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10 Controversial Classic Books That Have Been Banned

From the obscene ‘Ulysses’ to the satanic ‘Harry Potter’.

Literary Hub

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Why oh why are people always trying to ban and/or burn books? Don’t they know that attempting to censor (or, in some cases, cleanse the earth of) a novel only makes us all want to read it more? Don’t they realize that the effort to suppress invariably helps usher in the opposite result: literary immortality. Whether it’s the brazen licentiousness of Lady Chatterley’s Lover taking England by storm during its obscenity trial, or reports of the “sheer unrestrained pornography” of Lolita prompting UK customs officials to confiscate all copies of the novel thereby generating a maelstrom of publicity ahead of its US publication, history has taught us that the harder the Powers That Be rail against a book, the more popular said book becomes.

Though the impact is generally minimal, even now, deep into the Information Age, there are still those in this country who choose to spend their free time petitioning school boards and libraries to remove from the reach of their children all copies of books they deem to be immoral. In fact, it is likely that someone, somewhere within these United States is, at this very moment, either burning or preparing to burn a pile of books which they have found to be offensive to their puritanical sensibilities. Why these censorious individuals don’t take a beat and consider the groups from whom they are inheriting this impulse (the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition, Ireland’s Committee on Evil Literature, the Nazis, the “firemen” of Fahrenheit 451, Pastor Terry Jones), is anybody’s guess.

Still, it’s important, every once in a while, to remember the then-controversial works of literature that were once cast into the cleansing fire of censorship and managed to make it out the other side, not merely unscathed, but stronger for the attempt.

We’re taking a look back at some classic reviews of ten of the last century’s most targeted novels. Enjoy the filth and perversion.

Ulysses, James Joyce (1922)

History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

Fun Censorship Fact: 

At a U.S. trial in 1921 the text was declared obscene and, as a result, Ulysses was effectively banned in the United States. Throughout the 1920s, none other than the United States Postal Service burned copies of the novel.

Classic Review:

“Mr. Joyce manages to give the effect of unedited human minds, drifting aimlessly along from one triviality to another, confused and diverted by memory, by sensation and by inhibition. It is, in short, perhaps the most faithful X-ray ever taken of the ordinary human consciousness.

Joyce, including all the ignobilities, makes his bourgeois figures command our sympathy and respect by letting us see in them the throes of the human mind straining always to perpetuate and perfect itself and of the body always laboring and throbbing to throw up some beauty from its darkness. Nonetheless, there are some valid criticisms to be brought against Ulysses. It seems to me great rather for the things that are in it than for its success as a whole. It is almost as if in distending the story to ten times its natural size he had finally managed to burst it and leave it partially deflated. There must be something wrong with a design which involves so much that is dull—and I doubt whether anyone will defend parts of Ulysses against the charge of extreme dullness … surely Mr. Joyce has done ill in attempting to graft burlesque upon realism; he has written some of the most unreadable chapters in the whole history of fiction

“Yet, for all its appalling longueurs, Ulysses is a work of high genius. Its importance seems to me to lie, not so much in its opening new doors to knowledge—unless in setting an example to Anglo-Saxon writers of putting down everything without compunction—or in inventing new literary forms—Joyce’s formula is really, as I have indicated, nearly seventy-five years old—as in its once more setting the standard of the novel so high that it need not be ashamed to take its place beside poetry and drama,”

Edmund Wilson, The New Republic, July 5, 1922

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D. H. Lawrence (1928)

We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.

Fun Censorship Fact:

During the book’s UK obscenity trial, the prosecution was ridiculed for being out of touch with changing social norms of British society when the chief prosecutor asked if it were the kind of book “you would wish your wife or servants to read.”

Classic Review:

“This fine novel of D. H. Lawrence’s has been privately printed in Florence, and it is difficult and expensive to buy. This is a pity, because it is probably one of Lawrence’s best books. About the erotic and unconventional aspects of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which have made it impossible for the book to be circulated except in this subterranean fashion, I shall have something to say in a moment. But Lady Chatterley’s Lover is far more than the story of a love affair: it is a parable of post-war England.

“Lawrence’s theme is a high one: the self-affirmation and triumph of life in the teeth of all the destructive and sterilizing forces—industrialism, physical depletion, dissipation, careerism and cynicism—of modern England; and in general, he has given a noble account of it. The drama which he has set in movement, against the double background of the collieries and the English forests, possesses both solid reality and poetic grandeur. It is the most inspiriting book I have seen which has come out of England for a long time; and—in spite of Lawrence’s occasional repetitiousness and sometimes overdone slapdash tone—one of the best written. D. H. Lawrence is indestructible: censored, exiled, snubbed, he still has more life in him than almost anybody else. And this one of his books which has been published under the most unpromising conditions and which he must have written with full knowledge of its fate—which can, indeed, hardly be said to have seen the light at all—is one of his most vigorous and brilliant.”

