Literature has been pushing the envelope of societal and artistic norms for centuries. As a result, it has been continuously contested, attacked, and condemned by countless societies and individuals who argue that these deviations from the traditional do the public more harm than good. Book banning, the practice of limiting the accessibility of literature deemed too obscene or controversial to be freely available, has deep roots in American culture that can still be seen today.
The origin of book banning in America can be traced back largely to one man: Anthony Comstock. A United States Postal Inspector in the late 1800s, Comstock was so disgusted by the apparently immoral state of the time’s literature that he founded The New York Committee for the Suppression of Vice. The committee’s main goal was to rid the nation of all literary works that Comstock deemed too obscene or inappropriate for the general public. His crusade went so far as to get the Comstock Act passed in 1873, a bill stating that it was up to the United States Postal Service to determine what was too obscene to be mailed, and their subsequent right to withhold it from ever reaching its intended recipient. Comstock’s goal had been achieved, and until his death in 1915, the Act remained in near-full effect. Between that year and the 1960s, the act was gradually disassembled, reducing Comstock’s legacy to a mere blemish on the American record of freedom of expression and speech.
Books are banned for a multitude of reasons, the most frequent being the vulgar language or explicit content that Comstock fought against. Interestingly enough, the first large scale book ban enacted in America was motivated by a different concern. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, took the nation by storm when it was published in the early 1850s. A graphic fictionalization of life in the south, detailing the often bloody horrors of slavery, Stowe’s novel deeply upset the residents of the region, not so much for its unabashed portrayals of violence, but for the debate over slavery’s morality that it sparked. This southern disdain for the revolutionary novel was so intense that some states actually elected to ban the book, claiming that the depiction of southern life was utterly false. Despite half of the country’s visceral reaction, it still became one of the most impactful pieces of American literature ever to be published. Abraham Lincoln himself is quoted with addressing its author as “the little lady who started [the civil] war”.
On the other hand, it’s much more common for literature to be banned on the grounds that it is too obscene, explicit, or vulgar for public consumption. From Nabokov’s notorious classic Lolita, to Maya Angelou’s acclaimed autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, both of which have been called into question due to explicit content, it is no secret that controversial literature is often the most influential. The definition of terms such as “obscene” when applied to literature is still being debated. One of the most famous examples of this ongoing argument centers around James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, and the shock waves that its explicit content and themes sent through the American public. The novel, published initially in Europe, was read by Americans for the first time when it was serialized in a popular literary magazine in the early 1920s. As it gained popularity, it also stirred up controversy. Eventually a court case was filed against the magazine, and the case reached the Supreme Court in 1921. Ulysses was ruled as “the work of a disorganized mind,” too lewd in subject matter to be politely published. The ruling angered many authors who rallied in support of Joyce’s work, including Ernest Hemingway, who argued that the government should have no right to censor art or literature. The outlawed novel was burned upon discovery in the U.S. until 1933 when the publisher Random House contested the ruling. After reaching the Supreme Court once more, it was ruled that the book was not obscene, and the previous ban was redacted.
The phrase “book banning” is, thankfully, rarely heard in reference to today, but that doesn’t mean that books have ceased to be challenged or banned in individual schools and libraries all across the country. In 2013 and 2014 alone, over 400 books were challenged, meaning, a ban was proposed but not necessarily enacted. The freedom to choose what we read, even if it is violent, explicit, or generally controversial, is one of the most sacred freedoms Americans possess. The purpose of literature is to open the public’s eyes to issues and situations outside of the public’s daily life. There is no way for any book to do this without testing the limit of society and its many preconceptions.
In the following weeks, I will be exploring and critiquing some of the most well-known and socially significant works of banned or challenged literature. I’ll take a closer look at the content and reasoning behind the banning of titles, both classic and contemporary, while also offering my own opinion and discussing their literary merit.


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