Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Calling a whatever a whatever . . .


There's a new literary uproar about Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer! As the New York Times reported on January 5th . . .
Alan Gribben, a professor of English at Auburn University at Montgomery, . . .said Tuesday that he had been teaching Mark Twain for decades and always hesitated before reading aloud the common racial epithet, which is used liberally in the book, a reflection of social attitudes in the mid-19th century.
So, as I'm sure you know, Mr. Gribben has talked an Alabama publisher, NewSouth books, into replacing the "n" word (used 219 times in Huck Finn, alone) with the word "slave."

The ensuing kerfuffle over this clean-up of an American classic has made me think about the late Elisabeth Scott Bocock (1901-1985).

I never met Mrs. Bocock (whom I would not deem it appropriate to call Ms. Bobcock), but I have read the fine and sprightly biography/memoir of this charming, imperious, and exasperating Richmonder written by her daughter, Mary Buford Hitz.

Mary Buford (who lives in Charlottesville) brought me a copy of Never Ask Permission when she recorded her last-month's Civic Soapbox at WMRA. I read the book with great, great pleasure; truthfully, with much more pleasure than I'd expected to.

First of all, Mary Buford is a fine writer -- reason enough, in my opinion, to read almost any book. But it's her mother who fascinated and, yes, repelled me a bit, and so kept me glued to the page. Elisabeth Scott Bocock sprawls, stomps, twirls and swirls through the book in a way vaguely reminiscent of Scarlett O'Hara.  Mrs. Bocock, however, is real Virginia history, a woman who was not only a beauty and a charmer, but also erratic and willful. And, at least within the confines of Richmond, quite powerful. According to her daughter, when Elisabeth Scott Bocock told people to do something, they generally did it.

A little background on her place in Virginia history . . .

Those of us who advocate historical preservation owe Mary Buford Hitz's mother a round of applause, for one of the main reasons significant parts of old Richmond have been rescued and restored is because Elisabeth Scott Bocock lived in, and loved, that city. For decades she was the face, the drive, and the funding of Historic Richmond Foundation, the Carriage Museum at Maymount, the Hand Workshop, and the Virginia chapter of the Nature Conservancy. And Mrs. Bocock didn't just command others, either. She hauled bricks and timbers, negotiated deals, led by example and effort, as well as position.

Two buildings are worth a thousand words, perhaps, when it comes to understanding Elisabeth Scott Bocock's view of how things worked in the world. She was born into established city wealth (Scott & Stringfellow), and lived most of her life in the house shown below (now leased by the Scott family to VCU).

 Large parts of her summers were spent at Royal Orchard, the Scott family estate on Afton Mountain, which is otherwise known as the Scott Castle.

I'm not sure it's possible for anyone raised in such architectural grandeur to come at historical preservation without an elitist viewpoint.

Mary Buford does not shy away from showing her mother's autocratic, difficult side. In Never Ask Permission, Elisabeth Scott Bocock appears frequently as a bossy, intrusive and pig-headed creature in her dealings, as well as a charming one.

And this is where the Huck Finn kerfuffle comes in.

As an old hippie, I was frequently put off by Elizabeth Scott Bocock's imperious attitude toward others. Yet this woman was what she was: a rich, entitled, brilliant, hard-working early-to-mid Twentieth Century southern woman. She lived in different times than I do; bred to employ different tactics to make things happen.

Mary Buford Hitz wisely chose not to soften her mother's high-handed edges in order to make her more appealing to modern readers. And this, for me, is what makes Never Ask Permission really, really interesting, because this is what makes it true social history. Elisabeth Scott Bocock lives on her daughter's pages as a fascinating creature of her racist, sexist times. This means that, as a reader, I get to know exactly what it  was like to be born a white, smart, moneyed, capable, and driven female in the heart of a racist, sexist century.

Isn't this what reading Huck Finn should be about, as well? Shouldn't this Mark Twain classic give us an opportunity to stomp around in the shoes of 19th Century Americans; live in those times the way its author experienced them, rather than in a way that makes us comfortable today? How can we learn from our past if we sanitize our retelling of it?

I, for one, want Elisabeth Scott Bocock and Huck Finn down on the page exactly the way they were!


  1. Never Ask Permission is a wonderful book. Thanks for mentioning it. You've inspired me to go back and re-read it. As a non-native Richmonder, it was a wonderful introduction to the history of the city I now call home. And Mrs. Bocock was a pistol. We should all be a bit more like her.

  2. Wasn't she, just! A pistol, that is. Personally, she's become rather a late-in-life role model!MW