What ‘Henry Huggins’ and ‘Lolita’ can teach us about extremism – and the value of civil discourse

Michael Dirda

THE WASHINGTON POST – Beverly Cleary, whose early works were among the first chapter books I discovered in my elementary school library, is now 103. Back when I wrote The Washington Post’s Young Bookshelf column during the 1980s, she actually sent me an inscribed copy of her memoir A Girl from Yamhill. It seemed strange and wonderful that the writer whose tales of Henry Huggins had taught me to read was now asking me to review one of her books.

Starting with her first novel, Cleary introduced even third-graders to aesthetic and moral complexity. The eight-year-old hero of Henry Huggins encounters a starving dog, takes it home, cares for Ribsy – as he names the stray – and the two quickly become inseparable. In the final chapter, however, Ribsy’s former owner appears – and turns out to be a personable young man who loves the dog as much as Henry does.

By refusing to cast Ribsy’s earlier owner as an abusive master, Cleary complicates an already heartbreaking dilemma: To whom does the dog belong? The decision finally rests with Ribsy, who is placed halfway between Henry and the nice young man. Both then call the dog to come, the former owner using his pet’s old name. After considerable waffling, Ribsy finally trots over to Henry.

This scene proved a major turning point in my intellectual life. For the first time, I realised that stories didn’t invariably close with a Disneyish happy ending. Even though Henry got to keep his dog, the nice young man lost his (though he was granted weekend visiting privileges). Because of Henry Huggins, I began to understand that there were situations in life without easy or even wholly satisfying solutions. As the years passed, I grew especially wary of binary thinking, of any attitude of “us vs them”, of rabid adherence to ideologies that valued abstract principles over real-life people.

A supple, graduated response to others and their actions struck me as the hallmark of a humane and civilised intelligence.

Zealotry, after all, doesn’t deal in nuance, and it seldom cuts anyone a bit of slack. Devotees of social media, in particular, regularly flout Anton Chekhov’s profound dictum that, above all else, people must never be humiliated.

No one ever forgives being insulted and demeaned. Yet just think of the indefensibly vicious tweets emitted by the smug, temporary resident of the White House. Would you want your children to talk and act so cruelly?

Absolutism, whether political, aesthetic or religious, leads to favouring those who conform to our beliefs and condemning everyone else. In the arts, this can result in near hysteria at the discovery of sexism, racism or exoticism in the masterpieces of earlier ages.