Today is World Book Day.
Away back in the dark ages of the late 1980s, when I was a young and idealistic Head of English in a secondary school, I was taken aback when a story reached me of an act of censorship for which I was not prepared. Our headteacher, with whom I had a good relationship, had been driving across the country the previous weekend when he chanced upon a radio discussion about ‘Forever’, Judy Blume’s novel for young teens. The book was reportedly sexually explicit (it isn’t really) and was causing quite a stir. The following day he happened to walk into a class where one of the girls was reading the book, demanded that she hand it over, and returned it to the library with the instruction that it should be removed from the shelves. Word quickly got round, and within a few weeks there was hardly a girl, and very few boys, who hadn’t read it.
The banning of books is not new of course, particularly in those parts of the world where religious puritanism still has a strong grip. Perhaps the Headteacher who decided to ban the award-winning play Black Watch in her school (full story here) has friends in Kansas, where last week the State Senate approved a bill which would allow prosecutors to bring charges to teachers and school administrators for assigning or distributing materials judged harmful to students (read the story here). The bill was introduced by the Republican state senator Mary Pilcher-Cook, who says it is necessary to prevent the distribution of pornography in schools, a situation which ‘has not previously arisen’, while fellow Republican, senator Joseph Scapa, cited as an example of pornography a novel by Nobel Literature winner Toni Morrison, proving apparently that he is well-read and not-very-well-read at the same time.
Read the full text of this blogpost which first appeared on Bella Caledonia.
Many of the modern texts which have come to define America and American literature have been banned at one time or another. Here is a selection of them. A more complete list can be found on the Banned Books Week website under Banned Books That Shaped America.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, 1884
The first ban on Mark Twain’s American classic in Concord, MA in 1885, called it “trash and suitable only for the slums.” Objections to the book have evolved, but only marginally. Twain’s book is one of the most-challenged of all time and is frequently challenged even today because of its frequent use of the word “nigger.” Otherwise it is alleged the book is “racially insensitive,” “oppressive,” and “perpetuates racism.”
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley, 1965 (Grove Press)
Objectors have called this seminal work a “how-to-manual” for crime and decried it for its “anti-white statements”. The book presents the life story of Malcolm Little, also known as Malcolm X, who was a human rights activist and who has been called one of the most influential Americans in recent history.
Beloved, Toni Morrison, 1987
Again and again, this Pulitzer-prize winning novel, by perhaps the most influential African-American writer of all time is assigned to high school English students. And again and again, parental complaints are lodged against the book because of its violence, sexual content and discussion of bestiality.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown, 1970
Subtitled “An Indian History of the American West,” this book tells the story of the USA’s growth and expansion into the West from the point of view of Native Americans. It was banned by a school district official in Wisconsin in 1974 because the book might be polemical and they wanted to avoid controversy at all costs. “If there’s a possibility that something might be controversial, then why not eliminate it,” the official is quoted as saying at the time.
The Call of the Wild, Jack London, 1903
Generally hailed as Jack London’s best work, The Call of the Wild is commonly challenged for its dark tone and bloody violence. Because it is seen as a man-and-his-dog story, it is sometimes read by adolescents and subsequently challenged for age-inappropriateness. Not only have objections been raised in the US, but the book was banned in Italy, in former Yugoslavia, and burned in bonfires in Nazi Germany in the late 1920s and early 30s because it was considered “too radical.”
Catch-22, Joseph Heller, 1961
A school board in Strongsville, Ohio, refused to allow the book to be taught in high school English classrooms in 1972. It also refused to consider Cat’s Cradle as a substitute text and removed both books from the school library. The issue eventually led to a 1976 District Court ruling overturning the ban in Minarcini v. Strongsville.
The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger, 1951
Young Holden, favourite child of the censor. Frequently removed from classrooms and school libraries because it is “unacceptable,” “obscene,” “blasphemous,” “negative,” “foul,” “filthy,” and “undermines morality.” And to think Holden always believed that “people never notice anything.”
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, 1953
Rather than ban the book about book-banning outright, Venado Middle school in Irvine, CA used an expurgated version of the text in which all the “hells” and “damns” were blacked out. Other complaints have said the book went against objectors’ religious beliefs.
For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway, 1940
Shortly after its publication the U.S. Post Office, declared the book ‘non-mailable’. In the 1970s, eight Turkish booksellers were tried for “spreading propaganda unfavorable to the state” because they had published and distributed the text. This wasn’t Hemingway’s only banned book – A Farewell to Arms and Across the River and Into the Trees were also censored domestically and in Ireland, South Africa, Germany and Italy.
Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell, 1936
The Pulitzer-prize winning novel (which three years after its publication became an Academy-Award Winning film) follows the life of the spoiled daughter of a southern plantation owner from before and the fall of the Confederacy to the decline of the South in the aftermath of the Civil War. Critically praised for its thought-provoking and realistic depiction of ante- and postbellum life in the South, it has also been banned for more or less the same reasons. Its realism has come under fire, specifically its portrayal of slavery and use of the words “nigger” and “darkies.”
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, 1939
Kern County, California has the great honor both of being the setting of Steinbeck’s novel and being the first place where it was banned (1939). Objections to profanity, especially ‘goddamn’ and the like, as well as sexual references, continued from then into the 1990s. It is a work with international banning appeal: the book was also banned in Ireland in the 50s and a group of booksellers in Turkey were taken to court for “spreading propaganda” in 1973.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925
Perhaps the first great American novel that comes to the mind of the average person, this book chronicles the booze-infused and decadent lives of East Hampton socialites. It was challenged at the Baptist College in South Carolina because of the book’s language and mere references to sex.
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, 1952
Ellison’s book won the 1953 National Book Award for Fiction because it expertly dealt with issues of black nationalism, Marxism and identity in the twentieth century. Considered to be too expert in its ruminations for some high schools, the book was banned from high school reading lists and schools in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington state.
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman, 1855
If they don’t understand you, sometimes they ban you. This was the case when the great American poem Leaves of Grass was first published and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice found the sensuality of the text disturbing. Caving to pressure, booksellers in New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania conceded to advising their patrons not to buy the “filthy” book.
Moby-Dick or The Whale, Herman Melville,1851
In a real head-scratcher of a case, a Texas school district banned the book from its Advanced English class lists because it “conflicted with their community values” in 1996. Community values are frequently cited in discussions over challenged books by those who wish to censor them.
The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane, 1895
Restricting access and refusing to allow teachers to teach books is still a form of censorship in many cases. Crane’s book was among many on a list compiled by the Bay District School board in 1986 after parents began lodging informal complaints about books in an English classroom library.
A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams, 1947
The sexual content of this play, which later became a popular and critically acclaimed film, raised eyebrows and led to self-censorship when the film was being made. The director left a number of scenes on the cutting room floor to get an adequate rating and protect against complaints of the play’s immorality.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee, 1960
Harper Lee’s great American tome stands as proof positive that the censorious impulse is alive and well in our country, even today. For some educators, the Pulitzer-prize winning book is one of the greatest texts teens can study in an American literature class. Others have called it a degrading, profane and racist work that “promotes white supremacy.”
Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak, 1963
Sendak’s work is beloved by children in the generations since its publication and has captured the collective imagination. Many parents and librarians, however, did much hand-wringing over the dark and disturbing nature of the story. They also wrung their hands over the baby’s penis drawn in In the Night Kitchen.