Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The road to censorship, paved with good intentions

Last year's edited-for-language edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by NewSouth Books, which countered the  "preemptive censorship" of the classroom with some of the publisher's own, was a feat of bowdlerizing that Twain would have relished in saloon stories for some time. 

Classics old and new have come under attack usually in the guise of shielding students from controversial content. Huck remains in good company these days along with Jem and Scout, Harry Potter, Deenie, and Holden Caulfield.

Presumptive editing -- NewSouth's press release described their changes in Twain's text as "a bold move compassionately advocated" -- is a reminder that good intentions and censorship are often one and the same.

Books are censored and edited for many reasons. Twain's Autobiography was revised by editors who thought his views on politics too controversial for his Gilded Age readers. (One hundred years later the outrage of his religious views is still running high.) A letter from the always-pertinent author regarding the banning of Huckleberry Finn by the public library in Omaha, Nebraska (in 1902!) indicates the author very much enjoyed the notoriety: "It has started a number of hitherto spotless people to reading Huck Finn, out of a natural human curiosity to learn what this is all about -- people who had not heard of him before; people whose morals will go to wreck and ruin now."

In the case of a bookstore in Orem UT, the sale of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess resulted in the owner's closing up the store and relocating to another city. The Awakening, Kate Chopin's 1899 novel about a woman who challenges orthodox views of motherhood, was still being questioned in 2006.

Here's a selection (from a much longer list) of banned books and the reasons why, from The American Library Association.

The Awakening, Kate Chopin: Retained on the Northwestern Suburban High School District 214 reading list in Arlington Heights, IL along with eight other challenged titles in 2006. A board member, elected amid promises to bring her Christian beliefs into all board decision-making, raised the controversy based on excerpts from the books she'd found on the Internet. First published in 1899, this novel so disturbed critics and the public that it was banished for decades afterward.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee: Challenged in Eden Valley, MN (1977) and temporarily banned due to words "damn" and "whore lady" used in the novel. Challenged in the Vernon Verona Sherill, NY School District (1980) as a "filthy, trashy novel." Challenged at the Warren, IN Township schools (1981) because the book does "psychological damage to the positive integration process" and "represents institutionalized racism under the guise of good literature."... Banned from the Lindale, TX advanced placement English reading list (1996) because the book "conflicted with the values of the community." Challenged by a Glynn County, GA (2001) School Board member because of profanity. The novel was retained; returned to the freshman reading list at Muskogee, OK High School (2001) despite complaints over the years from black students and parents about racial slurs in the text. Challenged in the Normal, IL Community High School's sophomore literature class (2003) as being degrading to African Americans. ....

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck: Burned by the East St. Louis, IL Public Library (1939) and barred from the Buffalo, NY Public Library (1939) on the grounds that "vulgar words" were used. Banned in Kansas City, MO (1939); Banned in Kern County CA the scene of Steinbeck's novel (1939); Banned in Ireland (1953); .... Banned in Kanawha, IA High School classes (1980); Challenged in Vernon Verona Sherill, NY School District (1980); Challenged as required reading for Richford, VT (1981) High School English students due to the book's language and portrayal of a former minister who recounts how he took advantage of a young woman ... Challenged in the Greenville, SC schools (1991) because the book uses the name of God and Jesus in a "vain and profane manner along with inappropriate sexual references." Challenged in the Union City, TN High School classes (1993).

Catch-22, Joseph Heller: Banned in Strongsville, OH (1972), but the school board's action was overturned in 1976 by a U.S. District Court in Minarcini v. Strongsville City School District. Challenged at the Dallas, TX Independent School District high school libraries (1974); in Snoqualmie, WA (1979) because of its several references to women as "whores."

Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut: Challenged in many communities, but burned in Drake, ND (1973). Banned in Rochester, MI because the novel "contains and makes references to religious matters" and thus fell within the ban of the establishment clause.... Challenged at the Owensboro, KY High School library (1985) because of "foul language, a section depicting a picture of an act of bestiality, a reference to 'Magic Fingers' attached to the protagonist's bed to help him sleep, and the sentence: 'The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of the fly of God Almighty."' ...
The Call of the Wild, Jack London: Banned in Italy (1929), Yugoslavia (1929), and burned in Nazi bonfires (1933).

A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess: In 1973 a book seller in Orem, UT was arrested to selling the novel. Charges were later dropped, but the book seller was forced to close the store and relocate to another city. Removed from Aurora, CO high school (1976) due to "objectionable" language and from high school classrooms in Westport, MA (1977) because of "objectionable" language. Removed from two Anniston, AL High school libraries (1982), but later reinstated on a restricted basis.

Of Mice and Men
, John Steinbeck: Banned in Ireland (1953); Syracuse, IN (1974); Oil City, PA (I977); Grand Blanc, MI (1979); Continental, OH (1980) and other communities. Challenged in Greenville, SC (1977) by the Fourth Province of the Knights of the Ku Klux KIan; Vernon Verona Sherill, NY School District (1980); St. David, AZ (1981) and Tell City, IN (1982) due to "profanity and using God's name in vain." ... Challenged as a summer youth program reading assignment in Chattanooga, TN (1989) because "Steinbeck is known to have had an anti business attitude:" In addition, "he was very questionable as to his patriotism:' ... Retained in the Olathe, KS Ninth grade curriculum (2007) despite a parent calling the novel a “worthless, profanity-riddled book” which is “derogatory towards African Americans, women, and the developmentally disabled.”

In Cold Blood, Truman Capote: Banned, but later reinstated after community protests at the Windsor Forest High School in Savannah, GA (2000). The controversy began in early 1999 when a parent complained about sex, violence, and profanity in the book that was part of an Advanced Placement English Class.

A Separate Peace, John Knowles Challenged in Vernon-Verona-Sherill, NY School District (1980) as a "filthy, trashy sex novel." Challenged at the Fannett-Metal High School in Shippensburg, PA (1985) because of its allegedly offensive language. ... Challenged at the McDowell County, NC schools (1996) because of "graphic language."

An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser Banned in Boston, MA (1927) and burned by the Nazis in Germany (1933) because it "deals with low love affairs."

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