10 Appalling Examples of Censorship in the United States

10 Appalling Examples of Censorship in the United States

Larry Holzwarth - January 31, 2018

Communities, school boards, religious offices, local libraries, the US Post Office, the Customs Service, and other instruments of authority in the United States have practiced censorship over articles, songs, films, television productions, plays and especially books since the earliest days of the Plymouth Colony in what is now Massachusetts. There, Governor William Bradford learned of some verses written by Thomas Morton of the nearby Merrymount Colony. Merrymount had been established by dissidents tired of the strict Puritan rules over what constituted permissive behavior and had started their own colony, which celebrated the tradition of erecting and dancing around a Maypole, the singing of songs other than those suitable for worship, and the writing of the aforesaid verses, which Governor Bradford found offensive”…some tending to lasciviousness.”

After Bradford and his Puritan flock arrived at Boston in 1630 he dispatched a military force to break up the Merrymount Colony and the area was absorbed into Boston, later becoming what is today’s Quincy, Massachusetts. Morton was deported. It was the first act of direct censorship in what became the United States. It would not be the last and throughout America’s history of censorship Boston – which calls itself the Cradle of American Liberty as well as the Athens of America – has been at the forefront of many acts of censorship. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was withdrawn from publication in Boston after the District Attorney threatened to sue the publisher over explicit language, for instance.

10 Appalling Examples of Censorship in the United States
Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass has been a target for censors over offensive language. National Archives

Here are examples of censored or banned books or other materials in America throughout history.

10 Appalling Examples of Censorship in the United States
Racial stereotyping and a word beginning with the letter n have kept Huckleberry Finn high on the list of censored or challenged books for generations. Wikipedia

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Most Americans are aware of relatively recent censorship of Twain’s recounting of a boy and a runaway slave’s journey down the Mississippi River. They believe that the censorship of Twain’s story is centered on the frequent use of what now is euphemistically referred to as the n-word, and the behaviors and dialect of characters now considered racial stereotypes. And they are correct to some degree. What is less well known is the book, which was published in the United Kingdom in 1884 and in the United States in February of 1885, was banned outright in the Massachusetts town of Concord, which called it “…suitable only for the slums.”

Huckleberry Finn is one of the most attacked and censored books in all of history. During Twain’s lifetime, the book was referred to as insensitive, particularly to women, but contemporary critic William Dean Howells of Cambridge Massachusetts found nothing within the pages of the book which should be removed. Several libraries disagreed and refused to place the book on their shelves, or were soon removing it due to complaints within the communities they served. Another contemporary writer, Louisa May Alcott, suggested that if Twain was unable to find a better subject on which to base a book he’d be better off to stop writing.

The Brooklyn Public library removed the book from its shelves in 1905, complaining of Twain’s poor choice of words. The library also cited the fact that Huck was coarse, and when it was recounted in the story that Huck scratched himself when he felt an itch the text was crossing the line of what was considered to be obscene. The book was thus harmful to young minds, justifying its removal from the library. Twain responded by saying that he had written the book solely to be read by adults, though his response was sarcastic, to say the least.

For years the book and its sometime companion The Adventures of Tom Sawyer were taught in the standard curricula of English classes in American schools. By the 1980s and in some cases even earlier, it was being assailed as deliberately provocative and racist by many school boards or those petitioning the school boards for its removal. This ignored the fact that the dialect and vocabulary were written to reflect its day, rather than a later day. A version in which all uses of the n-word were replaced with the word slave was produced in the 21st century; it also dropped the use of the word Injun.