Edmund Wilson, The New Republic, July 3, 1929

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (1939)

“There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do.”

Fun Censorship Fact:

Many conservatives read its collectivist message as a rejection of American individualism. They called Steinbeck a communist and a rabble-rouser. Business owners and landowners railed against the novel’s promotion of labor unionization, fearful of the effect it would have on the workers under their employ, which led to the novel being banned and burned across the country.

Classic Review:

“Steinbeck’s longest and angriest and most impressive work … There are deaths on the road—Grampa is the first to go—but there is not much time for mourning. A greater tragedy than death is a burned-out bearing, repaired after efforts that Steinbeck describes as if he were singing the exploits of heroes at the siege of Troy … The first half-dozen of these interludes have not only broadened the scope of the novel but have been effective in themselves, sorrowful, bitter, intensely moving. But after the Joads reach California, the interludes are spoken in a shriller voice. The author now has a thesis—that the migrants will unite and overthrow their oppressors—and he wants to argue, as if he weren’t quite sure of it himself … Yet one soon forgets the faults of the story. What one remembers most of all is Steinbeck’s sympathy for the migrants—not pity, for that would mean he was putting himself above them; not love, for that would blind him to their faults, but rather a deep fellow feeling. It makes him notice everything that sets them apart from the rest of the world and sets one migrant apart from all the others.”

Malcolm Cowley, The New Republic, May 3, 1939

Animal Farm, George Orwell (1945)

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

Fun Censorship Fact:

Animal Farm was rejected four times by different publishers. One agreed to publish the book but later changed his decision after the Ministry of Information suggested that it would be unwise to infuriate Britain’s then ally, the Soviet Union.

Classic Review:

“There are times when a reviewer is happy to report that a book is bad because it fulfills his hope that the author will expose himself in a way that permits a long deserved castigation. This is not one of them, I was expecting that Orwell would again give pleasure and that his satire of the sort of thing which democrats deplore in the Soviet Union would be keen and cleansing. Instead, the book puzzled and saddened me. It seemed on the whole dull. The allegory turned out to be a creaking machine for saying in a clumsy way things that have been said better directly. And many of the things said are not instantly recognized as the essence of truth, but are of the sort which start endless and boring controversy.

“There is no question that Orwell hates tyranny, sycophancy, deceitful propaganda, sheeplike acceptance of empty political formulas. His exposures of these detestable vices constitute the best passages in the book. There have been plenty of such abuses in Russia, They also crop up in other places. It is difficult to believe that they determined the whole issue of the Russian revolution, or that Russia is now just like every other nation. No doubt in some respects she is worse than most; in other respects she may be better.

It seems to me that the failure of this book (commercially it is already assured of tremendous success) arises from the fact that the satire deals not with something the author has experienced, but rather with stereotyped ideas about a country which he probably does not know very well. The plan for the allegory, which must have seemed a good one when be first thought of it, became mechanical in execution. It almost appears as if he had lost his zest before be got very far with the writing. He should try again, and this time on something nearer home.”

George Soule, The New Republic, September 2, 1946

The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger (1951)

I was surrounded by phonies…They were coming in the goddam window.

Fun Censorship Fact:

In the 1980s, The Catcher in the Rye had the unusual distinction of being the nation’s most frequently censored book, and, at the same time, the second most frequently taught novel in the public schools.

Classic Review:

“Mr. Salinger’s brilliant, funny, meaningful novel is written in the first person. Holden Caulfield is made to tell his own story, in his own strange idiom. Holden is not a normal boy. He is hypersensitive and hyper-imaginative (perhaps these are synonymous). He is double-minded. He is inexorably self-critical; at various times, he refers to himself as yellow, as a terrible liar, a madman, a moron.

“The literalness and innocence of Holden’s point of view in the face of the tremendously complicated and often depraved facts of life make for the humor of this novel: serious haggles with belligerent taxi-drivers; abortive conversational attempts with a laconic prostitute in a hurry; an ‘intellectual’ discussion with a pompous and phony intellectual only a few years older than himself; an expedition with Sally Hayes, which is one of the funniest expeditions, surely, in the history of juvenilia. Holden’s contacts with the outside world are generally extremely funny. It is his self-communings that are tragic and touching—a dark whirlpool churning fiercely below the unflagging hilarity of his surface activities.”

S. N. Behrman, The New Yorker, August 11, 1951

Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin (1956)

“…not many people have ever died of love. But multitudes have perished, and are perishing every hour—and in the oddest places!—for the lack of it.”

