Banned Books:
Literature Suppressed on Social Grounds


The broad nature of obscenity laws has made possible a wide interpretation of what constitutes an essentially "obscene" literary work. The language of American law stresses work that "depicts or describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive manner." The law also specifies that the "average person, taking contemporary community standards, would find that a work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest." Often what this has meant in reality is that works containing words deemed "vulgar" by specific members of a community or presenting interracial or homosexual relationships that are unacceptable to the standards of a given community acquire the label "obscene." These are social factors, the topic of this volume, and they are distinctly different from erotic, religious and political content.

Censors have so frequently applied such general guidelines to published writing that a wide range of literature has been declared "obscene." This volume avoids such generalization. Instead, the books discussed in this volume are literary works that have been banned, censored or challenged because of language, racial characterization or depiction of the drug use, social class or sexual orientation of characters, or other social differences, that their challengers have viewed as harmful to readers. Thus Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is included, while D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover is not, even though both have been banned in the past for being "obscene"; the first has attracted the label because of its language and depiction of race, while the second contains graphic sexual description and has been banned for its erotic content. The books discussed here have been censored because their subject matter and characters do not conform to the social, racial or sexual standards of their censors.

There are currently no books in print that systematically examine and describe the content and controversy surrounding books that have been banned, censored or challenged because they contain socially unacceptable ideas or speech. A survey of the literature on censorship reveals that many texts of the past that were condemned for "vulgar" and "offensive" language, or portrayals of lesbian or homosexual relationships, racially volatile incidents or themes, or socially offensive behavior such as drug use were condemned under the broad laws governing obscenity. Thus, while their subject matter, intention and presentation might differ substantially, such works as Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover were both condemned as obscene. This study separates the two.

To a great extent, existing books emphasize defining what is obscene and describing the litigation and court decisions, rather than examining the censored writings from a particular vantage point. Much commentary was published during or soon after the issuance in 1973 of the Report of the 1970 United States President's Commission on Obscenity or soon after the 1986 U.S. Attorney General's Commission on Pornography released its findings. Thus, books on the subject of pornography are plentiful. However, little attention has been paid to nonerotic books that have been censored as "obscene" and condemned under the same laws, for social factors characterized as "offensive" by individuals or communities.

The goal of this volume is to identify and discuss books that have been censored as obscene, in centuries past as well as in the 20th century, either because the authors or the works did not conform to the social expectations of their censors or because they contain socially unacceptable ideas or speech. Several works, despite limited censorship histories, are included to exhibit the lengths to which censors' fears will take them, as in the case of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Other works have extensive histories of censorship, exhibiting the multiplicity of reasons that motivate censors. Taken as a whole, the entries provide a fascinating view of socially motivated censorship.

Dawn B. Sova, Ph.D

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