Written by Abby Adamo
A few weeks ago, we opened up a discussion about renowned authors with questionable pasts, who all survived the celebrity downfall of others like Harvey Weinstein in the wake of sexual misconduct claims. Hothouse will continue to discuss contentious reverence for canonical authors in spite of their disgusting pasts. This week in our inaugural post for our new column, Problematic Literary Faves, we discuss a favorite of high school English classes and one man you would never ask to babysit: William Golding. The allegations against Golding are particularly nasty because they revolve around the mistreatment of minors, all while his most famous book, The Lord of the Flies, remains a staple of freshman English classes everywhere.
His misdeeds came out in one of the great romantic gestures of the twentieth century: an incomplete memoir written for Golding’s wife, which attempted to offer insight into what he called his “monstrous” character, after a marriage full of cruelty and alcoholism. This is all according to personal papers released to biographer John Carey after Golding’s death in 1993. In his monumental act of love, Golding admits to the attempted rape of a fifteen-year-old girl when he was eighteen, which he apparently blundered, lamenting that “he had made such a bad hand at rape.” Golding may write characters splendidly, but he unfortunately had less aptitude for reading character, recalling that he “felt sure she wanted heavy sex, as this was visibly written on her pert, ripe and desirable mouth.” He added, to further excuse his misunderstanding, that the girl “was depraved by nature,” and by age fifteen, “already sexy as an ape.” Try arguing with that logic! Luckily, he learned from his mistake and from then on, he focused on his strengths—writing books for fifteen-year-olds (not raping them). That is until years later when, as a public school teacher, he began conducting “a certain measure of experimental science” on his young, male students in preparation for writing The Lord of the Flies. Apparently, the novel is based more in reality than most readers would probably like to think and “on one field trip near Salisbury, Golding separated his class into two gangs, one to attack a Neolithic enclosure, the other to defend it.”
If the question remains, can we hate the man but love his art? Then this case is all the more complicated for the fact that his art is actually quite disturbing and apparently based on some true events. While it’s one thing to write about morally questionable experiences in war, prison, etc., it’s quite another to stage uncontrolled sociological experiments on minors for writing inspiration. Also, considering that Golding admitted to his own “monstrous” nature, and was given to saying that “had he been born in Hitler’s Germany, he would have been a Nazi,” maybe we don’t owe him the respect that ordinarily comes with a Nobel Prize. Had I, as a high school freshman, been introduced to William Golding with the background that he was an attempted rapist who conducted dangerous experiments on his students, I might have approached his novel a little differently. It’s unfair to expose young people to the supposed greatest novelists of all time without giving them the full backstory, and if teachers are worried that they’ll run out of great novels not written by sexual predators, alcoholics, or monsters, maybe they should reconsider what makes a great novel.