There is something about things that are off-limits that makes them irresistible. When someone tells you that you can’t, or you shouldn’t, do something, it just makes you want to do it even more. For that reason, you will probably want to read these ten books that were at one time or other banned in the United States.
It should be no surprise that the country that tried to ban alcohol would also have had a penchant for banning books, and they were most prolific in their banning during the 1920s and 1930s. Below is a list of 20 books that were banned at some time or other in the United States.
The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio (1353)
Also known as The Human Comedy, this is a collection of short stories written by the author from the perspective of young women and men living in a secluded villa in Italy during the Black Death. The stories are witty and often tragic, but also quite erotic, which was why it was banned in the United States under the Federal Anti-Obscenity Act. What would modern-day readers of Fifty Shades of Grey think of it?
The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (14th century)
This is another collection of short stories, this time by an English author and told from the perspective of a group of pilgrims as they travel through England from London to Canterbury. The result is an ironic and critical portrayal of English society at the time, especially the Church. This book too was banned in the U.S. for a period of time mainly due to its sexual anecdotes and frequent swearing.
The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, William Pynchon (1650)
The author was a Puritan leader in the new world that founded the City of Springfield, Massachusetts, and was a leader of the Bay Colony. But he seemed to become disenchanted with the way of life there, and wrote an explicit critique on Puritanism. The book was banned in Massachusetts, and copies of the book were also burned for its heretical content. Pynchon quietly returned to England to avoid the scandal.
Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe (1722)
Another book banned because the exploits of its female protagonist were considered too obscene. The named novelist, Daniel Defoe made famous for Robinson Crusoe, may not have written the book. The first manuscript appeared with no author and it is written I the style of an autobiography, but 50 years later it was attributed to Defoe, who was said to have met the unfortunate woman of the novel while he was visiting a prison. Despite the ban, it has had a number of film adaptations starring Kim Novak (1965) Julia Foster (1975), Robin Wright Penn (1966), and Alex Kingston alongside a young Daniel Criag (1996).
Fanny Hill, John Cleland (1748)
It seems that in the United States they had a problem with women who chose not to live by the rules, as this novel about another woman of ill-repute was also banned. Though this book is considered to have been the first true pornographic novel. The book itself has no dirty words, but is a lesson in the art of euphemism.
Candide, Voltaire (1759)
When hear the name Voltaire today we might think of something that posh students might read, it used to be a book for vagabonds when it was banned for obscenity. The book follows the life of a young man called Candide, who is indoctrinated into the philosophy of Leibnizian optimism, but then leaves his sheltered life and is disillusioned by the reality of the real world.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)
This novel takes a stark look at slavery by telling the story of Uncle Tom, a long-suffering black slave in the south, around whom all the other characters in the book revolve. This book was banned in the south during the civil war because of its anti-slavery content. It was also banned in Russia for promoting ideas of equality. The book is credited with having helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War.
Elmer Gantry, Sinclair Lewis (1927)
This novel critiques American fanatical evangelical religion with the protagonist, a reverend, who uses his position to engage in booze and women and get easy money. Despite his unsuitability, he rises up within the religious system. It was banned in several cities and was denounced even more broadly from pulpits across the country.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence (1928)
This is another book that we would likely consider tame, but was banned for being obscene. Again, we have to ask if it would have suffered the same fate if the main character had been male. The story is about an upper-class woman with a neglectful husband who finds comfort in the arms of a lower-class man.
Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller (1934)
An autobiographical novel, it tells the story of Miller’s own experiences as a struggling writer in France. The first edition of the book published in France in 1934 was banned in the United States. It was later published again in 1961 and became the focus of obscenity trials that tested the American laws on pornography. In 1964, the Supreme Court decided that the book was not obscene.
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (1939)
That this book was banned in several states might be a bit of a surprise considering the popular 1940 film starring Henry Fonda, but the second half of the film and the ending differ significantly from the book. It is set during the great depression and follows families from Oklahoma that lost everything and so made their way to California in search of a new life. In California, the book was banned for not casting the residents in a nice light.
Forever Amber, Kathleen Winsor (1944)
This book tells the story of an English socialite in the 17th century who sleeps her way to the top of society, while always maintaining her love for one man. Despite the ban for explicit content in several states, it was made into a Hollywood film in 1947 starring Linda Darnell as Amber herself.
Memoirs of Hecate County, Edmund Wilson (1946)
A collection of six short stories that describes dysfunctional American society through friendships and sexual liaisons. Seeing the pattern, you will be unsurprised to read that this book was banned for its sexually explicit content. It was only after the publication of Lolita, by the author’s friend Vladimir Nabokov, that he was able to challenge the ban and have it published again in 1959.
Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs (1959)
Another book that takes the form of a collection of short stories, it is told from the perspective of a junkie William Lee. The story is based on the author’s own experiences and drug addictions including heroin, morphine, and majoun. In 1991 David Cronenberg famously adapted the book into a film starring Peter Weller. It was banned for a short time from 1962-1966 for its obscene content.
Catch-22, Joseph Heller (1961)
Set during World War II, the book follows the exploits of an anti-hero air force captain. It has a lot to say about the absurdity of war. Despite being considered one of the most significant novels of the 20rh century, the book was banned on and off in several different states, mostly for the crime of referring to women as whores (which is terrible).
Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire (1968)
Written by a Brazilian educator and later translated into English, it proposes a new relationship between teacher, student, and society to suit modern times. It suggests that students are not just there to soak up information, but should co-create their learning journeys. Steeped in Marxist philosophies, it was largely banned for political reasons.
United States – Vietnam Relations 1945-1967, Department of Defense (1971)
This report put together by the U.S. Defense Department details the history of relations between the United States and Vietnam for a 20 period before the Vietnam War. Nixon suspended the publication of this work claiming that it contained classified information, but he was overruled by the Supreme Court.
The Federal Mafia, Irwin Schiff (1992)
Schiff wrote this book while in prison and complained that the income tax system was illegal and the IRS no better than Mafia. The courts declared that the book contained fraudulent information and squashed its publication across much of the country. He appealed, but Schiff and his publishers were barred from publishing anything that suggested that it could help readers avoid paying taxes.
Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi (2000)
This autobiographical series of stories tells of the life of the author living in Iran after the Islamic Revolution. The book is presented as a comic strip, which is why it is considered especially graphic. In 2013, the book was banned in Chicago classrooms, which led to considerable public outcry. Students held protests which caused the book to be reinstated.
Operation Dark Heart, Anthony Shaffer (2010)
Written by a retired Army intelligence officer, it details his time in Afghanistan in 2003. While the publication was approved by the Army, the Department of Defense overrode the ruling and gathered and destroyed all 9,500 first edition copies, suggesting that it contained classified information that could damage national security. A censored second edition was then made available, with portions blacked out.