Banned Books:
Literature Suppressed on Political Grounds


The phrase "suppressed on political grounds" casts a shadow of a heavy-handed government blocking its citizens from receiving information, ideas and opinions that it perceives to be critical, embarrassing or threatening. This image, unfortunately, is too often reality, as the censorship histories in this volume evince. It is not, however, limited to dictatorships such as those of Hitler's Nazi Germany, Stalin's Communist Soviet Union and Suharto's Indonesia. The governments of democracies also participate in attempts to censor such critical material in order to protect their own perceived state security.

Further, the impression that censorship for political reasons emanates only from national governments is mistaken. The second common source of such activity is at the local community level, generated by school board members or citizens, individually or in groups, who attack textbooks and fiction used in schools or available in school libraries. In contrast to censorship challenges at the national level, challenges at the local level are aimed at the political values and images that children are receiving. Over the years, the chief targets have been socialism, communism and the portrayal of the Soviet Union. A companion concern is the portrayal of the United States. Examining flaws in American society is deemed unpatriotic to these critics, who become concerned when past and present policies of their government are questioned in school text books. At the center of their objections has been the fear that the Soviet Union would be viewed too positively, or the United States, too negatively.

The 105 censored titles discussed in this volume vary considerably in subject and form. There are Central Intelligence Agency exposés (Inside the Company: CIA Diary); Vietnam War fiction and nonfiction (Fields of Fire and Decent Interval); history textbooks (Land of the Free); historical fiction (Andersonville and My Brother Sam Is Dead); political analyses (The China Lobby in American Politics); fantasy fiction (The Fragile Flag); and autobiography (Black Boy). Texts written before the 20th century (The Prince and Areopagitica) and those emanating from other countries (All Quiet on the Western Front, Doctor Zhivago and The Fugitive) are also represented.

Some texts have extensive or impressive censorship histories. The Grapes of Wrath was challenged and burned within months of its publication in 1939 and has been subject to attacks for over 50 years. The censorship of Solzhenitsyn's books by the Soviet government gained international notoriety. Other works appear to have had limited censorship exposure, even as few as one reported incident. However, not all objections are formalized or publicly announced; others are reported only in local newspapers. Self-censorship by teachers and librarians is common; I recall the comment of a librarian who accounted for the lack of challenges to her collection through her tactic of not ordering books that were censored elsewhere. Further, not all attacks are identified forthrightly; it is apparently more difficult to protest the politics of a text than it is to protest its offensive language. This is evident in the treatment of many of the contested books discussed in this volume, as well as others in this series. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, for instance, was censored for social reasons. Lee Burress, who had conducted five state and national surveys of censorship of school library and classroom materials, referred to this mask as the "hidden agenda" of censorship.

The accounts of these attacks at local levels may seem to the glancing eye diversified and transient; those at the national level may appear remote and arcane. These multiple streams of curtailed thought, however, combine to form a treacherous current. Its undertow can ensnare the mind in the tangled weeds of ignorance and irrationality. Denied both in individual incidents and en masse is the sine qua non of democracy, the right of fundamental inquiry, the ebb and flow of thought.

Nicholas J. Karolides
University of Wisconsin
River Falls

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