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Causing a Stir: Controversial Classics and their Impact on History

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Classic literature is often famed for being important but feared for being stuffy. The canon can seem too old and well-established to be considered radical or controversial, and yet if you take a look at the banned books list, you’ll find a wide range of classic fiction from The Catcher in the Rye to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. More than this, in taking a look through history you’ll find a great many examples of works that are now classics but were, at one time, considered scandalous. These are novels that captured public attention, sparked outrage, been taking to trial, caused riots, inspired laws and perhaps even started wars. We take a look a few of these contentious classic novels that refused to sit quietly on their shelves.

The Uncensored Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is almost iconic as a classic book that caused huge controversy in its time. First published in 1890 in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, the story caused great consternation among reviewers, leading the magazine to be withdrawn from many bookstalls. The story then went through various revisions and expurgations, both from Wilde and editors.

The book follows the character of Dorian Gray who has his portrait painted by Basil Hallward, an artist obsessed with Gray’s beauty. As Gray begins a libertine lifestyle, he makes a Faustian pact that ensures the stains of sin and age fall on the painting rather than on himself. Wilde’s prose jumps off the page, the setting is sumptuous and the dialogue is rich with Wilde’s usual keen repartee, and throughout it delivers a sharp critique of society and art.

The controversy surrounding the story’s morality stemmed from Wilde’s descriptions of hedonistic lifestyles, and most importantly, the potential references to homosexual desire and relationships. It was these allusions that led to the novel’s role in public outrage. Whatever the negative reception it received as a literary work, where the real controversy lies is in its use as evidence in court against Wilde’s character.

In 1895, the Marquess of Queensbury accused Wilde of the crime of sodomy. This led to Wilde suing for libel against Queensbury, and subsequently Wilde’s arrest on the charge of sodomy and gross indecency. At both of these trials, The Picture of Dorian Gray was quoted at length in order to ascertain Wilde’s character and beliefs. This use of fiction as evidence in a trial was unprecedented.

The trails were a public sensation and Dorian Gray became synonymous with indecent behaviour. Over 20 years later another trial of gross indecency noted that the defendants referred to the book in their letters. In his trial Wilde maintained that 

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” 

It would take several decades for this opinion to become accepted, but the 1960s ushered in change, and along with the trials in the UK against Lady Chatterley’s Lover and in the US against Tropic of Cancer there came a triumph of literary merit over governed morality.

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Lady Chatterley's Lover

Lawrence’s most famous work, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, was first published privately in 1928, but the complete and uncensored version was not published openly in the UK until 1960, 30 years after Lawrence’s death. Even then, it led to a landmark obscenity trial against the publisher, Penguin Books. It was a trial that would test the then newly instated Obscene Publications Act, which had been created to root out pornography, while protecting works of literary merit in the United Kingdom. 

The grounds for the prosecution lay mainly in the use of expletives and graphic sexual description, but there was also concern about the depiction of the class-crossing affair of Constance and her gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors. While the prosecution focussed on outlining each and every word they deemed inappropriate, the defense saw a host of esteemed witnesses, including the Bishop of Woolwich, extol the merit of the book. 

The verdict was ruled “not guilty” and the book became almost instantly a best-seller, with Penguin selling over 3 million copies. Perhaps even more importantly, the result of the case can be seen to have led to a lifting of the taboo of discussing sex in the arts and entertainment. Obscenity cases continued for the next few decades but they were increasing irrelevant, the state no longer being seen as the guide for private morality. The success Lady Chatterley’s Lover ushered in a greater freedom in publishing, one which has had a lasting effect to this day. It has also maintained its status of being of literary merit. Lawrence’s modernist prose leaps off the page in his familiar and off-hand voice. Some of his descriptions of the intimacy between the lovers now sound fanciful, even absurd, but what holds the reader is Lawrence’s ability to cast his disparate characters in a cultural landscape which reflects their tensions and changing perspectives.

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The Jungle

When Upton Sinclair wrote his 1906 novel The Jungle his intention was to cause outrage and controversy through exposing the dire conditions of immigrant workers in America’s highly industrialized cities. Set in Chicago, The Jungle follows a young Lithuanian immigrant, Jurgis Rudkus, as he tries to make ends meet and provide for his family. Sinclair’s story is unwaveringly bleak, as Rudkus and his family begin a seemingly inescapable descent into poverty. Most memorable are the stomach churning descriptions of working conditions: 

‘the pelts of the sheep had to be painted with acid to loosen the wool, and then the pluckers had to pull out this wool with their bare hands, till the acid had eaten their fingers off.’