The book remains controversial and is periodically reported to have been again dropped from public libraries, school libraries, bookstores, and book clubs. It is likely destined to remain so forever. In the United Kingdom, where it was first published, The Guardian placed it at number 23 in its list of the 100 Greatest Novels of All Time, writing in their review in 2014, “…this great novel remains vulnerable to the censoring attentions of provincial reactionaries and classroom bigots…”

10 Appalling Examples of Censorship in the United States
A rendering of JD Salinger from a 1961 issue of TIME Magazine. A small child appears in the rye behind him. Wikimedia

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye has been honored by being included in lists of the top 100 Novels of all time by several different organizations including TIME Magazine, Modern Library, and the BBC. More than 60 years after its publication the book still sells more than 1 million copies annually. Originally the novel was written for an adult audience, but beginning in the 1960s and since it has been popular with young readers. It is often taught in high schools.

The book tells a story through the eyes and voice of its protagonist, Holden Caulfield. Holden is traumatized from the recent death of his brother and more recent expulsion from an exclusive New York prep school. After being told that he is not to return following Christmas break, Holden leaves the school early and spends time in New York, where his parents and sister live, but he contacts only his sister. Holden encounters prostitutes and their pimps, tries to pick up adult women, meets former classmates and a former teacher, visits his sister Phoebe and has other adventures. He is particularly interested in the fate of the ducks in Central Park when the ponds freeze over during the winter.

Holden has been described as caught between being a teenager, which he is, and an adult because of his ability to think like and understand adult reasoning. The book was written in a style which allowed Holden to relate events and add his commentary using the extant teenage slang and attitudes. At the same time the author, J.D. Salinger presented an accurate and entertaining view of the New York City of the early 1950s through the eyes of his narrator. These attributes drew considerable praise from critics upon its release, and it continues to earn critical praise today.

From 1960 to 1982, The Catcher in the Rye was the most censored book in the United States in both libraries and schools. At the same time, it lead the nation in being censored, in 1981 it was taught in schools so extensively that it ranked second in books used for English curricula in the country. The censorship of the book began in 1960; a teacher in Washington assigned the book in class and the complaints of parents led to his firing. The book continued to be challenged and removed from library shelves throughout the decade of the 1990s. In the 21st century, the challenges to the book continue.

Most of the challenges are based on the book’s profanity, although it appears relatively mild to modern ears. Sexual innuendo and the approach of the young Holden to adult women are also challenged often, as is the implied homosexual encounter with a former teacher when Holden attempts to spend the night at his apartment, having run out of options over where to stay. Others have complained that the book encourages children to leave home on there, glamorizing Holden’s brief stay in New York. Surprisingly given the book’s popularity and continuing controversy, it has never been made into a film.

10 Appalling Examples of Censorship in the United States
Ulysses attracted censors and lawsuits before it appeared in book form. Wikipedia

Ulysses by James Joyce

The novel Ulysses explores the life of Leopold Bloom by following him through Dublin throughout one day, June 16, 1904. When it was released and since critics have lauded its importance as a critical step of modernist writing. Others have found the book to be virtually unreadable. The novel is considered to be one of the greatest literary works of all time. Upon its release, the writer T. S. Eliot reviewed it for the The Dial, a Transcendentalist journal influential in modernist literature. He wrote, “I hold this to be the most important expression which the present age has found…”

Joyce began writing the book in 1914 and it first appeared in book form in 1922. Prior to publication, it appeared in serialization in the The Little Rock Review from 1918 to 1920 (Portions were serialized in a London magazine, which led to the book being banned in the United Kingdom until 1936). In 1920 The Little Rock Review published a portion which included characters engaging in masturbation. The United States Post Office banned earlier sections, under laws which prohibited the sending of pornographic materials through the US mail. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice opened a legal action against The Little Rock Review.

The 1921 trial ended with The Little Rock Review being found obscene, its editors fined, and the serialization of Ulysses ended, in effect banning the book from being shipped through the mail in the United States. After the novel was published in book form and throughout the 1920s the Post Office confiscated and burned copies which came into its hands. Random House plotted a means to initiate another court case, this one against the federal government.

