Across the globe and throughout human history, books have been challenged, banned, and censored. But why? They are simply strings of letters compiled into sentences, mere pieces of paper bound together inside cardboard covers. Yet individuals, and even governments, have gone to great lengths to ensure certain works don’t get within reach of vulnerable minds.
The history of banned books in America
The first ‘banned book’ in America was probably Thomas Mortan’s 1637 anti-Puritan New English Canaan. Printed in Holland, the British seized it upon import as suspected anti-Anglican work.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, many states in the U.S. passed anti-literacy laws, making it illegal for enslaved persons to access any books. As Frederick Douglas stated, “Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.” Literacy threatened the power dynamic, especially after abolitionist David Walker’s 1829 publication of Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, which openly advocated rebellion.
Later in the 19th century, both Britain and America created organizations to ensure books and other ‘vices’ didn’t dirty the morals of society. In the 18th century, England created the Society for the Reformation of Manners which developed into the Proclamation Society Against Vice and Immortality. By 1802, it was The Society for the Suppression of Vice.
In the U.S., the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice was founded in 1873. Anthony Comstock became the secretary and led the anti-vice campaign for morals with tenacious enthusiasm. As the United States Postal Inspector, his ability to censor items in the mail was far-reaching. Congress even passed a ‘Comstock Law’ in 1873, which banned the mailing of certain items, including naughty books and information on contraception – making it hard for medical students to get anatomy books. In 1929 Anthony Comstock and the Young Men’s Christian Association (better known as the YMCA) seized 3,000 books from three book dealers; titles included Ulysses, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and novels by Oscar Wilde, Frank Harris, and Clement Wood. In 1947 the agency changed its name to the Society to Maintain Public Decency, but it soon dissolved in 1950 after John S. Sumner’s retirement.
Still, the Cold War and Red Scare of the 1950s had individuals and communities in arms about specific books. To counter the censorship attacks, booksellers began “Read Banned Books” campaigns.
In 1965 the American Library Association decided a unit should be formed to “promote and protect the interests of intellectual freedom.” On December 1st, 1967, The Office for Intellectual Freedom was established with Judith F. Krug, a librarian, and free speech proponent, as the first director. In 1982, after a surge in the number of challenged books, Krug helped to co-found Banned Books Week. 1982 was also the year that the Supreme Court ruled school officials could not ban books solely based on their content. The American Booksellers Association brought banned books to the nation’s attention, and since then, Banned Books Week has been celebrated annually in September.
Why are books banned?
Books are banned for a variety of reasons – religion, politics, sex, society, race, and increasingly issues of gender have been cited as reasons to challenge a book. If you look hard enough, you can find your favorite book has probably been banned somewhere at some time, including The Giving Tree, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harriet the Spy, Where The Wild Things Are, and James and the Giant Peach.
Where are books challenged? Mostly public libraries, but also schools and school libraries. The 20th century has brought in a new phenomenon on the book banning front – people censoring titles they haven’t actually read. (Based on the title of this article alone, I am willing to bet some people will complain and comment on this post without reading it.)
Below is a list of classically challenged novels that have changed the face of publishing and society through their words.
14 books commonly banned throughout American history
Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, more popularly known as Fanny Hill, was written by English author John Cleland while in debtor’s prison and published in London in 1748. It is one of the oldest erotic novels in the English Language, and one of the most prosecuted and banned books in history.
The American journal The Little Review serialized James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses, from 1918 through 1920 and subsequently charged under the Comstock Act of 1873 for sending obscene articles through the mail. A trial in the U.S. in 1921 deemed the material obscene and banned the novel. Court cases in 1932 and 1934 decided the story was not pornographic and therefore not obscene and lifted the ban, making the U.S. the first English speaking country to have the book available. The London Literary journal The Egoist serialized parts of Ulysses, but the U.K. also banned it until 1936.
A few books on the ‘Banned’ list are considered among the Great American novels, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of them. Published in 1884 in the U.K. and Canada and in 1885 in the U.S., the book is both celebrated for its authentic vernacular and criticized for its vulgar language and racial slurs. Initially, several libraries would not carry the text because it was considered too coarse. Today the novel remains one of the most challenged in school systems, primarily because of the repeated use of racial epithets.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928)
Lady Chatterley’s Lover was the last novel by British author D.H. Lawrence. It was published privately in Italy in 1928 and distributed to 2,000 subscribers in England, the U.S., and France. In 1929, 200 more copies were printed in France, and then pirated editions began to appear. Highly censored and abridged versions were published in the U.K. and U.S. in 1932, two years after the author’s death. The affair between a working-class man and upper-class woman, steamy sex scenes, and four letters words were too much for many censors, who banned the book in the U.K., the U.S., Japan, Canada, Australia, and India. With the passing of the Obscene Publications Act 1959, publishers would not be convicted of obscenity if works held literary merit. In a famous case, “R v Penguin Books Ltd,” Lady Chatterley’s Lover won the right to publication, and in 1960, on the first day of release, the novel sold 200,000 copies.
