387. Buchan the Racist

Getting ready for Westercon, I prepared a set of notes, placed as posts, for the panel What made the golden age golden? I was under the impression that it would be history and homage, and made notes appropriate for that. I was wrong, and it isn’t the first time I have spent time off track by starting before I had full information. When i’m ready to start a project, I’m ready, and sometimes I pay the price.

After I had posted my notes-to-self, but long before Westercon, I received this description of the panel:

Heinlein and Asimov are two pillars of the Golden Age of Sci-Fi. But reading those works with modern eyes can reveal attitudes that would be unacceptable in modern times. What can we learn from the classics when we look past the sexist and racist attitudes that pervaded the works of that time? Can we still appreciate works that present unacceptable ideologies?

Well, that’s a bit of a different story. No problem. I am always ready to fight the forces of political correctness.

I’ve been to this rodeo before. Once, several years ago, I was looking at on-line reviews of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps. I don’t remember why, but I do remember a review that ripped Buchan as a racist for seemingly anti-Semitic statements in that novel. I wrote a counter-review; both have since disappeared.

For those who don’t know him, John Buchan was a popular British novelist of the early twentieth century. He is very much a pro-British patriot, with the prejudices that implies. Think Kipling light. And he was a racist, but not an anti-Semite. I say that not as a scholar, but as a fan, who has read and re-read his works.

If you read him at length, his distaste for African blacks comes through loud and clear. His Jews, on the other hand, show up as both heroes and villains, just like his Germans and his Englishmen. But if you only read a little, you can be fooled.

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To follow through on this, I used one of my favorite techniques. I recommend that you put this into your bag of tricks. I went to Project Gutenberg, downloaded The 39 Steps in Rich Text format, then cut and pasted that into my word processor. Now I had all 41,264 words in a searchable form.

One more hint. RTF will be hard to read because its wide line-length makes it look like bad modern poetry. Just switch your word processor to horizontal format and it will be much easier to work with.

The reviewer who started this controversy had complained about Buchan because of the words of one of his characters, Scudder. If you don’t know the book, Scudder is a kind of amateur spy who finds out that bad people are about to start World War I, and catch England off guard. This is what Hannay, the main character, says, quoting Scudder:

The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him. Take any big Teutonic business concern.  If you have dealings with it the first man you meet is Prince von und Zu Something, an elegant young man who talks Eton-and-Harrow English.  But he cuts no ice.  If your business is big, you get behind him and find a prognathous Westphalian with a retreating brow and the manners of a hog.  He is the German business man that gives your English papers the shakes.  But if you’re on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake.  Yes, Sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just now, and he has his knife in the Empire of the Tzar, because his aunt was outraged and his father flogged in some one-horse location on the Volga.

Wow! That sounds pretty anti-Semitic, and the reviewer who started this conversation took it as proof positive. But let’s wait a minute. Assume that the character Scudder is the worst anti-Semite since Hitler — does it follow that Buchan hated Jews? I wrote a mass murderer into Cyan — does that mean I approve of mass murder?

You can’t read the words of a fictional character as the opinion of the author, especially if you are looking at a minor character of questionable honesty.

Scudder dies in chapter one and his quest is taken over by Richard Hannay, the actual main character in this and several other novels. If you look closely at the character of Hannay and a dozen other lead characters in two dozen other novels, then you will come closer to having a fair and defensible picture of Buchan’s attitude.

In point of fact, not only was Scudder a minor character, he was also a liar. The reviewer who cried bigot never found this out because he quit the novel early. I knew that he was, but I needed a quote as proof. To find this, I searched for the word Scudder in my Find and Replace function. His name appears 65 times in the book because Hannay keeps thinking about him. Click and read. Click and read. Click and read. I found the passage I remembered at the beginning of chapter four.

The little man had told me a pack of lies.  All his yarns about the Balkans and the Jew-Anarchists and the Foreign Office Conference were eyewash . . .

Hannay worries at Scudder’s diary, taken off his body, because it seems odd, almost as if it were a cypher, and Hannay is good at cyphers. Sure enough, the Jew-Anarchist plot is just a cover for a much deeper plot (not by Jews), which Hannay foils by the end of the book.

So, everybody was a nice, unbigoted person and it was all a misunderstanding? If it were only that simple.

Reread the first quote, if you can stomach it. How would that passage play in a book published in 2017? When it was published in 1915, the book was a hit. Nobody minded that passage at all.

After Hitler and the holocaust, anti-Semitism fell out of favor. Before that, it was everywhere, in Europe and America. An actually anti-Semitic book in England in 1915 would have raised no eyebrows.

Was Buchan a bigot? Yes and no. He was not anti-German, he was not anti-Semitic, but he was anti-African. How do I know? I have more than a dozen of his books, some multiple times. You can’t know from assumptions, and you can’t know from reading one book.

Bringing this back to the Golden Age of science fiction, we should be able to read and appreciate authors like Heinlein when he depicts mannerisms that are foreign to us. (Or to be fair, foreign to you; I grew up in the same era and it all seems normal to me, even when I disagree with it.) The fact, for example, that Joan Freeman in Lost Legacy is the object of mild sexist teasing should not mask the fact that she is a full participant in the action.

Nevertheless, understanding is one thing, enjoyment is another. There is a limit, and it varies with each of us. For me, Heinlein sometimes seems silly, but I still read and enjoy everything but Farnham’s Freehold. That one goes on my never-again list, along with John Buchan’s anti-Black tirade Prester John.

POSTSCRIPT: As it turned out, everyone on the panel ignored the description and we just talked about how great the golden age was. The forces of political correctness never raised their heads.


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