Random House imported a copy of the French language version of the book, and when the book was seized by customs authorities, as they knew it would be, and the publisher went to court with the United States in a case named The United States vs. One Book Called Ulysses. A United States District Court ruled that the book was not obscene, an Appeals Court upheld the ruling, and in 1934 Ulysses was freely available in the United States.

It was not the end of the controversy as the book has continued to be challenged, leading to its removal from libraries and schools as contrary to local morals and beliefs. Ulysses remained unavailable for another two years in the United Kingdom, and another 26 years elapsed before it could be purchased in Ireland, where although never banned the influence of the Catholic Church on the government discouraged its importation.

10 Appalling Examples of Censorship in the United States
Webster’s Dictionary has undergone censorship since its inception, when its author thought it prudent. This old Webster’s belonged to O. Henry. The O. Henry Museum

The Dictionary. Merriam-Webster and American Heritage Versions

It has been said that to read everything in the English language all one has to do is read the dictionary because all other books are included within, albeit slightly scrambled. Still, it hardly seems likely that a reference book so critical to an education in English could be banned, but it has happened in the United States, and in relatively recent years. Dictionaries have been banned from libraries or challenged by school boards, librarians, and community groups based on their content, in several different communities.

Cedar Lake Indiana and Anchorage Alaska separately ordered the American Heritage Dictionary to be removed from school libraries because the book contained objectionable language in 1976. Some of the words found objectionable were bed – due to its use as a verb in slang – knockers, balls, and others seemingly innocuous. It seems that parents were concerned that a young mind in their charge would be curiously looking up the meaning of the word bed when used as a noun describing furniture and inadvertently be exposed to its lewd use as a verb referring to sexual conquest.

School libraries in Eldon Missouri followed suit the next year, for similar reasons and similar words. Folsom California took the same action in 1982. As late as 1992 the dictionary was banned in Churchill County Nevada schools, although reason prevailed and the book was later reinstated.

Menifee Union School District in Southern California found Merriam Webster’s Dictionary to be offensive when it learned that the reference contained a definition for oral sex. In an excruciatingly appropriate irony, the spokesperson for the school district was named Betti Cadmus. In mythology, Cadmus was a Phoenician who brought the Ancient Greeks the skill of writing. Betti Cadmus informed the press that the school board was concerned over other, more explicit definitions which were likely contained in Merriam Webster’s and that the matter would be investigated.

In another bit of irony, Noah Webster, progenitor of the Dictionary of American Language, likely would have agreed with the school board. Webster deliberately omitted several words which could be found in the Bible of his day from his dictionary due to their offensiveness to female eyes, including stink, piss, and whores. His reluctance to include words that were found in the King James Bible of his day would have been welcomed by the more prudish of later generations. In the end, Merriam-Wester’s returned to the shelves, with the requirement for an approval note from parents before a student could reference the tome.

10 Appalling Examples of Censorship in the United States
School photograph of Anne Frank from 1940. Anne Frank Foundation

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

The story of what is usually referred to as The Diary of Anne Frank is fairly well known. Anne Frank, her siblings and parents, as well as friends including other children, went into hiding from the Nazis in a hidden attic in Amsterdam during World War II. Anne recorded the experience in a diary which had been given to her by her father, beginning her writings in June 1942, a few weeks before they went into hiding. The diary ends when the Franks and their companions were discovered by the Nazis in August 1944. Of the eight people in hiding only one, Otto Frank, Anne’s father, was alive when the war ended.

The Diary grew to include three volumes and it was given to Otto Frank when he returned to Amsterdam following the war. It had been recovered and hidden from the Gestapo when the hiding place was searched for information on possible collaborators. Along with the diary were letters which Anne had addressed to someone named Miss Kitty, whose identity has never become known. Anne had died at Bergen-Belsen near the end of the war, probably of typhus. Otto published the letters and diary, and by 1950 the fifth Dutch edition was in print.