The Well of Loneliness (1928)
One of the first books to openly discuss lesbianism, The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, caused a serious scandal when Jonathan Cape published it in 1928. The publisher was wary about the book and only ran an initial 1,500 copies, pricing them at 15 shillings, double the price of a typical novel. The story didn’t spark any controversy until James Douglas, editor of The Sunday Express, got ahold of it, and ran a campaign to have it suppressed. The book was not banned for erotic content but because the author presented homosexuality as a natural state of being, something inborn. Some were afraid this would corrupt readers’ morals. Jonathan Cape stopped publishing the title in England but leased the rights to Pegasus Press in France. The U.S. and the U.K. courts sought to suppress the book but it did the opposite, launching it into the spotlight. Many well-known authors and intellectuals, including Leonard Woolf and E.M. Forster, came out against censorship. While a British court did manage to ban publication for thirty years, in the U.S., the book remained in print.
The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
With sexual content, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and the foul language of its 16-year-old protagonist Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye, has it all. Between 1961 and 1982, it was the most censored book in high schools and libraries in the U.S. In 1981, it was also the second most taught book, proving its literary merit.
Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
Fahrenheit 451, so named after the temperature where books auto-ignite and burn, is a 1953 dystopian novel by Ray Bradbury about “firemen” that find and destroy books. In the novel, books, as opposed to other media like television, hold dangerous ideas and must be destroyed. The story was first published in 1953, alongside a limited edition run made with asbestos covers. In 1967, Ballantine books released an expurgated version that removed words like “hell,” “damn,” and “abortion” and changed some scenes, including a ‘drunk man’ to a ‘sick man.’ When Bradbury learned of this censorship, he demanded Ballantine withdraw the bowdlerized manuscript. Ironically, the novel has been burned, banned, and challenged in countries and high schools across the globe.
After Nabakov finished the manuscript for Lolita in 1953, he could not find a publisher in the U.S. He went overseas to Olympia Press in Paris, which sold mainly pornographic novels. Nabakov did not realize this, and the first edition of Lolita, two error-ridden paperback volumes, quickly sold out of the first 5,000 printed. Yet, it wasn’t until the end of 1955 that the novel got any attention when author Graham Greene declared it one of the best books of the year in the Sunday Times. However, officials scrutinized this novel about a middle-aged man obsessed with a twelve-year-old girl and quickly banned the book in Britain, then France. The ban lasted two years. G.P. Putnam’s Sons published the first U.S. edition in August 1958, and in three weeks, it sold 100,000 copies.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
To Kill a Mockingbird has been one of the most challenged books since its publication due to racial slurs, profanity, and frank discussion of rape. Other people have argued that it should be removed from school curriculums because of the ‘white savior complex’ it asserts and the shallow racist stereotypes of many black characters in the novel. Still, the book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, is widely taught in schools, and has sold more than 40 million copies.
Maya Angelou’s groundbreaking autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published in 1969 and became an instant bestseller. It cemented her into the American canon and is a classic in the genre. Still, the book has been challenged for its use of profanity and depiction of rape and racism. Some parents have also deemed it inappropriate because it includes premarital sex, cohabitation, homosexuality, and pornography.
The Bluest Eye (1970)
The first novel by author Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye, has resonated with readers for decades. Set after the Great Depression in Lorain, Ohio, the heartbreaking story of eleven-year-old Pecola is required in many school curriculums. Pecola is sent live with foster parents after her alcoholic father rapes her, leaving her pregnant. Being dark-skinned in a primarily white town, she dreams that having blue eyes will make her beautiful and accepted. Although the book is highly celebrated, it has also been challenged frequently because of offensive language, sexually explicit material, and controversial issues, as well as depicting child sexual abuse.
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
The Handmaid’s Tale has remained a popular classic since its publication in the mid-1980s. A favorite for college curriculums and A.P. literature courses, the story of a dystopian society where fertile white women are forcefully bred for the upper ruling class tackles serious issues about religion, politics, and women’s rights. Yet, it has been challenged numerous times, with parents citing the books sexual violence, torture, political corruption, and portrayal of suicide concerning.
The Satanic Verses (1988)
Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses has been a source of controversy since its publication and has promoted perhaps the most violent reaction to a book in our modern history. Condemned for blasphemy against Islam, the book has been banned in multiple countries, including Pakistan and India. A 10,000-person protest in Pakistan in 1989 resulted in the death of 6 people. In 1989 the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie and his publishers. Several individuals associated with Rushdie were injured and even killed in the aftermath, including Hitoshi Igarashi, Rushdie’s Japanese translator. In August 2022, Rushdie was attacked onstage at an event and stabbed several times.
The Freedom to Read
The freedom to read is essential to democracy, and in the United States, the Constitution protects freedom. Pulling books for being controversial takes away that freedom, limits the broadening of intellect, and stifles creative expression. Ideas can be dangerous, but that also points directly to the deep inherent value of the written word.
You must realize by now that we are being facetious by saying that “banning books is awesome.” The only reason it’s awesome is that it proves how incredibly powerful and important books are. We at Biblio believe in the freedom to read.
More Resources on Banned Books:
The Power of Books- A History of Censorship, Banning and Burning – Retrospect Journal
Amy C. Manikowski is a writer living in Asheville, NC.