Censorship in Modern Times
By M.J. Stephey
Since 1982, the American Library Association has sponsored Banned Books Week to pay tribute to free speech and open libraries. The tradition began as a nod to how far society has come since 1557, when Pope Paul IV first established The Index of Prohibited Books to protect Catholics from controversial ideas. Four-hundred and nine years later, Pope Paul VI would abolish it, although attempts at censorship still remain. Here, TIME presents some of the most challenged books of all time.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
By Mark Twain
In 1885, the Concord, Mass. Public Library banned the year-old book for its “coarse language” — critics deemed Mark Twain’s use of common vernacular (slang) as demeaning and damaging. One reviewer dubbed it “the veriest trash ... more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.” Little Women author Louisa May Alcott lashed out publicly at him, saying, “If Mr. Clemens [Twain’s original name] cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses he had best stop writing for them.” (That the word “nigger” appears more than 200 times throughout the book did not initially cause much controversy). In 1905, the Brooklyn Public Library followed Concord’s lead, banishing the book from the building’s juvenile section, explaining: “Huck not only itched but scratched, and that he said sweat when he should have said perspiration.” Twain enthusiastically fired back, once saying of his detractors: “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.” Luckily for him, the book’s fans would eventually outnumber its critics. “It’s the best book we’ve had,” Ernest Hemingway proclaimed, “All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” Despite Hemingway’s assurances, Huck Finn remains one of the most challenged books in the U.S. In an attempt to avoid controversy, CBS Television produced a made-for-TV adaptation of the book in 1955 that lacked a single mention of slavery, or even any African American cast members to portray the character of Jim. In 1998, parents in Tempe, Ariz. sued the local high school over the book’s inclusion on a required reading list. The case went as far as a federal appeals court; the parents lost.
Brave New World
By Aldous Huxley
Huxley’s 1932 work — about a drugged, dull and mass-produced society of the future — has been challenged for its themes of sexuality, drugs, and suicide. The book parodies H.G. Wells utopian novel Men Like Gods, and expresses Huxley’s disdain for the youth- and market-driven culture of the United States. Chewing gum, then as now a symbol of America’s teeny-bopper shoppers, pops up in the book as a way to deliver sex hormones and subdue anxious adults; pornographic films called “feelies” are also popular grown-up pacifiers. In Huxley’s vision of the 26th century, Henry Ford is the new God (worshipers say “Our Ford” instead of “Our Lord,”) and the car maker’s concept of mass production has been applied to human reproduction. As recently as 1993, a group of parents attempted to ban the book in Corona-Norco, Calif. because it “centered around negativity.”
By George Orwell
It’s both ironic and fitting that Nineteen Eighty-Four would join the American Library Association’s list of commonly challenged books given its bleak warning of totalitarian censorship. Written in 1949 by the British author while he lay dying of tuberculosis, the book chronicles the grim future of a society robbed of free will, privacy or truth. Some reviewers called it a veiled attack against Joseph Stalin and the Soviet ruler’s infamous “midnight purges,” though, oddly enough, parents in Jackson County, Fla. would challenge the book in 1981 for being “pro-Communist.” The book spawned terms like “Big Brother” and “Orwellian” and continues to appear in pop culture — most recently as the inspiration for a political YouTube hit. The year 1984 may have passed, but the book’s message remains as relevant as ever.
By Vladmir Nabokov
First published in France by a pornographic press, this 1955 novel explores the mind of a self-loathing and highly intelligent pedophile named Humbert Humbert, who narrates his life and the obsession that consumes it: his lust for “nymphets” like 12-year-old Dolores Haze. French officials banned it for being “obscene,” as did England, Argentina, New Zealand and South Africa. Today, the term “lolita” has come to imply an oversexed teenage siren, although Nabokov, for his part, never intended to create such associations. In fact, he nearly burned the manuscript in disgust, and fought with his publishers over whether an image of a girl should be included on the book’s cover.
The Anarchist Cookbook
By William Powell
Powell was just 19 when he wrote this 1971 cult classic. The guerrilla how-to book managed to not only anger government officials, but anarchist groups as well. One such organization, CrimethInc., said the book misrepresents anarchist ideals and later released its own book of the same name. Other critics attacked the book for more practical reasons — some of the bomb-making recipes that Powell included turned out to be dangerously inaccurate. Ironically, an older and purportedly wiser Powell later tried to censor his own book. After converting to Christianity, Powell publicly denounced his work, writing in 2000 on Amazon.com that the book is “a misguided product of my adolescent anger at the prospect of being drafted and sent to Vietnam to fight in a war that I did not believe in.” But even Powell couldn’t successfully ban the book from print; he no longer owns the rights.
(www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1842832_1842838,00.html. Access on Oct. 1, 2009)
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