A closer look at the “Maus” ban

A Tennessee school board voted Jan. 10 to ban Pulitzer Prize-winning “Maus,” a graphic novel detailing the deeply personal story of author Art Spiegelman’s Jewish parents and their struggles during and after the Holocaust.

Hillary Chute. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Hillary Fallsdistinguished professor of English, art, and design at Northeastern, wrote his doctoral dissertation on “Maus” and worked closely with Spiegelman on a follow-up book, “MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic.”

Chute has since written his own book reflecting lessons from the classic for this period in history titled “Maus Now,which will be released in the fall of 2022. The McMinn County School Board in Tennessee cited profanity and nudity as reasons why “Maus” was removed from the eighth grade curriculum. [email protected] spoke to Chute about the ban and ongoing “Maus” lessons. His comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What was your reaction when you first heard about the ban?

Initially, I was really surprised by what I would call the kind of fallacy of this decision, or the artificiality of this decision. But part of me felt that made sense, because part of the way I think Maus works is that it’s a deeply anti-fascist text and it’s a deeply Jewish text. It’s a text that has a lot of depth right now, right now. And so I wasn’t surprised because it’s a book that gets that kind of attention.

Can you give an example?

In 2015 Maus was banned in Russia because of the swastika on its cover, so the nominal reason it was pulled from bookstores was because the swastika violates a law against Nazi propaganda. But of course, if you consider the context as a work of testimony, which is “Maus”, the use of the swastika is obviously not a pro-Nazi use. So this book has always been tricky in that way, and has always been kind of a lightning rod, which is part of what makes it an enduringly important book.

Did knowing the reasons for the ban and reading the minutes of the school board meeting help you better understand the decision?

I was talking about it with my students this morning and I brought up the arguments that the school board made about “Maus”, and they all thought it was ridiculous. The problem with stated reasons is that they just seem out of place, or deliberately miss the point.

Can you expand?

It’s a book about the Holocaust, genocide and human suffering. The reasons given for the ban were foul language, citing the use of the phrase “Good Lord”. It seems like a language anyone in eighth grade can handle. The other reason given was nudity, which is, again, very hard to take seriously for two reasons. There is a panel of naked women. It’s a very, very small sign, and the sign is an image of Spiegelman’s mother after she kills herself in the bathtub, so it’s not an image that’s presented as a pornographic or sexualized image. So the accusation that “Maus” has foul language and nudity and should therefore be removed from the program just doesn’t seem to hold water.

So do you think there’s a larger or possibly unstated reason why the school board voted to stop teaching Maus?

One of the board members, who was successfully pushing to remove the book from the program, said: ‘It shows people hanging, it shows them killing children. Why does the education system promote this stuff? So that answers the question of what’s really going on.

To me, as an English teacher and Maus scholar, and someone who teaches critical race theory, that really lines up with a lot of the reasoning we’ve heard from some politicians, school boards, and parents about the not teaching books about slavery. This idea that we don’t need to encounter the difficult aspects of history in school curricula is, in my view, deeply flawed. He links Maus’ ban to similar bans and attempts to ban books that fall under the so-called critical race theory. The problem is that what these books and words describe is historical fact, and the people who want to ban them don’t want their students to encounter history. This seems like the wrong way to go, to put it mildly.

Is there anything about the McMinn County School Board’s decision that you can relate to?

I can understand their trepidation at a graphic depiction of something so horrific, but I think it’s extremely important to face the reality that it happened as part of the pedagogical imperative.

Can you weigh in on the timing of this decision, which took place days before Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 26?

The irony is just incredible, it’s crazy. Spiegelman did a short interview with CNN, and he said it smacks of autocracy and fascism. And that’s the case. Removing people’s access to books is a big part of that.

Do you think the comic book style design of Spiegelman’s story makes it both more impactful and unsettling?

One of the really important things about the medium of comics specifically is something that we see in Maus, and that is his ability to experiment with time and space. It’s such a strange shape in which there are time boxes that rub shoulders on the space of the page. These juxtaposed plates and caricatures were able to push back certain versions of time, certain versions of progress, and precisely on the idea that history is linear, which is Maus’ political argument, that it is not.

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