J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Voltaire’s Candide, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While these are all great works of literature that you may or may not have read, they are also books that were once banned, censored or challenged, despite now being considered classics. Most countries have engaged in the practice of banning books, and many continue to do so today. Children’s books are particularly susceptible to being locked away in the metaphorical cupboard, but there otherwise does not seem to be a consistent way to tell if a book will be deemed too threatening to the moral fabric of society. It seems almost inevitable that someone somewhere will be able to pinpoint something outrageously objectionable in even the most innocent of tales. Here are five classics that were once behind red tape, for considerably varying reasons.
1. Brave New World (1931) – Aldous Huxley
Huxley’s dystopia paints a picture of a world that maintains status quo by conditioning its population into fixation on consumption and hedonism and constraining the people’s freedom of thought by tabooing certain concepts. The government endorses drugs and casual sex, but condemns any talk of family or religion as obscene. The satire was lost on Australia and Ireland, both having banned the book in 1932 on grounds of its language and blasphemous content. It was also on the American Library Association’s Top 10 list of “Most Frequently Challenged Books”. Censorship of dystopian novels always comes with a pinch of irony. Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm were off-limits in the USSR and remain so in North Korea. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 may be the most fitting example of ironic censorship, and it has been banned in several American schools.
2. The Grapes of Wrath (1939) – John Steinbeck
The story of a family’s struggles and migration from Oklahoma during the Great Depression did not portray the authorities in a very favourable light, disgruntling a number of state officials. In Kern County, California – where the novel comes to a close – the local authorities felt that Steinbeck had not credited them for the efforts they had made to help migrants. The book was kept out of libraries until the 1990s, and even publicly burned by some communities in the US. Ireland followed suit, banning the novel in 1953 due to perceived profanity. And in 1973, eleven Turkish publishers went on trial for distributing books spreading anti-state propaganda. The Grapes of Wrath was one of them.
3. Black Beauty (1877) – Anna Sewell
Often, censors do not seem to consider it necessary to actually read a novel before outlawing it. This novel is narrated as the memoirs of a horse, but that did not stop the South African government from banning it during the country’s apartheid era, simply because it contained the words “black” and “beauty” in its title. It is unclear if this is due to the censors having not bothered to read the book and presumed it to be a story about a black woman, or if the title was deemed too subversive in itself. Either way, the banning of Sewell’s tale demonstrates the horrendously oppressive nature of apartheid.
4. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) – Lewis Carroll
It’s tough out there for children’s books – there seems to be no end to the disagreements over what we need to protect our children’s fragile minds from. Profanity, violence or sexual content are the most common justifications for parents or schools to object with outrage, but sometimes the material ends up banned for more creative reasons. In 1931, a censor in the Chinese province of Hunan took offense over the prevalence of talking animals in Carroll’s novel, claiming it would make children think humans and animals were on the same level (the consequences of which, he imagined, would be “disastrous”). Green Eggs and Ham, by Dr. Seuss, was also banned in Maoist China due to it (somehow) “portraying early Marxism”. L Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been banned in some American states from reasons ranging from its portrayal of good witches to what McCarthyist America perceived as socialist values.
5. The Diary of Anne Frank (1947) – Anne Frank
The musings of the young Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis have been banned or censored in schools all over the world. In Lebanon, it is on a long list of forbidden works that “promote Zionism”, owing to the country’s rocky relationship with Israel. Many American schools have also removed it from the reading list due to its sexual content. In fact, the original edition of the diary was heavily censored. Anne’s father was advised to remove some of Anne’s more frank comments about her experience of puberty and sexuality, as well as some of her more biting judgments of the people around her before the diary was published, resulting in around 30% of the original text being omitted. It would take fifty years for the unedited version to finally be released. Still, that probably came at the dismay of the school in Alabama that had called for its ban, due to it being “a real downer”.
It is obvious that if the censors put their minds to it, almost any justification can be used to ban a work of literature. In some cases, it’s not too difficult to see the potential harm a book could cause. Such is the case with Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, the publishing and distribution of which has been heavily restricted in many countries, particularly Germany and Austria. However, the problem with censorship is the question of where the line should be drawn. How far can we stretch the logic that certain books are harmful to societies while still giving lip service to the idea of free speech? Would a ban of Fifty Shades of Grey be more acceptable if it was made on the grounds of its sexism and glorification of abusive relationships as opposed to conservative finger-pointing and fears of promoting promiscuity? Perhaps Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, manifesto of neoliberals looking for an excuse to neglect basic human decency everywhere, should be up for consideration.
Clearly yesterday’s corruption is tomorrow’s timeless classic.