Fun Censorship Fact: 

Baldwin’s American publisher suggested that he “burn” the book because the theme of homosexuality would alienate him from his readership among black people. He was told, “You cannot afford to alienate that audience. This new book will ruin your career, because you’re not writing about the same things and in the same manner as you were before, and we won’t publish this book as a favor to you.”

Classic Review:

“Whoever has read James Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, or his collection of essays and sketches, Notes of a Native Son, knows him to be one of our gifted young writers. His most conspicuous gift is his ability to find words that astonish the reader with their boldness even as they overwhelm him with their rightness.

The theme of Giovanni’s Room is delicate enough to make strong demands on all of Mr. Baldwin’s resourcefulness and subtlety. We meet the narrator, known to us only as David, in the south of France, but most of the story is laid in Paris. It develops as the story of a young American involved both with a woman and with another man, the man being the Giovanni of the title. When a choice has to be made, David choose the woman, Hella.

“David tells the story on a single night, the night before Giovanni is to be guillotined as a murderer. He tells of his life in Giovanni’s room, of deserting Giovanni for Hella and of making plans to marry her, of the effect of this on Giovanni, and of the effect of Giovanni’s plight on his own relations with Hella. Mr. Baldwin writes of these matters with an unusual degree of candor and yet with such dignity and intensity that he is saved from sensationalism.

“Much of the novel is laid in scenes of squalor, with a background of characters as grotesque and repulsive as any that can be found in Proust’s Cities of the Plain. But even as one is dismayed by Mr. Baldwin’s materials, one rejoices in the skill with which he renders them. Nor is there any suspicion that he is working with these materials merely for the sake of shocking the reader. One the contrary, his intent is most serious. One of the lesser characters, in many ways a distasteful one, tells David that ‘not many people have ever died of love.’ ‘But,’ he goes on, ‘multitudes have perished, and are perishing every hour–and in the oddest places!–for the lack of it.’ This is Mr. Baldwin’s subject, the rareness and difficulty of love, and, in his rather startling way, he does a great deal with it.”

Granville Hicks, The New York Times, October 14, 1956

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (1955)

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta…

Fun Censorship Fact:

Upon its initial release, the editor of London’s Sunday Telegraph, John Gordon, called it and “sheer unrestrained pornography.” British Customs officers were then instructed by a panicked Home Office to seize all copies entering the United Kingdom.

Classic Review:

“Certain books achieve a sort of underground reputation before they are published. Gossip arouses expectations that they are even nastier than the last succès de scandale. College students returning from visits to Paris demonstrate their newly acquired sophistication by brandishing paperbound copies. College professors write solemn critical analyses in scholarly publications. And if their authors are really lucky some act of official censorship publicizes their work to the masses. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is such a book. Mr. Nabokov is particularly lucky because his book was not censored in the United States, but in France of all places. What more could he hope for? The French ban was eventually removed and now this book written in English in the United States by a White Russian emigré can be bought legally in Paris where it was first published. Its American publication today has been preceded by a fanfare of publicity. Prof. Harry Levin of Harvard says it is a great book and darkly symbolical (Mr. Nabokov explicitly denies any symbolism). Graham Greene says that Lolita is a distinguished novel. William Styron says it is ‘uniquely droll’ and ‘genuinely funny.’

Lolita, then, is undeniably news in the world of books. Unfortunately, it is bad news. There are two equally serious reasons why it isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.

Lolita is not crudely crammed with Anglo-Saxon nouns and verbs and explicitly described scenes of sexual violence. Its depravity is more refined. Mr. Nabokov, whose English vocabulary would astound the editors of the Oxford Dictionary, does not write cheap pornography. He writes highbrow pornography. Perhaps that is not his intention. Perhaps he thinks of his book as a satirical comedy and as an exploration of abnormal psychology. Nevertheless, Lolita is disgusting.

“A great writer, a genius like Shakespeare, can write superbly of King Lear; but Shakespeare surrounded Lear by other interesting characters and did not write exclusively from within Lear’s ruined mind. The writer’s subject is human conduct and the motives that inspire it. A madman has no motives, only forces he responds to. His ravaged brain belongs to the psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, not to novelists.

Past the artistic danger line of madness is another even more fatal. It is where the particular mania is a perversion like Humbert’s. To describe such a perversion with the pervert’s enthusiasm without being disgusting is impossible. If Mr. Nabokov tried to do so he failed.”

Orville Prescott, The New York Times, August 11, 1958

Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut (1969)

Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.

Fun Censorship Fact: 

When the book was stricken from the public schools of Oakland County, Michigan in 1972, the circuit judge called it “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar, and anti-Christian.”

