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Banned, Burned and Bowdlerized Books

Andrew Madigan By Andrew Madigan Published on September 5, 2016

Societies ban books to retain power. Information that threatens or criticizes their beliefs or way of life is dangerous, so they eliminate it. In a society ruled by military, religious or merely charismatic demagogues, the leadership censors whatever information runs contrary to propaganda, official doctrine, or the efficient machinery of law. Writers can face exile, jail and even execution. In more progressive societies people tend to have more power, so factions rise up, protest a particular book, and force the presumptive leadership to do the banning for them. Without any irony intended, at the Mark Twain Middle School in the state of Virginia, for example, concerned parents made sure that Huckleberry Finn was removed from the school because of "racially insensitive" language and content.

Books are rarely banned outright today in democratic societies, but they are frequently “challenged” by individuals or groups. This means that someone lodges a complaint and wants the book removed from public view or placed in a restricted area that can only be accessed by adults or with special permission. In the US, books are typically challenged because of sexual content, offensive language or because they are “unsuited to any age group.”

Judy Blume, the beloved YA author, is the writer whose books are most often challenged. Born over 100 years earlier, Mark Twain suffers a similar fate. His work, especially Huckleberry Finn, is singled out for racially offensive language and for addressing controversial issues such as race and slavery. Other books are challenged because they explore drugs, alcohol, religion, abortion, suicide, homosexuality, AIDS, smoking, gambling, or, like Dave Pilkey’s The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby, “encouraging poor spelling.” From 2000-09 the most challenged books were the Harry Potter series, primarily for dealing with witchcraft, setting a bad example, and generally being “dark.” This should remind us that the history of publishing is also the history of censorship, even within liberal, democratic societies that boast of free speech. To misquote Animal Farm, a slim novel that’s been widely banned: Some speech is freer than others.

Censorship is not a recent phenomenon, however. According to China’s Records of the Grand Historian, during the third century BCE, Empower Qin Shi Huang burned the writings of Confucius so that his people would forget old ideas and more fully support his own reign. He purportedly buried alive nearly 500 scholars for possession of the illicit books.

Sometimes a book becomes notorious long after it’s written. Boccaccio’s The Decameron, a collection of linked stories written in 1353, was banned from the US mail in 1873 under the Comstock Law, which prohibited sending or receiving “obscene” or “immoral“ materials. A few of the tales are provocative and racy, but perhaps the real crime was that Boccaccio addressed the greed and sexual appetites of Catholic priests. In 1922, the book was seized in Ohio and the US government imposed an import ban in 1926. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1478) borrowed freely from The Decameron in both structure and subject matter; fittingly, it was also banned under the Comstock Law. Like many censored materials, both books are now classics. The controversy only increased their popularity and artistic reputation.

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Illustration showing the burning of William Pynchon's book

In 1650 William Pynchon’s The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption became the first book made contraband in the New World. Pynchon—an ancestor of postmodern writer-recluse Thomas Pynchon—was an affluent merchant and well-respected leader in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. However, shortly after his book was published in London, a few copies trickled into the colonies. He was put on trial for heresy, and his books were burned on Boston Common, because his work questioned several elements of Puritan theology.

Like Pynchon, Molière got into trouble by challenging the religious orthodoxy. His play Tartuffe, or The Hypocrite was outlawed—in both print and performance—by Louis XIV shortly after its debut in 1664. The king had enjoyed the play, as did the public, but the Archbishop of Paris objected to the manner in which Catholicism was portrayed. Tartuffe is a satire of religious hypocrisy that criticizes both the aristocracy and the Catholic hierarchy. Afterward, Molière was disheartened and never wrote such a vital drama again, but he succeeded in making the word "Tartuffe," in both English and French, an eponym for someone who feigns great virtue.

Religious texts—or literary works that address religion—are among the most often proscribed. The Bible and the Qur’an, for example, have been banned by many societies during various epochs. More recently, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003) was banned in Lebanon in 2004 after representatives of the Catholic Church declared the novel offensive to Christianity and insulting toward Jesus.

Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) is perhaps the most famous case of a literary work banned on religious grounds. Rushdie was accused of blaspheming against Islam and the novel was banned in Egypt, India, Iran, Kuwait, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Thailand, Senegal and other countries. A fatwa was pronounced by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, demanding that pious Muslims kill Rushdie, forcing the writer into hiding for ten years.

The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) by Goethe led to the eponymous “Werther Effect”—a steep rise in copycat suicides following a famous instance of self-harm. The novel, a touchstone for the Romantic movement, concerns Werther, a sensitive young artist who kills himself because of unrequited love. Werther catapulted Goethe into immense fame. “Werther Fever” spread throughout the Continent as young men adopted the style of clothing and accessories described in the novel. Even Napoleon was infected. He read Werther with voracious pleasure while pillaging Egypt.

Not surprisingly, the infamous Marquis de Sade faced public-reception issues. The 120 Days of Sodom (1789), composed while he was imprisoned in the Bastille, is a long, vivid, rambling account of fetishes, sexual violence, orgies and other explicit activities. First published in 1904 by a German psychiatrist, under a pseudonym, the book didn’t become notorious until mid-century. The French government wanted to destroy de Sade’s writing, but many notable scholars and thinkers, such as Simone de Beauvoir, hailed it as significant work. Sodom was banned in Austria in 1957 for obscenity (and, quite possibly, for bad taste).

Legend has it that Abraham Lincoln credited Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), by Harriet Beecher Stowe, with starting the Civil War. An anti-slavery novel, it was banned during the war in the American South, for obvious reasons. Less obviously, it was also banned in Russia during the reign of Nicholas I, for spreading inappropriate notions of equality and, somehow, “undermining religious ideals.” This warns us not to expect reason or common sense from book-censors.

Sex, of course, has long been a pretext for banning books, particularly if the sexual being is a woman and she exhibits pleasure or cheats on a man. For these reasons Madame Bovary (1856), Ulysses (1922) and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) were banned. The Well of Loneliness (1928) by Radclyffe Hall was proscribed for depicting lesbianism. The Fifty Shades series (2011-12) was banned in Malaysia, among other places, for “sadistic” content, though, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it’s also guilty of many aesthetic crimes.

Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934), a semi-fictionalized memoir, was famously banned for sexual content. It was published by the Obelisk Press of Paris, one of several publishers specializing in books prohibited from being printed elsewhere. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955) was, rather predictably, banned for its comic and ironic take on pedophilia.

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Few will be shocked or offended to learn that Hitler’s Mein Kampf (1925-26) has ruffled a few feathers—for ideological, moral and political reasons—but less controversial books have suffered the same fate. The Soviet Union was a big fan of censorship. Dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was branded an enemy of the state and deported, had several books outlawed, including One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) and The Gulag Archipelago (1973). George Orwell’s most famous novels, Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949) were both banned in the USSR because they indirectly criticized the government. Initially, Animal Farm couldn’t even find a UK publisher because, completed during World War II, the USSR was a British ally and therefore publication would have been politically unsound. The novel was also banned in the UAE for featuring a talking pig, which was deemed anti-Islamic, and is still banned in China, Cuba, Kenya and North Korea for its insulting portrayal of leaders.

Sex, politics and religion are popular reasons to ban, but some books are outlawed for less predictable motives. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll was banned in Hunan, China in 1931 for depicting animals that acted like human beings, suggesting that both species were equal. This was seen as an insult to humans and a bad lesson for children. The Diary of Anne Frank (1947) was banned in Lebanon for its positive depiction of Jews, Israel and Zionism, as was William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice (1979).

Most peculiar of all, Green Eggs and Ham (1960) by Dr. Seuss, a text as brilliant and beloved as it is innocuous was banned in China in 1965 for purportedly rendering Marxism in a bad light. The ban was lifted in 1991 after Seuss’s death, so perhaps that’s a partial win for free speech. 


Freelance writer (food, drinks, books, travel, music, film) and former professor (creative writing, literature, Islamic studies, US history) and magazine editor who's lived in the UK, New York, ... Show More


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