A closer look at the ban on ‘Maus’

Pages from the Art Spiegelman book. Photo by Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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

Hillary Chute. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

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

Chute has since written her own book reflecting on the classic’s lessons for this time in history called, “Maus Now,” which will be published in the fall of 2022. The McMinn County, Tennesee, school board cited profanity and nudity as the reasons why “Maus” was removed from the eighth grade curriculum. News@Northeastern spoke to Chute about the ban and the ongoing lessons of “Maus.” Her comments were 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 a part of me felt like it makes sense, because part of the way I think “Maus” operates is that it’s a profoundly anti-fascist text and it’s a profoundly Jewish text. It’s a text that has a lot of profundity right now, in this moment. And so I was kind of not surprised because this is a book that gets this kind of attention. 

Can you give an example?

In 2015, “Maus” was banned in Russia because of the swastika on its cover, so nominally the reason it was taken out of bookstores was  because the swastika violates some law against Nazi propaganda. But of course, if you’re looking at the context as a work of testimony, which “Maus” is, the use of the swastika obviously isn’t a pro-Nazi use. So, this book has always been tricky in this way, and always been a kind of lightning rod, which is part of what makes it an enduringly important book.

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

I was discussing this with my students this morning and I put forward the arguments that the school board made about “Maus,” and they all thought it was ridiculous. The thing about the stated reasons is they just seem beside the point, or they seem to be deliberately missing the point.

Can you expand on that?

This is a book about the Holocaust and genocide and human suffering. The reasons stated for the ban were bad language, citing the use of the phrase “God damn.” That seems like language anyone in eighth grade can handle. The other stated reason was nudity, which is, again, really hard to take seriously for two reasons. There is a panel of naked women. It’s a very, very small panel, and the panel is an image of Spiegelman’s mother after she committed suicide in the bathtub, so it’s not an image that’s presented as a pornographic or a sexualized image. So the accusation that “Maus” has bad language and nudity and therefore should be taken out of the curriculum just doesn’t seem to hold water.

So do you feel there is a larger or perhaps unstated reason the school board voted to stop teaching Maus?

One of the board members, who was pushing successfully to take the book out of the curriculum said “It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids. Why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff?” So that kind of answers the question about what’s really going on.

To me, as an English professor and a “Maus” scholar, and someone who teaches Critical Race Theory, it really jibes with a lot of the reasoning that we’ve been hearing from certain politicians and school boards and parents about not teaching books about slavery. This idea that we don’t need to encounter hard aspects of history in school curricula, is, in my view, deeply misguided. It links the banning of “Maus” with similar bans and attempts to ban books that fall under the rubric of so-called Critical Race Theory. The problem is that what these books and these words are depicting is historical fact, and the people who want to ban them don’t want their students to encounter history. That just seems like the wrong way to go, to put it mildly.

Is there any aspect of the McMinn County school board’s decision that you can understand?

I can understand their trepidation about a graphic depiction of something so horrifying, yet I think it’s incredibly important to face the reality that this happened as part of the pedagogical imperative.

Can you weigh in on the timing of this decision, which occurred days before Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 26?

The irony is just unbelievable, it’s insane. Spiegelman did a short interview with CNN, and he said it has the breath of autocracy and fascism about it. And it does. Taking away 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 is specifically something we see in “Maus” which is its ability to experiment with time and space. It’s such a strange form in which there are boxes of time that sit next to each other on the space of the page. These juxtaposed panels and cartoons have been able to push back on certain versions of time, certain versions of progress, and specifically on the idea that history is linear, which is the political argument of “Maus”, that it’s not. 

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