Classic Review:

“Kurt Vonnegut Jr., an indescribable writer whose seven previous books are like nothing else on earth, was accorded the dubious pleasure of witnessing a 20th-century apocalypse. During World War II, at the age of 23, he was captured by the Germans and imprisoned beneath the city of Dresden, ‘the Florence of the Elbe.’ He was there on Feb. 13, 1945, when the Allies firebombed Dresden in a massive air attack that killed 130,000 people and destroyed a landmark of no military significance.

Next to being born, getting married and having children, it is probably the most important thing that ever happened to him. And, as he writes in the introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five, he’s been trying to write a book about Dresden ever since. Now, at last, he’s finished the ‘famous Dresden book.’

In the same introduction, which should be read aloud to children, cadets and basic trainees, Mr. Vonnegut pronounces his book a failure ‘because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.’ He’s wrong and he knows it.

Kurt Vonnegut knows all the tricks of the writing game. So he has not even tried to describe the bombing. Instead he has written around it in a highly imaginative, often funny, nearly psychedelic story.

“This problem of Billy’s enables Mr. Vonnegut to tell his story fluidly, jumping forward and backward in time, free from the strictures of chronology. And this problem of Billy’s is related to the second thing, which is that Billy says that on his daughter’s wedding night he was kidnapped by a flying saucer from the planet Tralfamadore, flown there through a time warp, and exhibited with a movie star named Montana Wildhack.

I know, I know (as Kurt Vonnegut used to say when people told him that the Germans attacked first). It sounds crazy. It sounds like a fantastic last-ditch effort to make sense of a lunatic universe. But there is so much more to this book. It is very tough and very funny; it is sad and delightful; and it works. But is also very Vonnegut, which mean you’ll either love it, or push it back in the science-fiction corner.”

–The New York Times, March 31, 1969

American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis (1991)

…there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there.

Fun Censorship Fact: 

Australian national censorship legislation still classifies American Psycho as R18, meaning it can be sold only to over-18s and must be shrink-wrapped.

Classic Review:

“…a contemptible piece of pornography, the literary equivalent of a snuff flick. Its concluding 150 pages can only be described as repulsive, a bloodbath serving no purpose save that of morbidity, titillation and sensation; American Psycho is a loathsome book.

“Beneath its very thin veneer of thematic posturing American Psycho is pure trash, as scummy and mean as anything it depicts: a dirty book by a dirty writer. Of course Ellis has every right to write it, and Vintage every right to publish it. But the rest of us have every right not to read it; as one who did so out of duty, and who feels thoroughly soiled by the experience, I can only urge—no, pray—that everyone else refuse to do so by choice.”

Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post, February 27, 1991

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J. K. Rowling (1999)

Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. Love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves it’s own mark. To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.

Fun Censorship Fact: 

In March 2001, Reverend George Bender of the Pentecostal Harvest Assembly of God Church in Pittsburgh led his congregation in a bonfire of, among other “ungodly” items, the Harry Potter titles. Later that year, another Christian church in New Mexico followed Bender’s example, calling the books “a masterpiece of satanic deception.”

Classic Review:

“So many of the beloved heroes and heroines of children’s literature—from Cinderella and Snow White to Oliver Twist and the Little Princess to Matilda, Maniac Magee and the great Gilly Hopkins—begin their lives being raised by monstrously wicked, clueless adults, too stupid to see what we the readers know practically from page 1: This is a terrific person we’d love to have for a best friend.

And so it is with Harry Potter, the star of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J. K. Rowling, a wonderful first novel from England that won major literary awards and has been at the top of the adult best-seller lists there, and is having the same kind of success here too.

“Throughout most of the book, the characters are impressively three-dimensional (occasionally four-dimensional!) and move along seamlessly through the narrative. However, a few times in the last four chapters, the storytelling begins to sputter, and there are twists I found irritating and contrived. To serve the plot, characters begin behaving out of character. Most noticeably, Hagrid, the gentle giant of a groundskeeper who has selflessly protected Harry over and over, suddenly turns so selfish he is willing to let Harry be punished for something that is Hagrid’s fault. That’s not the Hagrid I’d come to know.

These are minor criticisms. On the whole, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is as funny, moving and impressive as the story behind its writing. J. K. Rowling, a teacher by training, was a 30-year-old single mother living on welfare in a cold one-bedroom flat in Edinburgh when she began writing it in longhand during her baby daughter’s nap times. But like Harry Potter, she had wizardry inside, and has soared beyond her modest Muggle surroundings to achieve something quite special.”

Michael Winerip, The New York Times, February 14, 1999

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This post originally appeared on Literary Hub and was published September 26, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.