English publication followed, and by when it appeared in the United Kingdom and the United States in 1952 it became a best seller. Many years later it was revealed that in the English edition certain passages had been deleted at the request of Otto Frank. When the redacted passages were returned to the book public response varied.

In Culpeper Virginia, the 50th anniversary edition, which included the previously unpublished material, was banned by the local school system for its references to sexual longing and for passages which could be imputed to condone homosexual behavior, in 2010. A backlash against the decision – the book had long been part of the school curricula – led to a compromise in which the newer edition would be made available in the library but the older, expurgated version would be used in the classroom.

Complaints against the book, mostly for explicit descriptions of sex, have been registered against it in several jurisdictions. In Michigan, Anne’s explicit description of the female sexual organs was the offending passage, and since there have been several attempts to ban or censor passages from the complete diary, with suggestions that the schools revert to the original editions rather than include the complete diary as Anne wrote it.

10 Appalling Examples of Censorship in the United States
Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm wrote stories far darker than the sanitized versions well known today. State Museum of Berlin

Grimm’s Fairy Tales by The Brothers Grimm

Lest the reader come to the conclusion that only concerned parents, outraged teachers, or offended religious authorities can cause books to be banned, the example of Hansel and Gretel is included here. It was not the only fairy tale to cause concern, in California an edition of Little Red Riding Hood was challenged by the picture on the cover, which included young Miss Hood carrying a basket which contained a bottle of wine for Grandma. Culver City California school board demanded it is removed rather than encourage young students to abet drunkenness.

Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm were brothers who after extensive research into German and Eastern European folklore produced Children’s and Household Tales in seven editions in Germany beginning in 1812. Their stories are the source material to the usually significantly altered versions of several well-known fairy tales today. These include Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Snow White, and many others, including Hansel and Gretel.

The English version is known as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and it has been the subject of censorship and outright bans almost since it arrived in North America, despite being published in over 160 languages worldwide. In the 1880s one American educator calling for its complete removal from library shelves and classrooms compared it to the “…medieval worldview and culture with all its stark prejudice, its crudeness and barbarities.” This has led to the stories being censored beyond recognition when compared to the originals.

In The Frog King, today in the United States widely recognized as the tale where the Princess kisses the frog and produces a Prince, the Grimm brothers’ original has a slightly different, more violent ending. The Princess throws the frog against a wall with all of the force she can muster, and when the frog awakens it has become a Prince. The contribution of Disney to the changing of the stories, making them more palatable for parents to expose to their children in order to sell movie tickets, has been applied to the works of Hans Christian Anderson as well (and to the tale of Pocahontas).

Even with the stories sanitized by removing much of the violence and graphic imagery of dark forests and hungry, slavering wolves, the stories are complained about as being prejudicial and bigoted. In 1992 in California complaints against Hansel and Gretel and demands that it be removed from school library shelves arose when two self-avowed practicing witches complained about Hansel and Gretel’s depiction of another member of their religion. In 2016 the State of Washington established regulations which made books which glorify violence in any manner (such as pushing a witch into an oven) inappropriate, with daycare centers failing to comply losing state financial subsidies.

10 Appalling Examples of Censorship in the United States
Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, with James Anderson in a still from the film based on Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Wikimedia

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird is largely autobiographical, with the character of Scout based on Harper Lee’s experiences as a young girl, Atticus Finch based on her father, and the young visitor Dill on Lee’s childhood and lifelong friend Truman Capote. The book was extracted from a larger work (the remainder was completed as Go Set a Watchman) and her editors warned Lee that it was unlikely to sell well at first. Instead, it was a sensation, a Book of the Month Club selection, and it was made into a motion picture in 1962, also a major hit.

To Kill a Mockingbird contains quite a bit to draw the ire of those determined to decide for others what they may or may not read. It contains racial slurs, including the dreaded n-word, despite its prominence in dialect at the time the book was written. It has a frank discussion of a black-on-white rape, later shown to be a false accusation, and profanity is common throughout the book.

