Shortly before he died in 1990, Roald Dahl received a letter from two children in San Francisco. “We love your books but you don’t like us because we are Jews… Can you please change your mind?” they wrote. The children expressed the anguish that many adults too feel when an artist they admire holds bigoted views, or acts in their personal life in a manner that taints their work. To separate the art from the artist — Naipaul from his racism, Picasso from his sexism, Wagner from his proto-Nazism — is a feat that is never quite pulled off. There is some solace, though, in the apology — buried in Dahl’s official website — offered by his family and spotted earlier this week.
“Those prejudiced remarks are incomprehensible to us… We hope that, just as he did at his best, at his absolute worst, Roald Dahl can help remind us of the lasting impact of words.” The expression of contrition would, of course, have meant more if it had come from the man himself. Yet, by acknowledging, without justifying, the immense hurt that Dahl’s prejudice caused, the apology asks us to see a public figure as a human being.
Perhaps, Dahl’s small-mindedness hurts more because he was, primarily, a children’s writer. His work informs that phase of life where wonder is alive, where cynicism masquerading as maturity has not quite taken hold. Logically, adults who grew up on his work know that bigotry and talent, creativity and cruelty, can easily go hand in hand. Yet, when you’ve felt Charlie’s joy at finding the golden ticket or experimented, trying to make your own version of George’s Marvellous Medicine, Dahl’s prejudice feels like a personal affront. If only he had responded to that letter from San Francisco all those years ago, and said, “I am sorry. Your admiration means more to me than my prejudice.”