Books won’t stay banned. They won’t burn. Ideas won’t go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas. The source of better ideas is wisdom. The surest path to wisdom is a liberal education.
Alfred Whitney Griswold, president of Yale University, from “A Little Learning,” The Atlantic Monthly, 1952
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Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Defoe’s Moll Flanders, and various editions of The Arabian Nights were all banned for decades from the U.S. mails under the Comstock Law of 1873. Officially known as the Federal Anti-Obscenity Act, this law banned the mailing of “lewd”, “indecent”, “filthy”, or “obscene” materials. The Comstock laws, while now unenforced, remain for the most part on the books today; the Telecommunications Reform Bill of 1996 even specifically applied some of them to computer networks. The anti-war Lysistrata was banned again in 1967 in Greece, which was then controlled by a military junta.
The Comstock law also forbade distribution of birth control information. In 1915, Margaret Sanger’ husband was jailed for distributing her Family Limitation, which described and advocated various methods of contraception. Sanger herself had fled the country to avoid prosecution, but would return in 1916 to start the American Birth Control League, which eventually merged with other groups to form Planned Parenthood.
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman’s famous collection of poetry, was withdrawn in Boston in 1881, after the District Attorney threatened criminal prosecution for the use of explicit language in some poems. The work was later published in Philadelphia.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s autobiography Confessions was banned by U.S. Customs in 1929 as injurious to public morality. His philosophical works were also banned in the USSR in 1935, and some were placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books in the 18th century. (The Index was a primarily a matter of church law, but in some areas before the mid-19th century, it also had the force of secular law. A summary of the contents of the last edition, published in 1949, is available from the Internet Archive. The Index was finally abolished in 1966.)
Thomas Paine, best known for his writings supporting American independence, was indicted for treason in England in 1792 for his work The Rights of Man, defending the French Revolution. More than one English publisher was also prosecuted for printing The Age of Reason, where Paine argues for Deism and against Christianity and Atheism.
Blaise Pascal’s The Provincial Letters, a defense of the Jansenist Antoine Arnauld, was ordered shredded and burned by King Louis XIV of France in 1660. France also banned Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered in the 16th century for containing ideas subversive to the authority of kings.
Jack London’s writing was censored in several European dictatorships in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1929, Italy banned all cheap editions of his Call of the Wild, and that same year Yugoslavia banned all his works as being “too radical”. The Nazis also burned some of his socialist-friendly books like The Iron Heel along with the works of many other authors. …
Unfit for Schools and Minors?
The Savannah Morning News reported in November 1999 that a teacher at the Windsor Forest High School required seniors to obtain permission slips before they could read Hamlet, Macbeth, or King Lear. The teacher’s school board had pulled the books from class reading lists, citing “adult language” and references to sex and violence. Many students and parents protested the school’s board’s policy, which also included the outright banning of three other books. Shakespeare is no stranger to censorship: the Associated Press reported in March 1996 that Merrimack, NH schools had pulled Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night from the curriculum after the school board passed a “prohibition of alternative lifestyle instruction” act. (Twelfth Night includes a number of romantic entanglements including a young woman who disguises herself as a boy.) Readers from Merrimack informed me in 1999 that school board members who had passed the act had been voted out, after the uproar resulting from the act’s passage, and that the play is now used again in Merrimack classrooms. Govind has a page with more information about the censorship of Shakespeare through history.
John T. Scopes was convicted in 1925 of teaching evolutionary theory (best known at the time via Darwin’s Origin of Species) in his high school class. (For more about this famous trial, including excerpts from the Civic Biology textbook Scopes actually used in class, see this site by Doug Linder.) The Tennessee law prohibiting teaching evolution theory, more specifically that “man has descended from a lower order of animals”, was finally repealed in 1967, but further laws intended to stifle the teaching of evolution in science classes have been proposed in the Tennesee legislature as recently as 1996.
An illustrated edition of “Little Red Riding Hood” was banned in two California school districts in 1989. Following the Little Red-Cap story from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the book shows the heroine taking food and wine to her grandmother. The school districts cited concerns about the use of alcohol in the story.
Read the entire page, and see all the links, here.
The Online Books Page website was founded and is edited by John Mark Ockerbloom, a digital library planner and researcher at UPenn. Many thanks to Mr. Ockerbloom for such a wealth of information and vital public service.
And just for fun, some original Atlantic reviews of literary classics that have been banned:
THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER, by Mark Twain, 1876
LEAVES OF GRASS, by Walt Whitman, 1882
THE SCARLET LETTER, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1886
ULYSSES, FINNEGAN’S WAKE, and A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, by James Joyce, 1946
RAINTREE COUNTY, by Ross Lockridge, 1948
LOLITA, by Vladimir Nabokov, 1958
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, by Harper Lee, 1960