Banned Books: 10 Literary Classics That Faced Censorship
Get the stories behind 10 classic works of literature that have run afoul of government censors.
1. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Not all Americans have found Mark Twain’s Great American Novel so great. Weeks after the satire was published in 1885, librarians in Concord, Massachusetts, rejected it for being “rough, coarse and inelegant” and “more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.” Two decades later, the book was removed from the Brooklyn Public Library’s shelves in part because “Huck not only itched but scratched” and “said ‘sweat’ when he should have said ‘perspiration.’” Twain’s 19th-century racial language has also rankled some 21st-century readers, According to the American Library Association, the story of Huck and Jim journeying down the Mississippi River was the 14th most-challenged book between 2000 and 2009.
2. The Call of the Wild
The vicious dog fights, mistreatment of animals and harsh undertones in Jack London’s tale of the Klondike gold rush have spurred censorship calls since its publication in 1903. However, it was the leftist political views of the author—who was twice the Socialist Party candidate for mayor of Oakland, California—rather than the book’s blood and gore that ran “The Call of the Wild” afoul of fascist authorities in Italy during the 1920s and early 1930s and resulted in the Nazi Party burning several of London’s socialist-leaning writings in 1933.
3. To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has been repeatedly challenged and banned in schools amid complaints of profanity, racial epithets and a description of a rape. While a beloved novel for many, it is one of the most commonly banned books. After a Virginia school board banned her book in 1966 for being “immoral literature,” an exasperated Lee wrote to a Richmond newspaper, “To hear that the novel is ‘immoral’ has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink.” The book was banned in Lindale, Texas, in 1996 because it “conflicted with the values of the community” and removed from an Ontario high school’s English class in 2009 because of its racial language. On the flip side, however, the school board in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, reinstated the novel in 2013 after a 12-year ban.
4. The Grapes of Wrath
Predictably, residents of Kern County, California, were less than thrilled with the unflattering depiction of their local area in John Steinbeck’s 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and banned it for being libelous. Less predictable, however, was the reaction of the library board in East St. Louis, Illinois, who ordered the city’s three copies burned because the “objectionable” language was “not fit for anyone’s daughter to read.” The classic tale of Dust Bowl migrants was also banned in Kansas City and Buffalo for its “vulgar words” and sexual references. The American Library Association also reports that Ireland banned “The Grapes of Wrath” in 1953, and in 1973 Turkish booksellers stood trial for hawking copies of the book along with other “propaganda unfavorable to the state.”
James Joyce’s radical, stream-of-consciousness story of Leopold Bloom’s daylong journey across Dublin stoked a fiery reaction—literally—on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean after its 1922 publication. According to author Kevin Birmingham’s “The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses,” government authorities in the United States and England not only banned what is now considered a modernist masterpiece, they also confiscated and burned more than 1,000 copies. Until a federal judge ruled in 1933 that “Ulysses” was not obscene, Americans were forced to track down smuggled copies of Joyce’s novel in order to read it.
6. A Farewell to Arms
Ernest Hemingway’s 1929 novel based on his experiences as an ambulance driver on the Italian front during World War I was banned by Italy’s fascist regime for nearly 20 years because of its depiction of the country’s terrible defeat at the Battle of Caporetto as well as its anti-militarism theme that led to its burning by the Nazis in 1933 as a “corrupting foreign influence.” Even before the official publication of “A Farewell to Arms,” Boston police barred the sale of issues of Scribner’s magazine that serialized the “salacious” novel, prompting the publisher to respond, “The ban on the sale of the magazine in Boston is an evidence of the improper use of censorship which bases its objections upon certain passages without taking into account the effect and purpose of the story as a whole.”
Kurt Vonnegut’s novel based on his experiences as a prisoner of war in World War II has been banned repeatedly by schools since its publication in 1969. The American Library Association reports that towns in New York, Ohio and Florida have banned “Slaughterhouse-Five” because of the “book’s explicit sexual scenes, violence and obscene language.” In 2011, the Republic, Missouri, school board unanimously voted to remove the book from library shelves amid complaints it was profane and incompatible with biblical principles. In 1973, the school district of Drake, North Dakota, even burned 32 copies of the novel—notable for its depiction of the 1945 Allied fire-bombing of Dresden—in its high school’s coal furnace.
8. The Catcher in the Rye
catcher in the rye
Following its 1951 publication, J.D. Salinger’s instant hit about a disillusioned teenager Holden Caulfield became regularly assigned reading in high schools across the country as well as “a favorite target of censors,” according to the American Library Association, which reports it remained the 19th most-challenged book between 2000 and 2009 due to profanity, blasphemy and sexual references. According to a biography of Salinger by Raychel Haugrud Reiff, the coming-of-age story was removed from the high school syllabus in Issaquah, Washington, in 1978 after a citizen identified 785 profanities and claimed its inclusion was “part of an overall communist plot.”
9. Leaves of Grass
Walt Whitman’s poetry collection shocked much of America when the first edition was published in 1855. Its frank depiction of sexuality and homoerotic overtones was far “too sensual” for the Victorian Age. Yale University President Noah Porter believed “Leaves of Grass” to be the literary equivalent of “walking naked through the streets.” Nearly every American library refused to purchase a copy, and the book even cost Whitman his job as a clerk with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1865 after Secretary of the Interior James Harlan read it and found it obscene and immoral.
10. Harry Potter Series
Harry Potter, banned books
Getty Images / Minh Le
Modern-day popular literature is hardly immune from calls for censorship. As quickly as J.K. Rowling’s series of “Harry Potter” books shot up the best-seller lists, it also rose to top the list of most banned and challenged books between 2000 and 2009, according to the American Library Association. Perhaps some of the most popular banned books of all time, the series drew complaints from parents and others about the books’ alleged occult/satanic theme, religious viewpoint, anti-family approach and violence.
BY CHRISTOPHER KLEIN