Books that ought to be burnt?

better to feed them to bookworms in the compost bin of history

Tom Tordillo
6 min readFeb 6, 2023

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”…As history and as philosophy, it is neither original nor exact….[yet Rousseau’s “The Social Contract”]…remains one of the burning books of the world.

Henry W. Nevinson, Essays in Rebellion (from Project Gutenberg)

Searching Project Gutenberg for “book burning” turned up an interesting hit: Henry Nevinson, abolitionist, suffragist, missionary, and journalist. Brave man.

When Nevinson referred to “burning books,” the words evoked images of the “burning bush.” In the Book of Exodus, Moses received his calling from such a conflagration to liberate the tribes of Israel.

Alas, later in the 20th century, references to “burning books” linked to the Nazi purges starting in 1933.

Photo by Freddy Kearney on Unsplash

The Nazis would not have purged Lothrop Stoddard’s monstrosity, “The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy.” I link with trepidation, lest someone read such crap of unvarnished racism without due care. Discovered while searching for the term “white supremacy” on Project Gutenberg, Stoddard popped toward the top of my list of results.

Who published this stinker? Charles Scribner’s Sons, one of the oldest, most prestigious publishers in America. For some reason, they do not proudly proclaim their hand in releasing Stoddard’s polemic.

The first 20+ pages are an introduction by Stoddard’s “mentor,” the New York luminary, Madison Grant, who took time off from his duties as chair of the New York Zoological Society and councilor of the American Geographical Society to add a misguided, inaccurate, and utterly wretched summary history of race war cribbed from his much more popular book, “The Passing of the Great Race” (also published by Scribner’s).

Grant reflects a trend in American racism excreted separately from the KKK/Jim Crow racism typical in the South. His “scientific racism” borrowed sentences from Darwin, misquoted and misrepresented them, then contrived a vileness with lasting harm. Ever heard the term, “master race”? Yeah, that’s where it came from.

“How does it feel to be a problem?” asked W. E. B. Du Bois in the Souls of Black Folk. To Stoddard and Grant, anything non-white was “the problem.” Grant tried to put a Congolese man on display next to the monkeys at the New York Zoo. Du Bois made a laughingstock of Grant’s disciple, Lothrop Stoddard.

In the early 20th century, New York City set the stage for urban planning even as waves of Black people migrated from the South. Also, skyscrapers sprouted. New Yorkers like Grant praised California’s experiments with “racial exclusionary zones” — initially targeting Chinese-owned businesses.

They created tools for urban design to ‘zone’ sorts of buildings and workplaces, ” to also protect other ‘property values’ from tall buildings that might leave certain properties ‘boxed in.’ Then they adapted those tools to also help other property owners concerned about ‘problems’ moving into their neighborhoods.

Lothrop Stoddard may be one of the first non-Jim Crow racists to refer to “white supremacy” as a good thing. To preserve that, he called for tight restrictions on immigration from anyone who wasn’t white.

…migrations of lower human types like those which have worked such havoc in the United States must be rigorously curtailed. Such migrations upset standards, sterilize better stocks, increase low types, and compromise national futures more than war, revolutions, or native deterioration

Stoddard, “The Rising Tide” p. 308 (from Project Gutenberg)

Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924 (the Johnson-Reed Act), acting on prejudices from Stoddard, Grant, and other racist figures who desperately feared “Black, Brown, Yellow, and Red” migration into America. Such fears persist even in the 21st century.

But the logic of Grant and Stoddard also justified exclusionary racial zoning by numerous means (sometimes overtly zoning, but often via other tools). Lots of efforts were deployed to protect properties from “problem” people.

The humans who did this stuff 100 years ago are long gone. Corporations and trusts built by doing this 100+ years ago remain. Many of them include “good name” as a major component in their valuation. Even if they profited from peddling trash like Stoddard’s book, or other properties built using the same putrid illogic.

Should Project Gutenberg publish books that deserve to be burnt?

Yes, but only if they do not profit from such publications (they don’t!), and only if they also publish many, many more books that deserve to be read.

We need to know why certain lines of trash are more durable than other bits of nastiness.

Grant and Stoddard wrote a bit in response to W.E.B. Du Bois (a better, more important author who will reward readers in the 21st century with insights that still matter). Knowing their arguments tells a bit about how easily they could reject Jim Crow while erecting entirely different forms of nastiness to achieve the same (or worse) effects.

Stoddard’s picture of the world fits the mediocre Risk player who sees white armies on one continent surrounded by Black, Brown, Red, and Yellow armies. His ‘scientific’ geography amounted to shrugging aside inconvenient facts like colonialism, economics, and more, and centering facts like fertility rates and ethnicity, running other factoids together in a diseased and racist mental blender, then expressing his phobia about ‘white’ armies outnumbered more than 2:1.

…let such crap sit and compost, feed it to the worms (or bookworms).

Stoddard did “anticipate” the threat of Japanese Imperialism in 1921, so a broken clock gets it right every now and then. A certain sort of racist during World War 2 might have looked to Stoddard for guidance, then paused when he realized how sympathetic he was to the Fascists with whom Americans fought. Non-racists, meanwhile, might have looked slightly differently at the facts — its one thing to paint Japanese aircraft carriers as dangerous because they’re “Yellow,” something else entirely to figure out what to do about them. And if the Japanese of the 1920s were a threat, might that be better contained by trading amicably with them, competing to see who builds better aircraft, rather than fixating on skin tones? Maybe they could even build products Americans would want?

Stoddard saw such thinking as fantasy. To him, inevitably, the Japanese and Chinese would unite to try to conquer the world. And also, the Muslims would dominate India and try the same. And…well, other, similar silliness.

Stoddard is now an object of scorn, ignored because his premises are wretched, facts unreliable, conclusions generally ludicrous. Yet other minds keep repeating bits and pieces of the process Stoddard personified: same dung, new wrapper.

Photo by Dave Photoz on Unsplash

Take, for example, Samuel Huntington — strike the word ‘race’ and replace with ‘civilization,’ and presto, one has an equally useless cesspit in a proposed “Clash of Civilizations.”

Meanwhile, Jim Crow segregation is mostly gone. But are schools any less segregated? Has zoning helped house people better than 100 years ago, or has it mostly resulted in communities walling themselves off, keeping “problems" out, or locking them away somewhere?

Burning books that are crap makes a noxious odor. Better to publish them as a reminder and a warning— let such crap sit and compost, feed it to the worms (or bookworms), see if they can process it into more useful stuff. A fertile soil of ideas can be replenished from time to time by adding in a bit of garbage.

Even if garbage is too toxic to break down easily, it’s worth learning why and trying to figure out how to handle or limit it. Disposing of the bad stuff may require clarity about just how bad it actually is, and how quickly we can produce more of it without realizing what we’ve done.

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Edit: After writing most of this piece, I re-read Ian Frazier’s article, “When W. E. B. Du Bois Made a Laughingstock of a White Supremacist.” I’d ‘glanced’ at it before, maybe even skimmed it, but didn’t remember the story until looking again to figure out why Gutenberg might publish even such terrible books, and what that means in a world of book bans. I forgot Stoddard and Grant, probably never read the story closely. Sometimes, Google offers us gifts: Frazier’s take destroys Stoddard and spotlights Du Bois. Instructive, beautiful, hilarious.



Tom Tordillo

Necromancer unleashing zombie hordes from Project Gutenberg to work literary atrocities. Also father/lawyer/commentator/ironic.