The History of Banned Books

In my last post, I attached a series of pictures and explained that they were all linked together. That link is that all of those books, in addition to many, many others, have been banned from different places at one time or another. I want to dive into this with all of you. I want to explore these books and why they were banned. I may throw in biographies about various authors that have written banned books, or other figures connected with banned books. But first, I want to give everyone a brief history of the concept of banning books that we think of today here in the United States.


Let's go back to the 1600s. I know, I was surprised to back that far as well. There was a man by the name of Thomas Morton who had come to the United States from England during early colonial America. As Morton came to settle in, he found himself disagreeing with the views of the Puritans around him. In fact, from the brief reading I did to lay the groundwork here, it looks as though Morton supported the Native Americans and protested what the Puritans were doing by pushing the natives away or trying to change them.

Morton wanted to share his thoughts and beliefs about all of this. The result was a three volume publication titled "New England Canaan." Within these publications, Morton openly criticized the Puritans and what they were doing. Unsurprisingly, the Puritans didn't take well to such criticism. They ordered this publication to be banned. Morton's publication is believed to be one of the first, if not the very first book to be banned within the US.


From that point, we move ahead about 200 years to the year 1852. It was in that year that a woman named Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a novel that would create a lasting impact for a variety of reasons. That book is Uncle Tom's Cabin. If you're like myself, you've heard of this book and the importance of it for the majority of your life. While I have yet to read it, (don't worry, it's on my list of books that I absolutely must read) I can tell you that the book sheds light on the issue of slavery in America.

Stowe was an abolitionist, meaning that she saw how horribly wrong slavery was and was actively pushing for the end of slavery in the US. Writing Uncle Tom's Cabin was one of the ways that she fought slavery. She didn't let people turn the other cheek to the horrors going on around them. She forced people to face what they were doing and what others were doing. She made it known that this was horrifying and needed to stop. As one can imagine, this didn't bode well with slave owners in the South. As a result, Stowe's book was widely banned in the South.

I've also read Uncle Tom's Cabin listed as the first book banned in US history. I take this to mean that either they are aware of Morton's book, or they consider it as a different type of writing from a novel. It could also be that this is the first banned book in more "recent" history. Regardless, this is a book that made waves the moment it was published.


What followed the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin was the civil war. After the Union's victory, a man named Anthony Comstock began making himself well known for pushing and encouraging censorship. He pushed for banning the circulation of materials he felt included inappropriate material. As a US Postal Inspector, his concern was with what was being sent in the mail. His banning even included anatomy textbooks. This push for censorship became an official act passed by the United States Congress. As a result, the name "Comstock" is often associated with censorship. Even today, some may refer to the banning or censorship is at times referred to by the slang term, "comstockery."


By the 1920s, there was a distinct shift in the state of the United States. In fact, they were called the roaring 20s for a reason. People began to question some of the rules and laws put into place. Women were fighting for equality, people were fighting prohibition, and as a whole, everyone began questioning some of the laws and rules that were in place. Those in the book business, be it editors, publishers, book store owners, writers, etc. found themselves with a duty to be done. They needed to fight for the freedom of their books.

This led to the 1933 court case The United States vs One Book Called Ulysses. Since 1922, Ulysses had been deemed inappropriate and pornographic in nature. Ultimately, the judge ruled that it was not in fact pornographic and should not be banned. More than that, he ruled that books that books should not be banned for portraying sex of any nature in the books. It does not matter if it is violent, graphic, or kind and loving in nature. These books are not to be banned for those elements.


While that court case had been very important in regard to freeing books from censorship and regaining some freedom, it went on being challenged in the years following. As with many other things, the push for and against censorship followed the state of politics in the country. For example, former president Ronald Reagan made a big push for censorship.


During this time, there was also a very important librarian named Judith Krug who was not going to let books go on getting banned and censored without a fight. In 1982, an organization called the American Booksellers Association decided to make a statement at the trade show in Anaheim, CA. They made a display with hundreds of books locked up in a cage. On the outside of the cage was a warning to people that they needed to be careful because these books were dangerous. Their statement drew the attention they were hoping for. Seeing the shock and curiosity, they knew that they could build on this.

Following their locked up books statement, the American Booksellers Association reached out to Judith Krug. They had a similar goal to regain freedom in literature. From there, Krug began Banned Books Week. It began as something that was mostly just libraries and book stores putting up posters and setting out banned books. They would often use buzzwords such as "filthy," to draw attention to these books. Since then, it has grown to be a widely celebrated week of reading banned books, celebrating the books and their authors, talking about censorship and book banning, and encouraging others to pick up these books. Banned Book Week is held every year during the last week in September.


Since the inception of Banned Books Week, there are still piles of books that get banned and challenged in different places across the country every year. The banning is done by different schools and libraries here and there. However, a lot of the "banning" is done at home. Certain books and themes aren't allowed in their homes.

As I mentioned earlier, the trends with banning books follows the trends in politics. This also applies to the reasoning for a book being banned. When looking at the books that are challenged or banned today, the reasons they are banned are typically that they either contain LGBTQ themes, are written by an LGBTQ author, are written by a person of color, or have themes that address issues we have here in the United States. In the past, the more prominent themes that led to banned books were sexual imagery and violence.


I think it is important to take a closer look at the banned books here in the United States and discuss why they are banned. My plan is that every month, I will focus on one banned book from the long list of banned books in the United States. I'm also challenging myself to read more banned books. It's important to me that I practice what I preach, so I won't be discussing a book unless I have actually read it. While looking through the list, there are plenty that I have already read. However, a lot of them I would like to reread to refresh my memory on them. I was lucky and went to a school that, rather than censor the books that we read, they assigned us to read many of the books on the banned books list. However, that was many years ago and I'm due for a reread. If any are interested, I will update you all with what banned book I am currently reading in case you would like to join in.


Currently, I'm listening to Carrie by Stephen King as an audiobook. I'm nearly finished with it and will likely be discussing it very soon.


For any interested in following my reading progress, I make regular updates on Goodreads. You can find my page at www.goodreads.com/hwrite to follow my updates.


Sources:

https://lithub.com/the-history-and-present-of-banning-books-in-america/

https://readingpartners.org/blog/history-banned-books-week/

http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/banned

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