New York Post Fundamentally Misunderstands Libraries, 'The Music Man'
For some time now, rightwing scolds have been clutching their collective pearls over libraries and librarians and Drag Queen Story Hours and books about LGBTQ people, etc. etc. — in one case, even going so far as to defund an entire library over a few books they did not like and were not required to read. They've shown up at town meetings, written breathtakingly ignorant op-eds on the subject, and issued a few death threats between friends. But now they have gone too far.
The New York Post, that bastion of good sense and good taste, published an article this weekend titled "Librarians go radical as new woke policies take over: experts," by one Dana Kennedy. As usual, it was a lot of bigoted whinging about how many librarians are leftists (and even admitted Marxists!) who have political and social opinions different from their own and general confusion about how that is even legal. Like every other treatise on this subject, she really could have just written "I am worried that books will turn my child into a transgender communist!" and called it a day.
The one thing that made it a little different was that not only was Kennedy deeply confused about the fact that libraries are for everyone, not just people who agree with her politics, but she was also very confused about musical theater.
Marian the Librarian, the prim, bespectacled love interest of con artist Harold Hill in the classic musical, “The Music Man,” wouldn’t recognize her profession today.
Really? Has she actually seen The Music Man or did she just glance at Shirley Jones's ensemble in some stills and draw her conclusions from there? I have to assume the latter, given that a major plot point in the musical is that the whole town hates Marian Paroo because they think she brought dirty books into the library and that she slept her way to the top of the, uh, library.
More specifically, they believe that Marian came to town and made "brazen overtures" to "Old Miser Madison," an old rich guy who "never had a friend in town until she came here." She did this, they believed, so that he when he died, he would leave River City the library building ... but leave all the books to her. And then when that happened, she went and "advocated dirty books," like Chaucer, Rabelais and, yes, even BALLLLLLLLLZAC.
The irony is, there actually are are a lot of parallels here (as I've actually noted on occasion), not least of all because the very way Professor Harold Hill begins his scam on the townsfolk is by playing on their ignorance and riling them up into a moral panic over the idea that a pool table is going to corrupt their children to the point where they are saying things like "swell" and "so's your old man," memorizing jokes out of Cap'n Billy's Whiz Bang (not porn), and rebuckling their knickerbockers below the knee. Marian the Librarian actually does have a whole lot in common with today's "radical librarians," while Dana Kennedy is doing a great Hermione Gingold.
Like Kennedy, Gingold's character in the musical, Mrs. Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn, has no idea what she is even talking about, jumps to bizarre conclusions, and goes around spreading lies about someone who has never done a thing to her. In one of her first scenes in the play, she comes into the library to yell at Marian for having lent her daughter a copy of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, which she claimed was indecent. She hadn't read Chaucer, she hadn't read Rabelais, she hadn't read BALLLLLLLLZAC, but she wanted them banned anyway.
Rather than get to know Marian, Eulalie and the other ladies of River City invent their own narrative about how the librarian only came to town to bone an old guy just so that when he died she could get to be the town librarian of River City, Iowa, and corrupt children with "dirty books." Let's be real — if you're going to sleep with an old rich guy in hopes of getting something out of the deal, that "something" is not going to be books. It is at least going to be enough money that you don't have to work at the library all day and teach piano at night just to make ends meet.
That anyone would do that is about as absurd as the notion that all of the librarians in America are plotting to convince all of America's children that they are transgender.
The reality of the situation was that "Old Miser Madison" was actually a pretty nice and generous guy who gifted a gymnasium, a picnic park, a hospital, and a library to a town full of people who were proud to be jerks, and gave Marian the librarian job so that she would be able to take care of her mother and brother after her father died. The reality of today's situation is that librarians are promoting free speech, encouraging kids to be kind, and ensuring that they have access to books that will help them understand themselves and others.
While Marian clearly does not care for Harold Hill's aggressive attempts to woo her at first (which began with some old-timey street harassment), she's not actually prim. While she's never "been to the footbridge" with a man, she's very proud of not being "small minded" and is clearly more worldly and educated than the rest of River City, which is why she doesn't like them and they don't much like her.
By the second act of the stage show (not the movie), the formerly priggish Eulalie has gone full Isadora Duncan, toga and all, after Harold Hill noticed her love of dance and introduced her to the François Delsarte System of Expression (nota bene: To some extent, Hill's "Think method" for teaching kids to play instruments can be seen as a parody of the Delsarte System). She and the other ladies of the town tell Marian that they have, at the suggestion of Professor Hill, finally actually read the books they were so angry about, and that they "simply adored them all." They also gush over her dancing skills, having seen her get her Shipoopi on with Hill the night before, and invite her to join their Delsarte Committee.
Sadly, in real life, the Eulalie Shinns of the world rarely end up actually reading the books they're so angry about or actually watching the musicals they reference. They don't know the territory. And that's kind of unfortunate because the one thing The Music Man, which opened on Broadway in 1957, makes plainly obvious is that we have been doing this exact same damn thing over and over again for far too long. At that very time, there were massive book purges at libraries across the country and some burnings as well, and all for very similar reasons as Kennedy et al. cite for wanting to do it this time. They didn't want their kids learning about sex or Communism, and these people don't want their kids learning about sex or LGBTQ people, or to be influenced by the evil Marxists that Dana Kennedy does not think should be allowed to be librarians.
It is, quite frankly, unreasonable to make us all go through this each time like it's Groundhog Day. We should be able to fast track it by pointing to works like The Music Man, or at real, historical book purges and ask, "Do you not see how this has never worked out for you?"
We certainly should not have to con an entire town into shelling out money for an imaginary marching band every time we need some people to calm their faces about whatever books they are mad about this time.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse