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BANNED AND BURNT BOOKS: A Personal Essay

By Ross Scimeca, Head Librarian, Hoose Library of Philosophy

The four books in Case Sixteen are now considered great works of literature. At the time of their publication, however, they were often dismissed as pornographic. Many editions and translations of Ovid’s Art of Love have been banned for pornographic language and subject matter. The emperor Augustus may have banished Ovid for a joking reference to his wife’s marital faithfulness in this poetic work. D H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita were banned for gross obscenity in language and content. Their male protagonists are an adulterer and a pedophile respectively. The British Customs Office confiscated all copies of Lolita when it entered the United Kingdom from its Paris publisher. Even France’s Minister of the Interior banned the novel for two years. Oddly enough, the United States officially never banned Lolita after the first American printing in 1958. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was privately published in Florence in 1928. The novel was not officially printed in the United Kingdom until 1960. The novel was put on trial under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959, but the jury ruled that the novel had literary merit regardless of its language and content. Like Lolita, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was never officially banned in the United States. It is amazing to think that some Victorian readers found Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh pornographic. There are indeed some suggestive sexual verses in the epic novel. In 1857, a Boston critic condemned the novel as “the hysterical indecencies of an erotic woman,” but such criticism may have been a reaction to the author’s feminist perspectives on various social and moral issues.

Cases Seventeen and Eighteen are devoted to books that were not only banned by the Nazis but also ceremoniously burnt. It is interesting to note that some of the books by foreign writers in Case Seventeen were burnt, not so much for their content, but for the social and political beliefs of their writers. Although both Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer could possibly have been banned because of their sordid love affairs and immoral characters, the Nazis burned them because both authors had left-wing political beliefs. This was the case too with The Call of the Wild and Oil!, since Jack London was a radical socialist and Upton Sinclair actually ran for political office on the socialist ticket. Sinclair’s works, particularly Oil! with its condemnation of capitalism, advanced a left-wing agenda. Both Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Barbusse’s Under Fire were burnt because of their realistic descriptions of battle and war. Lenin’s The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution, Stalin’s Foundations of Leninism, and Trotsky’s The History of the Russian Revolution were political anathemas for Nazism. Likewise, H. G. Wells’ The Outline of History was socialist in perspective and praised the Russian Revolution. The German language works in Case Eighteen were burnt for similar reasons. Brecht was a communist, and right-wing elements demonstrated against his absurdist play In the Jungle Cities when it first opened in Munich in 1923. Leon Feuchtwanger was a Jewish writer with communist sympathies. His novel Power focuses on a Jewish character who plays a prominent role in German politics and was the basis for his play Jew Suess. Heinrich Heine’s poetry, beloved by the German people before Hitler, was burnt simply because he was Jewish. Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front was burned due to the novel’s powerful anti-war message. Frederick Engels was one of the founders of communism. His analysis of Feuerbach’s materialism as the culmination of German philosophy contradicted the Nazis’ interpretation of Hegel’s objective idealism. All of Sigmund Freud’s works were burnt. Civilization and Its Discontents examines the individual’s reaction to having to deny themselves self-satisfaction because of religious or political authorities. Although Freud believed that these types of authority were necessary for civilization, the very notion of a struggle between individuals and state authority troubled the National Socialists. Indeed, psychoanalysis was banned in Germany and all occupied lands during the Third Reich. It was regarded as a Jewish pseudo-science. Vicki Baum’s novel Incident in Lohwinchel was burnt simply because she was Jewish, as was the collection of poetry Die Harfe by theater critic Alfred Kerr. Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks won the author the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929. Influenced by Schopenhauer’s philosophical thinking, the novel deals with three generations of a bourgeois family undergoing a continuous economical, physical, and spiritual decline. Mann was also an outspoken critic of National Socialism as was his older brother Heinrich, whose novel Professor Unrat (adapted into the film The Blue Angel in 1930) was burnt, because of his humanism and deep hatred of authoritarianism.

Franklin D. Roosevelt in one of his speeches to the American people during this horrific time eloquently said: “Books may be burned and cities sacked, but truth like the yearning for freedom, lives in the hearts of humble men and women. The ultimate victory of tomorrow is with democracy; and true democracy with education, for no people in all the world can be kept eternally ignorant or eternally enslaved.”