It was these sections that did indeed inspire outrage, but not in the way that Sinclair intended. Instead, the readers were horrified by the unsanitary practices which Sinclair described in the American meatpacking industry. This public pressure resulted in the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 and a greater administrational oversight on the hygiene standards in food. Sinclair, however, was dismayed that the readers gave more thought to their fear of eating “tubercular beef” than to the lives of exploited workers. Sinclair famously remarked “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”  

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Uncle Tom's Cabin

Not all controversial books lead to a trial, the novel that arguably inspired the largest reaction and impact was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Published in 1852, the novel is frequently credited with laying the groundwork for the Civil War. The novel follows Uncle Tom, a black slave, as he is sold from family to family. Stowe juxtaposes the integrity and forbearance of Uncle Tom against the varying morality of his owners, most notably the villainous and violent Simon Legree. 

In writing her book, Stowe hoped to inspire empathy and compassion, and to emphasize the humanity of slaves. While her writing is certainly sentimental, it had a huge cultural impact. Uncle Tom’s Cabin became the best-selling novel of the 19th century, and was the second only to the Bible as the best-selling book of the century. Reactions to the novel were incredibly strong, with one Southerner commenting that it “had given birth to a horror against slavery in the Northern mind which all the politicians could never have created.” Where abolitionists rallied around it, it sparked outrage from defenders of slavery. Booksellers were threatened, and Stowe was sent the severed ear of a black person. There were also many who wrote their own novels in retaliation, depicting the happy lives of slaves.

The novel is credited with focussing anger against slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law. The association between Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the abolitionist movement led to a highly popular but apocryphal story in which Abraham Lincoln, on meeting Stowe at the start of the Civil War, greeted her saying “So this is the little lady who started this great war.” The story may be fictitious but the sentiment was true for many. In the 1950s, Harlem Renaissance leader Langston Hughes said that the book a “moral battle cry for freedom”. Few books can be credited with such an impact on the cultural landscape of a time and country.

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Tropic of Cancer

Where Lady Chatterley’s Lover was the cause of consternation in the UK, in America it was Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer that came in conflict with the pornography laws of the day. The two books share a space in history, both had been banned for decades and both ushered in the 1960s with their publication and subsequent trials. Indeed, it is worth noting that the publisher for Tropic of Cancer, Grove Press, had been the ones to publish Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the US. Both books were made notorious for their explicit descriptions of sex, and both had to fight for recognition of their literary merit.

Tropic of Cancer is part autobiography, part fiction and centers on Miller’s experience as an artist in Paris. Reflecting on the nature of existence in a stream of consciousness style, Miller describes a life of sexual encounters, squalor and despair.

It was published in 1961 but it wasn’t until it was released in paperback for the masses that there was an outcry, with police confiscating it from bookshops. The book saw over 60 obscenity lawsuits in over 21 states. The court opinions on the book varied, but perhaps the most memorable response was that of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Judge, Michael Musmanno who stated 

Cancer is not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity.” 

This quote now appears alongside other notable quotes of commendation in the Penguin Modern Classics edition. Musmanno’s indictment was an unintentionally fitting description of the book, as the narrator himself states, “This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character… this is a prolonged insult, a gob spit in the face of Art”. 

Tropic of Cancer is a journey through civilisation, diseased and corrupted, without nobility. That the book stands in defiance of so much of literary tradition is central to its importance and merit. This merit was recognised in 1964 by the U.S. Supreme Court which declared the book non-obscene. As with Lady Chatterley’s Lover, this verdict was a turning point in obscenity laws and free speech in literature.

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Ten Days in a Mad-House

The final entry on this list breaks from the formula, in that it is a work of non-fiction rather than a novel, although it is told in a narrative style. Nellie Bly’s account of her personal experiences in Ten Days in a Mad-House gripped public imagination in a similar way to the examples listed above. It was a truly pioneering piece in the field of investigative journalism. Reporting for The New York World Bly went undercover, feigning madness in order to be committed to the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island. From there, she took note of the shocking conditions. Her report was originally published in The World but in order to keep up with public demand, she later published the work as a book. In the course of her investigation, Bly undercovered a myriad of failings and abuses, from the ease with which she was declared insane, to the scandalous cruelty of the nurses. 

The public were outraged by the stories she collected, such as Mrs Cotter’s experience:

“For crying the nurses beat me with a broom-handle and jumped on me, injuring me internally so that I will never get over it. Then they tied my hands and feet and, throwing a sheet over my head, twisted it tightly around my throat, so I could not scream.”

The effect of Bly’s account caused great embarrassment among the medical professionals involved and also prompted a grand jury to launch its own investigation, with Bly assisting. The result was that the city received $1 million more per year “for the benefit of the insane.”

Bly’s initiation of this form stunt journalism prompted the kind of response Sinclair had hoped for in The Jungle, which was a renewed awareness and outrage on behalf of those described and a practical response to help them. The details in her book are still graphic and shocking to modern readers, but told through Bly’s distinctively acerbic style it remains a captivating read.

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Archaeologist, explorer, historian, general meddler in all past things. Currently enduring the effects of no less than 23 ancient curses. Always in need of trusted assistants, however there ... Show More

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