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As bans on so-called “divisive” books increase in the United States, Patrick Gaffey explores the censorship of books throughout history and why we should fight it.

In 1922, James Joyce published his book Ulysses, after showcasing segments in literary journals for four years. Ulysses, the story of Dublin advertiser Leopold Bloom, is today recognised by many as the greatest novel of the 20th century, but at the time was condemned and censored for its sexual content. Banned in every English-speaking country, readers had to organise illicit smugglings from France. For 12 years, the American Postal Service destroyed any copies which came into their possession, forcing contrabandistas to take measures as extreme as encasing them in concrete. In late 1933, the US Court of Appeals finally ruled that it was a work of literary merit, which could be legally distributed. The case ushered in a new era for the world of words, showing that a book’s socially unacceptable content, no matter how extreme or explicit, could never detract from its artistic worth. Ironically, Joyce’s next novel, Finnegans Wake, is arguably a much more lascivious work, but it was allowed to flow through the literary world without restriction, perhaps because censors were unable to penetrate its difficult style.

The story of the novel’s battle against censorship is riveting enough for a book in its own right, bringing the celebration of art and freedom into conflict with the authoritarian impulse. Yet in the century since its publication, that spirit of censorship has always lurked, and kept its sights on writers who challenge the status quo. 19 years after the ban was lifted, William S. Burroughs published Naked Lunch, an explosive, cross-continental classic which brought the Joycean style to a new era. Like Ulysses, it was published in Paris to avoid the prying eyes of American censors, but still became an illegal item in cities across the Atlantic. In 1966, a gathering of some of the most respected American writers successfully defended the book in court, and all restrictions on it were lifted.

In Finnegans Wake, Joyce warned against the Fascist movement, which rose across Europe, promising “one gob, one gap, one gulp and gorger of all!” As a lover of literature, he was horrified by the sight of the Nazis pouring books onto burning pyres across Germany, and revelling in the orgy of flames. In one of the greatest atrocities in human history, they tragically proved Heinrich Heine’s aphorism: “where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.”

The story of the horrors which befell Europe’s Jewish communities in this period have been the topic of many books, Art Spiegelman’s Maus being one of the most notable. In the fantastic comic book, Spiegelman recounts the story of his father’s experiences in the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps, and the trauma which prevented him from holding on to his family in later life. As well as a spectacular work of literature, it is an invaluable historical document, exploring both the events of the Second World War, and the damage they carried on to later generations.

For years, Maus has been taught in all levels of education, introducing children and adults to the human story behind the Holocaust. Yet it has recently come under attack from right-wing educators in America. One school board in Tennessee recently banned it from their classrooms, depriving their students of the opportunity to learn from the important work. The official reasons given by the Board were the book’s use of the word “damn” and depiction of nudity – raising the question of why a child deemed mature enough to learn about the Holocaust would not be mature enough to read these snippets from everyday life. A genius in both his art and writing, Spiegelman is no stranger to controversy: his earlier works faced similar censorship campaigns, and some are still illegal in Mexico.

The recent censorship of books in the United States has not been limited to the subject of the Holocaust. A host of titles discussing race, sexuality and gender identity are also facing potential bans. The struggle between the spirit of literature and the evil of censorship may never end. Even in times of relative freedom, the threat always lurks, waiting for the best moment to pounce. From Joyce to Burroughs to Spiegelman, and hundreds of writers in between, censorship has come for any who break the bounds of their society. For writers, readers, and anyone with an interest in literature, the most important goal is to fight this censorship wherever it is encountered.

Tennessee comic store Nirvana Comics has aimed to provide a free copy of Maus to all students affected by the ban. Donations to the project can be made here.


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