: His early work was pretty racist, especially towards Japanese people. Seuss defended himself, saying: "... when the Japs are planting their hatchets in our skulls, it seems like a hell of a time for us to smile and warble: ‘Brothers!’ It is a rather flabby battle cry. If we want to win, we’ve got to kill Japs ...."
But don’t return the copy of Oh, The Places You’ll Go! that your parents got you for graduation just yet. Seuss eventually renounced his racist remarks, and much of his later work is an allegory for tolerance.
13. Rudyard Kipling
You know him as … the author of The Jungle Book — which already seems kind of racist.
But did you know he was … in fact racist! Kipling wrote a poem entitled “The White Man’s Burden,” which is pretty much as terrible as you’d expect it to be. The poem is a call to white men to colonize and rule other nations because that always works out so well for all involved.
14. Walt Whitman
You know him as … the quintessential humanist poet.
But did you know he was also … racist against African Americans? Whitman called African American “baboons” and was against them voting. Whitman’s racism became more relevant this past spring when Timothy Mcnair, a Northwestern University graduate student, refused to perform the work of the poet due to Whitman’s offensive remarks.
15. Jack London
You know him as … naturalist and realism novelist, writer of The Call of the Wild.
But did you know he was also … racist? London’s mother refused to live near black people, so it looks like Jack got it honest. The biography Wolf: The Lives of Jack London points to how he compared black people to monkeys and argued that white people should kill other races. He was also a raging alcoholic and many believe that his death was actually a suicide, so it looks like London hated himself as well.
So, does this mean you have to stop loving The Sun Also Rises or "A Good Man is Hard to Find?" Or that you can never read Matilda or Green Eggs and Ham to your children?
These simple questions point to a much more complex one: Is it possible to love a piece of literature while knowing that the artist who created it is perhaps not a good person? Can the worth of the work be separated from the life of the person who created it? Or is there simply no place in the cannon for bigots, sexists and racists? It’s worth noting that the ideologies of many of these authors were a product of their time, and it’s impossible to say whether or not Jack London or Walt Whitman would have made the same offensive remarks in 2014 — but does that make it excusable?
Let us know what you think in the comments below.