Book Banning: Censorship in the History of Literature

Take a look at a list of commonly banned books and one can see connections between many of them. Most attempted bans are based on four arguments. These are political, sexual, religious and social grounds for banning. 100 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature is broken into sections dealing with each of these four subsections of ban attempts. Each section covers 25 books and the reasons behind their bans or ban attempts. Many of these categories cover other areas, sexual bans are also generally attempted as religious bans and religion and politics go hand in hand.

Although Americans live in relative freedom, censorship has made its mark throughout our history. Many of our greatest pieces of literature have had attempted bans. In Belleville, Michigan, science teachers were forced to tear pages out of their science books which contained references to abortions. It is this social banning, a prohibition of ideas that make some people uncomfortable, that cause us to ban books. In 1983 Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl was censored by the Alabama Textbook Commission because it was “a real downer” (xii). Portions of the book were cut out completely because they included references to her friend’s growing breasts and her own menstruation.

The phrase “suppressed on political grounds” evokes an image of a heavy-handed government blocking its citizens from receiving information. Some will picture a totalitarian regime in these instances but our own democracy has a history of banning , or attempting to ban, books that they feel threaten state security. In many other instances books have attempted bans at the local level. School boards, parents groups and other citizens often attempt bans on political grounds. Many times the ban attempts claim that children are being fed ideas about such issues as communism and socialism, or that the books sow a lack of patriotism towards the United States. Some texts within this section have extensive banning histories. The Grapes of Wrath was challenged and burned within months of its release and has been the subject of ban attempts frequently over the past 50 years. The censorship of Solzhenitsyn’s three volume books gained national notoriety while some books, such as Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, were quietly targeted as bans throughout the schools.

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Suppression on Religious Grounds should come to no surprise to the people of the United States. In a time when we are not allowed to say the “Pledge of Allegiance” due to the inclusion of the word “God”, it is a commonly held belief that any religious intolerance is walking a fine line. Book censorship in the Western world can be traced back to the beginning of Christianity when the church would suppress any competing view as heretical. In the second century, the council of Ephesus burned suspicious books and prohibited the Acta Pauli, a history of St. Paul. In the fifth century the pope issued the first list on banned books. From the earliest times, religious orthodoxy and politics have been interconnected. To be a heretic was to be a traitor.

By the 18th century underground publishing was so common that France’s book censor, Malesherbes, stated “a man who had read only books that originally appeared with the formal approval of the government would be behind his contemporaries by nearly a century.” (170). Perhaps the most famous and effective of banned book lists was the “Index of Forbidden Books”. It was abolished by the Vatican in 1966 after four centuries of existence. The church had lost its ability to enforce the list long before its eventual demise. In the 42nd and final Index, issued in 1948, there were a total of 4,126 books were prohibited to Catholics. Although the First Amendment prevents the government from practicing religious censorship, many religious fundamentalists have successfully removed books from school libraries, curriculum and even public libraries. The majority of bans were granted due to immorality, profane language and sexuality. Targets have included textbooks that teach evolution without discussion creationism.

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The small selection of books discussed in this book are only a sampling of the thousands of books that have been targets of religious censorship over the years. Included are texts from major Western Philosophers, texts of the world’s major religions, outstanding literature selections and scientific pages. Many of the books were branded with the charge of heresy, others were called blasphemous but ultimately, all were seen as a danger to orthodoxy, faith, morals and/or political order.

Literature suppressed on Sexual Grounds happens much less frequently than it once did. Many books that were once in locked cabinets have now entered high school classrooms and are displayed on library shelves. Many students who pick up these books have no idea of their troubled past. In 1961 The U.S Supreme Court heard arguments about whether D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was lewd or literary. By 1969 the book was required college reading. Many other books followed suit and book’s that were once thought of as smut were considered important literary works. Many books in the 19th and early 20th centuries were banned simply because they discussed or alluded to ideas such as prostitution, unwed pregnancy and adultery. In 1957, the U.S. Supreme Court changed its definition of obscenity to works that had sexual content but no redeeming social importance. While many formerly banned books gained acceptance, new works have freely included sexual details.

Books suppressed on Social Grounds include literary works that have been banned and challenged due to racial characterization, language, drug use, sexual orientation or other social differences. Marc Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was banned in the past for being “obscene” due to its language and portrayal of the black race. The books in this section are here because they do not conform to the social, racial or sexual standards of their censors.

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For as long as there has been writing, there has been censorship. Many bans are lifted in time and as societies change, so do the reasons for ban attempts. Moroccan writer Nadia Tazi made the following statement on censorship: “A book cannot be killed, it lives and dies on its own. Once the vases are broken, the fragments of life spread through the world; voices escape, going their adventurous ways; and there are always encounters, mutations, and festivals of the spirit.”

Karolides, N. J., Bald, M & Sova, D. (1999). 100 Banned books: Censorship histories of world literature. New York: Checkmark Books.