“Book banning” began as early as 500 B.C.E with the Roman Empire. Since, censorship has seen many transitions. Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, centuries defined by their tumultuous political and religious happenings, book burnings were common. Authors and publishers could even be hung or flayed for what they printed. Revolutionaries the likes of John Milton played a large role in promoting free press in the mid-seventeenth century, risking their lives and, sometimes more importantly, their reputations. (See John Milton’s influential tract Areopagitica for a poignant argument on the benefits of demolishing England’s strict censorship of ideas and how such an act would promote fluent literature.) Many of the precedents set by these brave pamphleteers helped to establish the freedom of press that we enjoy today.
While we may not have been exposed to the degree of censorship to which John Milton and others were accustomed for several centuries, you would be surprised by what books were banned in our own country’s recent history and why.
In three installments, we will provide short lists of some of the most surprising banned books, just in time for our banned book celebration at our forthcoming First Friday event (June 6th!).
And so we ask, how scandalous is your reading history?
1. Candide by: Voltaire (1759)
Candide was confiscated by the US Customs in the early 1930’s for its “obscenities.”
2. The Canterbury Tales by: Geoffrey Chaucer (published late 14th century)
Despite being in circulation for centuries, the United States banned this book under the Federal Anti-Obscenity Act (1873).
3. The Grapes of Wrath by: John Steinbeck (1939)
California banned this novel, mainly because it portrayed individuals native to the state in an unflattering light.
4. Ulysses by: James Joyce (1922)
Temporarily banned in the United States in the early 1930’s for its sexual content. It was also banned in the UK and restricted to those over the age of 18 in Australia.
5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by: Mark Twain (1884)
In the year following its publication, Twain’s work was banned, labeld “trash suitable only for the slums.” The main objections with this formative book were its overt racial overtones.
6. Beloved by: Toni Morrison (1987)
Like many of this Pulitzer-prize winner’s remarkable works, Beloved was banned because of its violence, sexual content, and dealings with bestiality.
7. The Catcher in the Rye by: J.D. Salinger (1951)
Referenced as “obscene,” “blasphemous,” “foul,” and “filthy”, this book and it’s central character, Holden Caufield, are notorious for the censorship surrounding them.
8. The Great Gatsby by: F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
Depicting the sensuous, extravagant life lived by the Lost Generation, contemporaries didn’t take too kindly to Fitzgerald’s implied opinion on the futility surrounding the upper class at the time. Given the mild language, alcohol abuse, and sexual references which litter the book’s pages, it wasn’t difficult to get this great American novel banned upon its publishing.
9. Leaves of Grass by: Walk Whitman (1855)
A highly misunderstood work, those who first came across Whitman’s book of poetry after publication found the sensuality surrounding his poems to be disturbing and objectionable. It didn’t take long for it to be pegged as “filthy,” and many prominent book-sellers strongly advised patrons against purchasing what would become one of the most momentous works of American poetry to date.
10. Where the Wild Things Are by: Maurice Sendak (1963)
While today we know this story to be a childhood favorite, upon it’s publication, it was ill-received due to its disturbing nature.