Nat Hentoff

The Day They Came to Arrest the Book

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The Day They Came to Arrest the Book Summary

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Written in 1982, The Day They Came to Arrest the Book is a young adult novel by Nat Hentoff. A writer, historian, civil libertarian, and First Amendment authority, Hentoff was a passionate advocate for free speech. The novel takes on the highly charged issue of book censorship when an African American student and his parents are offended by racist language in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is assigned reading for his history class. The resulting controversy divides the school and community into those who wish the book removed from the curriculum and the library, and those who defend the book citing independence of thought. Hentoff candidly presents both sides of the argument, but ultimately resolves in favor of the anti-censors and freedom of speech.

At the start of the school year at George Mason High School, the new librarian, Deirdre Fitzgerald, discovers that the former librarian, Mrs. Salters, resigned over conflicts with the principal. “Mighty Mike” Moore of the phony smile and chocolate voice is not a principal who appreciates disruption of his domain. Moore has been quietly having Mrs. Salters remove questionable books from the library collection without going through the established review committee procedure. Although Mrs. Salters badly needs the job, she finally quits, saying that she didn’t become a librarian to keep books from people. Deirdre Fitzgerald braces for upcoming battles with Moore.

History teacher Nora Baines starts her students’ year with a discussion about democracy. She quotes De Tocqueville’s concern that despite its democratic government, America has little independence of mind or freedom of expression. She assigns De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as required reading. Gordon MacLean, an African American student, is angry at being forced to read a book that uses the word “nigger.” He tells his father, Carl MacLean, who is also incensed at the book’s racism. Meeting with Moore, Carl MacLean declares, “Every time a black child sees that word, it is an insult, a profound insult.” He wants the book “eliminated” from the curriculum and taken out of the library. Moore assures the MacLeans that the situation will be resolved within the week.
Moore tells Baines to stop teaching the book. She argues that freedom of the press is the bulwark of liberty and refuses to follow his mandate. She wants the book to go through the formal review process, agreeing to abide by the majority rule as long as Moore and the school board don’t pull any funny business by stacking the committee. Baines says the book is presumed innocent and she will continue to teach it or go public with the controversy—something Moore doesn’t want. He, in turn, threatens her credibility and reputation as a teacher.

Meanwhile, another teacher hosts a debate titled “Is Individual Freedom Getting Out of Hand?” between the conservative Citizens’ League for the Preservation of American Values and a liberal ACLU lawyer. The debate adds fuel to the book dispute.

The students in Baines’s class and the entire school become polarized around the issue. Kate, an outspoken feminist student, believes that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should not be taught not only because of racist language, but because of sexism in its portrayal of women as sentimental caricatures. She, along with two other white students, and all the African American students in the class except one, walk out. Steve Turney, the African American student who remains, says he is staying because he has not made up his mind yet, saying, “I’m the only person I allow to make up my mind.”

Barney Roth, the student editor of the school paper, the Standard, believes, “No group should have veto power over what books we can read.” The librarian agrees, worrying, “Where does it end?”

Barney writes an editorial for the Standard, but his faculty advisor recommends he cut out the last two paragraphs that ridicule Moore by comparing him to the school’s namesake, a former champion of free speech. Barney feels he is selling out but realizes Moore could write him a negative college recommendation and retaliate against his advisor. He removes the paragraphs.

The book review committee meets publicly despite Moore’s attempts to keep it on the down-low. Both sides present their arguments and opinions. The censors, including representatives from Parents for Moral Schools, assert that the book is racist, sexist, and immoral (since Huck is an irreverent liar and thief). Those who support the book argue for its historical significance and morality, pointing out Twain’s use of irony and his opposition to slavery. The committee decides to make the book optional reading and put it on a restricted shelf in the library while they wait to make a final decision.

Barney interviews Mrs. Salters, uncovering the depth of Moore’s back-door censorship. Mrs. Salters tells Barney that the last straw was Moore’s attempt to ban Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. Moore also ripped the nineteenth chapter of Judges from the Bible. She agreed not to go public with his actions if he gave her a recommendation for a new job, but now wants it all to come out. Barney prints the interview in the school paper, drawing the attention of local and national news. In a television interview, Kate says that schools should teach what is “right,” but Deirdre Fitzgerald claims that is the educational philosophy of a dictatorship: schools should not restrict ideas but teach students how to think for themselves.

When the review committee meets again, Steve Turney speaks out. He says that he knows when racist words are directed at him, and the ones in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn aren’t. They are intended to bring scorn to the white adults who use them. He adds that while Huck uses the words, there is no malicious intent behind them, it is simply, albeit incorrectly, how he was raised. Steve feels fortunate that no one can protect him from the book because he has read it and will never forget it. The committee lifts the restrictions on the book.