Sunday, August 20, 2006

Two Old Books: Surprisingly Biased

History and Old Stuff...

I have a bad habit of collecting old books, and I added two more volumes to our groaning, overloaded bookshelves on Friday afternoon. Isaac had taken a yen to read Animal Farm, so we went to The HUB (Hopkinsville Used Books) to buy him a copy. Just a quick trip, we said. Well, we were quick enough about it but I still walked out with two golden-oldies that I couldn't leave behind.

I spotted a National Geographic book from 1951, titled Everyday Life in Ancient Times. The book was in excellent condition, but it had been closed so long that the pages were almost stuck together. I fanned them a few times to loosen them up and saw dozens of colored pages (120 paintings by H.M. Herget, apparently one of his last works.)

By chance, I stopped on a page titled "An XIth Dynasty Carpenter's Shop". The text described the skillful methods used in Ancient Egypt to create beautiful durable wooden objects with the narrow pieces of lumber that their spindly local trees produced. On the facing page, a full-color illustration showed a crew of carpenters constructing a coffin with tools made of bronze, wood and stone. It was interesting.

I flipped the book over and saw that it was priced for $3. Need I say more? Of course I bought it. Maybe someday, I thought, when my (future) grandchildren are bored with grown-up talk, they'll find this book on Grandma's bookshelf and escape into another time and place. (You see how I rationalize.)

Grimm Bros
I decided the (future) grandchildren would also enjoy a 1917 edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales, a little worn, but still intact. The pages are yellowed but not brittle. It's full of wonderful pen-and-ink illustrations by Louis Rhead. The illustration for "The Bremen Town Musicians" appears at left.

The first story in the book is "Little Red Riding Hood" and many of the titles that follow are familiar from the days I spent with the Grimm Brothers in my own childhood.

Looking through the fairy tales later that evening, I found a title I didn't recognize: "The Jew in the Bush." It's an anti-semitic story about a simple country fellow who is granted special powers through three magic wishes. With them, he outwits a cheating, greedy Jew and sends him to the gallows.

In 1917, Harper & Brothers apparently had no qualms about providing that story to children to read. Fifteen years or so after World War II when I was a child reading Grimm fairy tales, that story may (should!) have been dropped from new editions. I don't think I had ever read the story until I acquired this book.

I also learned while writing this post that the Egyptian paintings of H.M. Herget for National Geographic have their own racial controversy. One internet polemicist states,

For decades, the National Geographic Magazine has played a key function in the misrepresentation of ancient Egyptian images. It started with a "so called" authoritative scholarly article issued in October 1941 which contained over 20 paintings by H. Herget, showing wild fantasy drawings of pale-skinned ancient Egyptians, and short Afrikans called "Deng" in Egyptian but "Pygmy" by modern Westerners, as an obscene caricature with a leash around the ankle, Black skin, ridiculously large red lips resembling an ape-like creature. The supporting text was prepared by William Hayes from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This most vile and absurd anti-Black painting from that 1941 series shows that the editors of the National Geographic, which has set the standard and continues to be a leader in publicizing make-believe Caucasian images of ancient Egyptians, including modern day publishers who still use these images, are completely shameless in their racist representations of Black people. (Source)

The 1941 Egyptian series of paintings by Herget is included in Everyday Life in Ancient Times, the book I bought. In fact, the carpenter shop painting I mentioned above is part of the series. Whether or not the Egyptians were black in real life, it's true that the Egyptians in the paintings are shockingly white for people who lived in that climate.

Gosh, I just thought these were nice old books to put on the shelf. I had no idea that their suitability would ever be questioned -- but honestly, I'd buy them again. Their viewpoint is representative of their era and that's another interesting thing about their content. I'll have to explain the bias to the grandkids, but it doesn't make the books worthless.

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heelers said...

Interesting, and informative.

Peggi said...

It sounds like you found a couple of treasures there, Genevieve. My Dad and I used to shop at the local thrift stores and library bookstore looking for "treasures" such as those (the fairy tale one especially - I bet those illustrations are fantastic!); sometimes we'd get lucky, but usually it was simply time well spent - together. As you mention, it is always interesting to see that we have advanced in becoming less socially biased; of course, we still have a long way to go, but books such as these can remind us of where we have been as a society, and how we might change for the better in the present and future. (And I agree with James, very interesting and informative =) Great post!!!

Anonymous said...

I have proudly owned the beautiful Herget book since 1972. The ancient Egyptians drew a specific line between themselves and ALL other peoples, keeping the Nuba south of the 4th cataract of the Nile and the Caananites east of Suez by force of arms. Every people throughout history have been fascinated by Egypt and tried to claim a little of that magic for themselves, back to the Assyrians and Myceneans, and including today's black racialists, who have their own goofy fantasies about Egypt, which, by the way, are extremely offensive to modern Egyptians.

We are the least racist society in the world, last week there were news articles on blacks being refused service in Beijing bars for the Olympics (denied, of course, by the same people who insist that fourteen year old girls are actually sixteen), and non-American blacks in Moscow are routinely assaulted by Russian skinheads. In Iraq, American black troops were routinely targeted by Al Quaeda and their hangers on. If Herget was a creature of his times, that doesn't make his works useless, but it is instructive of how far we have come.

I admire the beauty, and ignore the ignorance, on both sides of the question. It sounds like you know how to explain this to your kids and grandkids. Enjoy your treasure.

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
(Author unknown)

IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

Thanks for reading.