US Censorship: 10 Appalling Examples of Censorship in the United States
10 Appalling Examples of Censorship in the United States

10 Appalling Examples of Censorship in the United States

Larry Holzwarth - January 31, 2018

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In Culpeper Virginia, the 50th anniversary edition, which included the previously unpublished material, was banned by the local school system for its references to sexual longing and for passages which could be imputed to condone homosexual behavior, in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