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Programs & Exhibitions

BANNED AND BURNT BOOKS: A Personal Essay

By Ross Scimeca, Head Librarian, Hoose Library of Philosophy

Case One displays books that dictatorial rulers or states found treasonous. It is interesting to see Homer displayed here. One of the earliest condemnations of Homer is found in Plato’s Republic. The blind poet’s representation of the gods as deceitful and cunning conflicts with the image that Plato wants to foster among youths educated in his ideal state. Indeed, none other than the Roman Emperor Caligula tried to ban The Odyssey for similar reasons. Tasso’s great epic poem about the first crusade was banned by Louis XIV for subverting the concept of the divine right of kings. Likewise, Paine’s book defended the French Revolution (as he would the American Revolution in his Age of Reason) and hence was banned in England. Communist China banned all works by the poet Bei Dao for his pro-democracy sentiments.

Case Two displays three works that criticize governmental policies or institutions. Milton’s Areopagitica (from the 1698 edition of his non-poetical works) is a brilliant defense against the British government’s mandate that all publications must be licensed. Both Robert Baer’s See No Evil and George Orwell’s Animal Farm criticize groups or units of the government that abuse their power or undermine it with their incompetence. For Baer, the CIA is a bumbling agency, and Orwell’s novel portrays the police as murderous pigs.

Cases Three and Four feature works that were banned or censored because of views that various countries found objectionable—for prejudice, racism, and ideological reasons—at different times in history. In 1810, all copies of Madame de Stael’s book glorifying German culture during the 18th and early 19th century were seized and destroyed by the French police immediately after its publication. Many countries—including Austria, where Hitler was born—ban Mein Kampf for its anti-Semitism. Akhmatova’s poetry was banned in Russia from 1925 to 1952, because Soviet officials considered it a nostalgic longing for czarist Russia. Likewise, Dee Brown’s history of westward expansion in the late 19th century eulogizes Native Americans and depicts the brutality of the United States government. It was banned for being historically “slanted” and un-American by some local school boards. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was banned right after its publication in many states that dismissed it as abolitionist propaganda. Mark Twain’s classic, because of its coarse language and use of racial epithets is the 5th most challenged book in the United States according to the American Libraries Association. Richard Wright’s masterpiece offended both White and Black Americans with its realistic portrayal of poverty and violence. Wright’s ties with the American Communist Party during the 1930s and 40s are reflected in his novel’s conceptual argument, which draws from Marxist ideology. Dickens’ greatest novel has been banned for its depiction of poverty and differences of social class. More recently, people have objected to the portrayal of its Jewish antagonist, Fagin. Similarly, Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is often censored because some people view its characters Shylock and Tubal as anti-Semitic caricatures.

Case Five presents four books that are remarkable for their anti-authoritarian views. Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” is collected in A Yankee in Canada: With Anti-slavery and Reform Papers. During the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy forced all public libraries to remove all books that contained this dangerous essay. Neruda’s poetry was banned in his native Chile during Pinochet’s regime because of its communistic overtones when it reflected on the horrors of poverty and repression. On the other side of the political continuum, the Czech Communist Party banned all of Kundera’s witings, including his satire of Stalinism, The Joke. In addition to his political activism—for which he was repeatedly imprisoned—Mandela’s collection of essays No Easy Walk to Freedom helped to end apartheid in South Africa.