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BANNED AND BURNT BOOKS: A Personal Essay

By Ross Scimeca, Head Librarian, Hoose Library of Philosophy

Case Thirteen contains three books were banned for sexual immorality. Aristophanes’ comedies, Margaret Sanger’s Happiness in Marriage, and James Joyce’s Ulysses have outraged the sensibilities of many people. Indeed, the earliest author, Aristophanes, offended people thoughout history with raunchy language and plots. I remember an episode from a 1960s-70s historical TV series called Ralph Story’s Los Angeles that described how the LAPD actually printed a wanted poster of Aristophanes for immoral playwriting after they raided a Hollywood production of Lysistrata in the 1920s. The ban on performances of the play under the Comstock Act wasn’t lifted until the 1930s in the United States. Even in Greece, the military junta banned the play during the 1960s, just in case it gave Greek women any ideas. The New England Society for the Suppression of Vice tried to suppress every edition of Margaret Sanger’s Happiness in Marriage, because the book dared to advocate birth control by means of contraception. The author was one of the founders of Planned Parenthood. Once again the Comstock Act banned almost all of her writings, not only because of her honest discussion of sex in marriage, but because of her advocacy of birth control. James Joyce’s Ulysses was often considered a strange novel because of his combination of stream of consciousness, jokes, and satire. However, it was banned simply because of a single chapter in which the protagonist masturbates while fixating upon the legs of a woman. This was an outrage to the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Taking legal action, this group was successful in banning this masterpiece in the United States in 1920. Only in 1933 was the ban lifted.

Case Fourteen continues with books that were banned for their supposed immorality. Balzac’s Les contes drolatiques (or Droll Stories) is a collection of boisterous stories of cruelty and lechery set in medieval Touraine. The sexual escapades of the characters, both male and female, are penned in the most vulgar language possible. All of Balzac’s writings were placed on the Index. His works were also banned in Imperial Russia, Canada, and the United States, where the Customs Office finally lifted the ban in 1944. Franco removed all copies of Balzac’s stories and novels from Spanish libraries. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer was banned in the United States in 1938 for “challenging the models of sexual morality.” Miller’s explicit language depicting sexual adventures in the novel is still considered obscene by the Citizens for Decent Literature. Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness is the first English novel about lesbianism. Because of its positive portrait of homosexuality, the book was considered obscene by the British government under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857. The novel was never banned in the United States. Its ban was lifted in Britain in 1949. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 offended many people not because of sexual immorality, but because of the novel’s depiction of a future America as hedonistic and anti-intellectual. Besides the book burnings, there are scenes where teenagers crash cars into elderly people, and firemen use a mechanical hound to hunt and kill real animals simply for the grotesque pleasure of seeing them die. This science fiction novel is still banned in many American high schools.

Case Fifteen contains four books that have been banned for violent content. Many people have objected to the Marquis de Sade’s horrifying descriptions of sexual torture, rape, and murder, particularly in The 120 Days of Sodom, but also in his novels Justine and Juliette, and most of his other writings that survive. In 1801 he was arrested at his publisher’s office by orders of Napoleon Bonaparte and imprisoned without trial. Even today, his writings are restricted to adult readers in many public libraries. De Sade’s work reflects his anti-Enlightenment philosophy and hatred for rationalism and sentimentalism in French society. Banned at one time by many US states, William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch is seen today as a classic of the beat generation. Dealing with the travels of a drug addict, the novel uses a surrealist perspective to represent the main character’s mental state. Obscene language is used for the sake of realism in the work, but there are also sections that are quite violent, including the murders of a child and two policemen and vivid descriptions of pedophilia. Throughout, the main character shows no remorse, but simply wants to satisfy his drug addiction. In 1962 the Boston courts banned the book, but that decision was reversed in 1966 by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Both Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer testified to the novels literary and sociological significance. Eugene O’Neill’s play Desire under the Elms culminates in an infanticide of an adulterous couple’s child. The play was banned in Boston, narrowly escaping a ban in New York. The Los Angeles cast was arrested on charges of obscenity. Desire under the Elms, with incest, adultery, and infanticide openly treated, brought O’Neill into conflict with various censors, but it also attracted the public to the box office. The Anarchist Cookbook is not a literary work like the others in this case. It is exactly what the title says it is—a list of recipes to make bombs and other destructive things. Its publication in 1971 was William Powell’s protest against the Vietnam War. When it was first published, only self-professed radical bookstores carried it. Today’s anarchists consider its information dangerously unreliable.