The book has been continually challenged as to its fitness for classroom use and presence on school library shelves. One frequently cited is the book’s discussion of the attraction towards Tom Robinson, a black man accused of rape, by Mayella Ewell, the alleged victim. This was a particular area of concern among white parents and school boards in the south throughout the 1960s. As recently as 2016 the Commonwealth of Virginia had the book removed from school libraries.

In 2017 the school district of Biloxi Mississippi removed the book from its eighth-grade curriculum, claiming that the lessons formerly taught through its reading could be provided using other books. It did not specify which other books. The action drew a scolding from a US Senator, Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, who said, “Our kids are tough enough to read a real book.” The Biloxi action began when a student, who claimed to feel uncomfortable hearing the n-word read aloud, returned to school wearing a shirt with the full word written all over.

The removal of books from curricula is somewhat different than denying access to the book by removing it from library shelves. In many areas the only library access students have is to the one in their school, a fact known to the school boards which exercise censorship through their actions. To Kill a Mockingbird remains one of the most frequently challenged books available, according to the American Library Association it was 21 on the list of the 100 most challenged books as recently as 2009.

10 Appalling Examples of Censorship in the United States
Candide believed two monkeys were attacking two nude women and killed them, only to learn they were the women’s lovers. National Library of France

Candide by Voltaire

Francois Marie Arouet subtitled his novel Candide, “or Optimism”, when he published it in France in 1759 under his pen name, Voltaire. It is written in the style of a travelogue, with the protagonist, Candide, descending from life in paradise to one of pessimistic disillusion, despite his guide’s mantra that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Through the book, Voltaire spears all forms of authority, including religion, government in all forms, the military, philosophers, and theologians. The book is written around contemporaneous events including the Seven Years War and natural disasters in Europe.

The book was published in secret in France, attaining great popularity and the condemnation of the Roman Catholic Church and the Court of the French King. Although its source was widely believed to have been Voltaire, to whom irreverence was as natural as breathing, he denied authorship until 1768, to avoid being thrown into the Bastille by one of the offended nobles. The book remained officially banned by the Catholic Church as late as 1966.

Throughout the world, the book was considered to be inciting revolution, disrespectful of all forms of authority, and seditious. It was also considered to be obscene, blasphemous, and in some characterizations bordered on libelous. Many of the Founder’s in America read it, Benjamin Franklin met with its author during his tenure in Paris, and Jefferson had a copy in French in his library at Monticello. English editions of the work were published the same year as the original, and have been reprinted ever since.

Candide remained on the officially banned list of the Catholic Church for nearly two centuries, where it joined several other works by Voltaire, as well as works by Daniel Defoe, Ernest Hemingway, Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, and Walt Whitman, to name just a few. This did not ban its sale in the United States, other than in Catholic bookstores, and it kept it from the library shelves in Catholic schools. The book was banned by community libraries and schools throughout the United States, and remains so in some jurisdictions, although it is seldom if ever taught or read below the university level.

As recently as 1929, the US government, which had banned shipment of the book through the US Mail from time to time throughout its history despite its seminal effect on revolutionary thought, banned a shipment of the book written in French from importation. US Customs in Boston confiscated the shipment because the official who reviewed it deemed the book obscene, despite it being intended for a French class at Harvard. The book was later admitted by court order, but not in time to be used in the intended class.

10 Appalling Examples of Censorship in the United States
Devoted guardian of American morals, Anthony Comstock. Wikimedia

The Federal Anti-Obscenity Act of 1873

The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice was founded by Anthony Comstock in 1872. Among its mottos were “Books are Feeders for Brothels,” and “Morals, not Art and Literature.” Comstock, through the support he engendered through the Society and his influence as Postal Inspector (appointed by President Grant), was instrumental in persuading Congress to pass the Anti-Obscenity Act of 1873. The act, which remains on the books today, prevented the US Post Office (then a branch of the federal government) from sending through the mail books and other materials deemed to be “lewd.” “indecent,” or “obscene.” Mr. Comstock provided the guidance defining those terms.

