By: Frederic Murray
In a national crisis, not everyone goes into exile.
– C.D. Wright, Purgatorio (2016)
He is a middling successful writer, not acclaimed, but popular. He considers himself dangerous only to himself, and those he loves. He is a gossip, a drinker, impecunious, a highly disciplined craftsman. He is witness to the most brutal regime Europe has every encountered. He cannot, will not, leave. There is no sanctuary. He will not stop writing.
He is arrested in 1933 for making light of his country’s new regime. He is released, but knows he is being watched. The cultural production of art becomes a mania, and he is warned by no-less a personage than Paul Joseph Goebbels. Across the country that he loves, an ad-hoc lawlessness is emerging; it crawls into the minds and actions of his countrymen. The institutions of law begin to wither and die. He survives by retreating, becoming evasive, but it’s no use. He is arrested again in 1944 and consigned to an asylum for the criminally mad. Now he writes with a furtive purpose. His wards believe he is writing children’s stories. A tiny script, written in places upside down, backward, his own language, he scrambles the text, a “calligraphic conundrum.” What he is writing is dangerous, to himself, to those he loves. He knows this, but he will not stop. He smuggles the manuscript out of the madhouse. It is never published in his lifetime. It takes a new century to find its readers.
Rudolf Ditzen (1893-1947) known to the world as Hans Fallada was the author of many best-selling novels: Little Man, What Now? (1932), Wolf among Wolves (1937), Alone in Berlin (1947). In 2015, the English edition of his memoir was published by Polity Press: A Stranger In My Own Country, The 1944 Prison Diary. It is a flawed work, short on heroics, but with a sharp eye to the humiliations and debasement of a once-proud nation and people who have surrendered their freedom and gone to war with the world.
What does it mean to live under a dangerous and censorious regime?
This is a question worth asking our patrons.
As adherents and defenders of the idea of intellectual freedom, librarians — both public and academic — are in a position of strength to shape the debates roiling through our communities. Who would have thought in the first week that it would be park rangers who took the first step in committing to free speech in the public arena? Edward Abbey would be most pleased, and most aggrieved, at the wanton arrogance being displayed toward his beloved parks. We are faced with the specter of erasure; consider the recent threats posed to the National Endowment of Arts and National Public Radio through de-funding, and though faced with these challenges, they are being met.
Erasure of our collections, scientific, literary or historical is not an option. We are not alone, any of us, and though the digital immediacy of the danger posed by an administration that shows little regard for the truth, or the deliberative process of governing, is overwhelming and exhausting, we, as librarians, remain in a position to act.
We shape our collections through the inclusion of voice. We promote tolerance and diversity through programs and outreach. Emily Temple’s book-list “10 Contemporary Novels by and about Muslims You Should Read,” published by the website Literary Hub, is a good place to start. Tobias Carroll’s book-list “The US-Mexico Border in Fiction: 7 Books on the Space Between,” from the website Signature, is also another invaluable tool. This small collection of 17 books represents a collective response to the shrill tweets and blatant lies coming across our screens. Add these to your collections, promote them, speak about them, display them, and most importantly, invite discussion.
Reading is not a cure-all, but we don’t need curing; we need resilience and imagination, qualities found in abundance listed in the works shared by Ms. Temple and Mr. Carroll, qualities found in Hans Fallada. Speak to your students, your faculty, your patrons and friends. Sponsor an event devoted to free speech, talk about erasure and censors in your classrooms. This is not about liberal or conservative; this is about demagoguery taking root. The strange case of Hans Fallada need not be repeated.
Frederic Murray is the head of Instructional Services at the Al Harris Library, Southwestern Oklahoma State University. He is a tenured faculty member and as an academic librarian has initiated the growth and expansion of information literacy classes across the campus curriculum. He has presented at state, national and international conferences in the areas of library pedagogy, digital textbooks, and the development of curriculum for Native American Studies. He serves as the managing editor for Administrative Issues Journal, a peer-reviewed, open access journal in its sixth year of publication. He believes deeply in the value of books and the inherent strength found in the human voice. Among his favorite authors are Lenny Bruce, Jimmy Santiago Baca and Carson McCullers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org