A Brief Guide to Naughty Illustrations in American Literature

In a Washington Post article “We’re Teaching Books That Don’t Stack Up,” Nancy Schnog, a high school teacher, cites a research report from the National Endowment for the Arts. According to that report, which you can read here, “The percentage of 17-year-olds who read nothing at all for pleasure has doubled over a 20-year period.”

Schnog despairs of engaging readers’ attention in the classroom with “the pictureless chains of black print.” If type without illustrations is the problem, why don’t we read the illustrations? On occasion, my students (first-year honors students) confessed to being bored by Uncle Tom’s Cabin and befuddled by Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada. But then we started reading the illustrations. Jo-Ann Morgan in Uncle Tom’s Cabin as Visual Culture (University of Missouri Press) has pointed out that the most suggestive illustration in Uncle Tom’s Cabin is when Eva has her hand on Tom’s thigh [fifth one down in the list]. This illustration is part of the “yes, I’m going there” and “spirits bright” chapter. It’s hard not to wonder if she’s still interested in the fascinating things in Tom’s pockets. As long as Eva is a child, everything’s innocent, I suppose, but Stowe is slyly subversive, almost daring one to read something untoward in this relationship between man and a child who by this point must be approaching the age of Nabokov’s Lolita. Perhaps you recall what she said, “I want him.” Hammat Billings, the illustrator, took it and ran with it.

One of my students also started examining closely the illustration on the front of Reed’s book. I think he or she had lost interest the in-class discussion. We were reading the edition with Robert Colescott’s George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware on the cover. On realizing the activity of the Mammy character, the entire class was floored. I was speechless, and the class exploded into laughter. I had not noticed the cover previously, but it’s quite provoking, and quite appropriate for Reed’s novel.

What I believe is the most fascinating variant in American Literature is a recent discovery, the frontispiece illustration for the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Ted Genoways has pointed out that there are two versions of the illustration. In the revised version, Walt Whitman’s package is more prominent: he’s “wellhung” in the poet’s pregnant phrase. See Genoways’s fascinating essay in Leaves of Grass: The Sesquicentennial Essays, edited by Susan Belasco, Kenneth M. Price, Ed Folsom. Genoways’s discovery is phenomenally important. It’s not as if we didn’t know Whitman’s work was about his penis, but that he was displeased with the size of his package in the illustration we didn’t know. And this stunning variant in perhaps the second-most important work in American literature went unnoticed for 150 years.

And don’t forget the terribly naughty illustration in Huckleberry Finn. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, see the most recent full dress scholarly edition (based on the manuscript) from the California Twain. It’s the first illustration of Uncle Silas. But the California editors don’t do the illustration justice. They’ve reduced the size. And they omit the page’s running head, which reads “In a Dilemma.” Yes, you guessed it, Uncle Silas was exposed in an altered illustration, probably by some joker in the print shop. Not by Kemble the illustrator, Twain or the publisher: they feared that Uncle Silas’s exposure would cut into the book’s sales. And the offending illustration in printed copies was ruthlessly sought out and removed.

There you have it, a brief guide to naughty illustrations in canonical American literature. I close with a challenge to all 17-year olds: Read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. It’s not just me: even Reader’s Digest approves. But after you’re trained to find naughty bits, you ought to try Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada, though Reader’s Digest does not approve.

If someone is suspicious of your motives, I would recommend a small lie: don’t tell them that you’re reading the whole work to see if you can find naughty bits. Explain to them that a college professor assures you that the enlargement in your world view will compensate you for the harm that you suffer from exposure to these prurient works. Better yet, now that you’ve gained practice in lying, don’t tell them that I’m a college professor: corrupting the youth is in our job description. I’ve not yet acquired Socrates’s taste for hemlock.

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One Response to A Brief Guide to Naughty Illustrations in American Literature

  1. J. Morgan says:

    Thanks for the mention “Jo Ann Morgan in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Visual Culture.”
    Note- my name is spelled Jo-Ann. And perhaps if you would add (University of Missouri, 2007) the publisher might someday break even for believing in this book.
    And one last idea- perhaps even add “winner of the 2008 Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship.”
    Anyway- thanks for using the book to engage students.
    Much appreciated,
    Jo-Ann Morgan

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