Comstock included in his zeal materials and books which cover the topics of birth control, human sexuality, and reproduction. This included health textbooks for schools as well as literature, poetry, plays, librettos, and medical tomes and articles. The finding of a violation could be from anyone who petitioned the courts or other authority (such as a school board) and obtained agreement that the material in question was inappropriate for American consumption.

Comstock and his associates prosecuted more than 3,500 cases over the next four decades. Their efforts and those of the United States Post Office, required by law to destroy materials which were attempted to be shipped through the mails, led to over 120 tons of books, magazines, and newspapers being destroyed. Of the persons prosecuted for either producing materials which did not meet someone else’s purity standards or was offended by them, only about 10% were found to be in violation of the law.

Some of the materials which failed to meet the standard for shipping through the mail included The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, Tales of the Arabian Nights, Lysistrata by Aristophanes, and Gargantua by Rabelais. That many of these and other works considered to be classics were part of the educational curriculum throughout the country was of no consequence to Comstock and his devotees, and they didn’t stop with classical literature.

Contemporaneous writers fell under the censorship of the government through the Post Office as well. Honore de Balzac, Eugene O’Neill, Hemingway, Victor Hugo (for Les Miserables), F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and John Dos Passos, were all censored under what became known as the Comstock law. It is still in effect, although the passages affecting birth control have been excised from the law.

10 Appalling Examples of Censorship in the United States
Censor’s changed the manner of Ophelia’s death, believing the suicide implied by Shakespeare to be too much for youth to deal with. Tate, London

The Works of William Shakespeare

The Bard of Avon has been a subject of censorship or editing to eliminate offensive passages several times, in many communities across the United States. Counting the number of times productions of his plays choose to simply avoid certain passages, or reword them for local consumption is virtually impossible. Often such companies choose to use a script not from the original oeuvre of Shakespeare, but from an edited edition of his works published in the early 1800s as The Family Shakespeare whose author gave a new word to the English lexicon.

Thomas Bowdler was an English physician of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century whose father had enjoyed reading Shakespeare aloud to the family when he Thomas a child. As an adult, reading the works on his own he realized that his father had omitted many passages during his reading, considering them to be too fraught for the ears of children. Bowdler undertook to edit the complete works of Shakespeare to remove the offending passages. Bowdler so changed the content that the word bowdlerize came to be considered to mean expurgate, though in a disparaging manner.

The bowdlerized Shakespeare became popular in the United States among groups who found the originals to be offensive, despite some of the changes significantly altering the story. For example, in Hamlet Ophelia’s death is an accidental drowning rather than a suicide. In other plays, characters are omitted entirely. But bowdlerization was not the only incidence of censorship regarding Shakespeare.

Buffalo and Manchester New York both removed the play The Merchant of Venice from their schools after complaints from Jewish groups that the play was supportive of antisemitism. The character Shylock was believed to be a stereotype which was representative of the prejudicial opinions of Jews.

The Merchant of Venice isn’t the only Shakespeare play to undergo censorship within the United States. Schools across the country have ceased teaching Romeo and Juliet, not because of its depiction of the young lovers and their brief but torrid relationship, but because it is believed to foster a rebellious attitude toward parental authority.


Sources and more information:

Time Magazine – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

LA Times – ‘Bad’ Books: Censorship’s Role Examined in Fullerton College Display

DW – Anne Frank’s Incomplete Novel ‘Dear Kitty’ Published

History Extra – Censoring Anne Frank: How Her Famous Diary Has Been Edited Through History

NEH – How the Grimm Brothers Saved the Fairy Tale

Ferris State University – Banning “To Kill a Mockingbird”

Smithsonian Magazine – Four Hundred Years Later, Scholars Still Debate Whether Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” Is Anti-Semitic