Banned Books That Shaped America: Part 1

Last year, the Library of Congress created an exhibition called “Books That Shaped America.” The LOC doesn’t contend it’s an exclusive list; it was intended to start discussion about books written by Americans that influenced our lives.

The LOC made an apt observation about some of the 88 books on the list. “Some of the titles … have been the source of great controversy, even derision, in U.S. history. Nevertheless, they shaped Americans’ views of their world and the world’s views of America.” How much controversy? Well, according to the American Library Association, 30 books from the list have been banned or challenged.

Given the number, this post is in two parts. The books will be listed chronologically, in part to show that the age of a book doesn’t immunize it from being challenged today. We’ll start today with the older books:

  • The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850) – For well more than a century, Hawthorne’s book has been challenged because of sexual and religious issues, even being called “pornographic” and “obscene”.
  • Moby-Dick; or The Whale, Herman Melville (1851) – This tale of Captain Ahab’s obsession with the white whale was one of 32 books a Texas school district removed it from its advanced English class lists in 1996 because they “conflicted with the values of the community.” Others on the hit list included The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Scarlet Letter.
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852) – This anti-slavery work published before the Civil War is more evidence we don’t like to be reminded of our past. Banned in the South after it was printed for being pro-abolitionist, challenges have continued to the modern day, this time because of what are considered stereotypical depictions of African Americans and “racist'” language.
  • Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman (1855) – Unquestionably one of the country’s greatest books of poetry, the book was challenged by both the New York and the New England “Society for the Suppression of Vice,” causing a Massachusetts publisher to not print it and booksellers in New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania advising customers not to buy the “filthy” book.
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain (1884) — Twain’s classic was first banned in Concord, MA, in 1885, where it was called it “trash and suitable only for the slums.” Modern efforts are based on some of the language used, considered exceedingly racist today.
  • The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane (1895) – This Civil War classic was one of 64 books a Florida school superintendent sought to ban. It and works like The Crucible, Merchant of Venice, The Old Man and the Sea and The Great Gatsby were targeted because they were deemed to have “a lot of vulgarity” and the word “goddamn.” The more rational school board overturned the decision.
  • The Call of the Wild, Jack London (1903) – Challenged in the U.S. for a dark tone and bloody violence, London’s classic has been banned in Italy and Yugoslavia and burned in Nazi Germany as “too radical.”
  • The Jungle, Upton Sinclair (1906) – This prime example of muckraking joined strange bedfellows. Some Communist countries banned it because its purportedly socialist views were dangerous while the Catholic Church banned it saying it contained inappropriate sexual content.
  • The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) – Considered perhaps THE American novel, Gatsby was challenged at a Baptist college in South Carolina because of its language and references to sex.
  • Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell (1936) – This Pulitzer-prize winning novel has been attacked for its realistic portrayal of slavery and use of the words “nigger” and “darkies.”
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston (1937) – Another book considered one of the top novels of the 20th Century, the challenges to it have been based on sexual explicitness.”
  • The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (1939) – Set in Kern County, California, that county removed the Pulitzer and National Book Award winning novel from tis libraries and schools shortly after it was published because it was a “libel and lie.” Challenges elsewhere and since were based on use of profanity and sexual references.
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (1940) – The U.S. Post Office, then in charge of monitoring and censoring the distribution of media and texts, declared the book “non-mailable” because it was seen as pro-Communist.
  • Native Son, Richard Wright (1940) – Appearing on several lists of the best novels of the 20th Century, this book has been challenged or removed in at least eight different states because of objections to “violent and sexually graphic” content.
  • A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams (1947) – No one should be surprised that Americans would want to ban a play with sexual content, prostitution, homosexuality, and suicide.

No one can seriously contend that any of these books isn’t a classic. Tomorrow’s installment will take us into the 21st Century of banning books that helped shaped the country.

Amateur censors blame delinquency on reading immoral books and magazines, when in fact, the inability to read anything is the basic trouble.

Peter S. Jennison

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