BookNotes: The un-American and communistical Robin Hood

BookNotes: The un-American and communistical Robin Hood

Mike Selby

Robin Hood has had many enemies over the centuries. He fought against absolute religious authority in the English Ballads of the 14th century; civil authority in numerous stage plays (including two by Shakespeare); the Norman aristocracy in Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe,’; and Prince John along with the Sherriff of Nottingham in Howard Pyle’s 1883 novel ‘The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottingham Shire.’

No one could have predicted that the great outlaw of English folklore would come up against Joseph McCarthy. Yet that is exactly what happened in the fall of 1953, when a Mrs. Thomas J. White called for the purge of any text mentioning Robin Hood in all Indiana schools and libraries. White — the chair of the Indiana Textbook Committee — somehow equated Hood’s ethic of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor as “textbook” communism.

“There is a Communist directive in education now to stress the story of Robin Hood,” she told the state school authorities. “They want to stress it because he robbed the rich and gave it to the poor. That’s the Communist line. It’s just a smearing of law and order and anything that disrupts law and order is their meat.”

Laughable I know. Except at the time the United States was at the height of McCarthyism and the Red Scare. Telling White she was crazy or even disagreeing with her was a great way to find one’s name on a list of subversives, which typically ended in the loss of one’s job. Family, friends and neighbors would be investigated as well, with serious consequences awaiting those not in step with this political agenda of fear and repression.

A handful of Indiana University at Bloomington didn’t care. They felt it ridiculous and morally repugnant to equate Robin Hood with communism. Not only does the story predate the origins of communist thought by centuries, but it has nothing to do with the ideology at all. All versions of the story are about the misconduct of the privileged. There is no hint of the “worker’s paradise” promised by Marx and Engels. If anything Robin Hood would be the hero of the oppressed living in a communist country.

So the students began what history would call the Green Feather Movement. After gathering thousands of feathers from Indiana poultry farms, they went around to all campus classrooms and tacked a feather on each bulletin board (after they had dipped each one in green dye). They had white buttons with green feathers made, and sent these out to universities all over the United States. Green Feather movements took hold at Illinois State University, Purdue, and Harvard.

This story quickly made it across the Atlantic, where the real Sheriff of Nottingham (sadly reduced from a medieval arch villain to head of courtroom security) chimed in: “Why Robin Hood is no Communist,” he told reporters. “Although if were alive today, we’d probably call him a gangster.” It even made its way to Russia, where the Soviets — not known for their sense of humor — laughed at the notion.

No one was laughing back in Indiana, where the F.B.I. began surveillance of Green Feather members. A file was created for each student involved, with agents set to infiltrate this most subversive of causes.

And then it all became moot. The Indiana State School Administration voted against White’s recommendation, and any and all versions of Robin Hood remained in the state’s schools and libraries. This was quickly followed by Joseph McCarthy’s censure by the U.S. Senate, the beginning of the end of his reign of domestic terror.

“No man in all merry England shall be my master,” Robin Hood famously said to the Sheriff of Nottingham. Neither will a mid-20th century Hoosier woman.

Mike Selby is Information Services Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library