The United States vs. Books

This is part of a recurring series on the history of American censorship.

Book banning is super fucking stupid idea that small minded and stodgy people keep having over and over and over again. As a lover of books and the written word, and a strong believer in the universal right of access to information and freedom of expression, I have a real hard time wrapping my rational mind around the argument for banning books. That being said, lets take a quick stroll down censorship lane, and figure out what we’re talking about when we talk about these godforsaken bans.

We start with a basic working definition of what it means to challenge or attempt to ban a book. Something that is important here is the distinction between a “challenge” and a “ban,” much like there is a distinction between aggravated assault and murder. The American Library Association, the sexiest of all associations, says in hushed respectful tones that:

A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others.

Books are frequently challenged or banned because they cross someone’s delicate sensibilities when it comes to the Big Four: sex, profanity, religion, or violence. Americans have a long history of eschewing gratuitous displays of sex, profanity, violence or religious zealotry, right? Right?

Anyway, let’s take a look at some of the most prominent examples:

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Originally published in 1884, Huck is not only a staple of any modern high school curriculum and undoubtedly one of the greatest pieces of literature to come out of America, it is a lightning rod for controversy. One of the main characters is a black man named Jim, who is (more than) frequently referred to as “Nigger Jim.” Add to this that the N word is used over 200 times in the book, and you have a recipe for well intentioned activism that (in my opinion) completely misses the mark. The claim that the book perpetuates racism and intolerance through it’s use of the word, and that it shouldn’t be read as is in high schools.

What they seem to be missing here is that, throughout the book, the titular little-white-boy Huck and Jim, act as partners, and on more than one occasion, Jim acts to preserve Huck’s life and innocence. The novel is set in the pre-Civil War South, and many critics and scholars argue that far from condoning racism and slavery, the use of the N word by a young boy reveals and decries the attitudes that make such cruelty possible and permissible across an entire society. For further reading, check out this great piece from 60 Minutes about the debate on Huck Finn’s place in the classroom in an Alabama school district.

James Joyce’s Ulysses

Ever try to read this bad boy? I’ve tried 3 times, and gotten a little further each time. One professor has the audacity to assign it the spring of my senior year at college. Needless to say, I had other shit to do. The book is dense. Dense, Dense, Dense, with a capital D. Sure, you can sit down and read the words and get a sense of what happens but in order to really really get it you need a lot of time and patience. For the unawares, Ulysses takes place in Dublin, Ireland and follows Leopold Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, and Leopold’s wife, Molly Bloom, from 10 am on June 16, 1904 to the wee hours of June 17. Each chapter takes an hour to read in a normal voice and represents an hour of action. It’s a pretty astounding flex of literary muscle.

Anyway, Ulysses was initially published in serial form by the American journal The Little Review from 1918 to 1920, and it enjoyed widespread success and critical aplomb. That is, until the chapter titled, Nausicaa in which Leopold Bloom (a character who is known for how much we know about him both physically and emotionally) goes to the beach, sees a pretty young lady, hides behind a rock, and masturbates. This scene got all sorts of moral groups up in arms, and the U.S. Post Office deemed the work obscene and had some 500 copies burned. Additionally, some groups sued the publishers in the Manhattan courts. The judge agreed with the plaintiff, stating that the work was the result of a “disordered mind” and the import and sale of the book was halted for a decade, until in 1933, the New York State Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the book:

Art certainly cannot advance under compulsion to traditional forms, and nothing in such a field is more stifling to progress than limitation of the right to experiment with a new technique. The foolish judgments of Lord Eldon about one hundred years ago, proscribing the works of Byron and Southey, and the finding by the jury under a charge by Lord Denman that the publication of Shelley’s Queen Mab was an indictable offense are a warning to all who have to determine the limits of the field within which authors may exercise themselves. We think that Ulysses is a book of originality and sincerity of treatment and that it has not the effect of promoting lust. Accordingly it does not fall within the statute, even though it justly may offend many.

Check out this very thorough summary of the case for more details.

J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye

Published in 1951, this might be the tamest and most widely challenged book on the list. Young Holden Caulfield bolts from his private school and goes into New York City for the day where he does normal teenaged boy things like try to hire a hooker and fantasize about saving all the worlds little children from falling off the cliff of innocence into the sea of despair. Holden is a tricky narrator because we can so easily see through his bullshit and get fed up with his whininess and it is so frustratingly easy to see where his logic goes astray, yet he is so brutally emotionally honest and tantalizingly aware of his own problems (he hints at his time spent in psych wards and hospitals) that every time he fails to fit in with his family, his own idea of his sexual self, and with the reality of the world (Holden’s misunderstanding the titular rhyme is a hint at his blooming psychosis…the world is messed up, not me and my perception of it!), it becomes easy to forgive him and even root for him like one roots for a wounded dog to make it to his next meal.

But what I think really bothers people about this book is that Holden is a painfully accurate recreation of America’s horny teenaged boys, and no pure-of-mind mother or father wants to hear that their son has been reading about a boy cutting school to go to the big city to bang hookers and stalk little kids around. Simple as that.

Since its publication and introduction to the curriculum, The Catcher in the Rye has been challenged or banned over 25 times. Take a look at this list put together by the American Library Association that gives examples and reasons for challenges and bans for the most challenged and banned books in the modern era, including the above mentioned 3 classics.

Vladmir Nabokov’s Lolita

This book is one of my personal favorites because it is masterfully narrated and infused with the darkest humor you’ll ever come across. It’s written in the voice of one Humbert Humbert who is compulsively attracted to little girls; “Nymphets” as he calls them. The majority of the tale chronicles his affair with 12-year-old Dolores Haze, the daughter of a woman Humbert marries explicitly to get close to the daughter. Twisted stuff to be sure, and I’m not sure I really need to explain why people want this book banned from libraries and schools. Heads have certainly rolled for this book: Its eventual British publication by Weidenfeld & Nicolson caused a scandal that contributed to the end of the political career of one of the publishers, Nigel Nicolson. It was straight up banned in France for 3 years, England for 4 years, and 1 year in Argentina and New Zealand.

Guys, gals, I know this book covers some pretty filthy stuff and in my opinion, Humbert Humbert is a pretty scummy guy. He is an amazingly crafted character. He is part lovable but undeniably twisted (classic fictional anti-hero) Walter White, part purely inhuman (and all too real) monster Ariel Castro, but there is absolutely no denying the insane brilliance of Nabakov’s writing. The power of this book is that although as we read we are rationally and almost physically (depending on the strength of your tummy) repulsed and sickened by Humbert Humbert the pederast, there are times when in our hearts we feel for him and pity him nearly to the point of hoping that he and Dolores get away. Nearly.


For more information on all of these books and others that have been challenged or banned over the years, check out this list.


illustration credit: Filter Forge, Creative Commons/flickr

  • Nik

    What an interesting comparison, Humbert to Castro. A compelling and well-written article.