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History of Banned Books Censorship

A Short Timeline

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Many of the books we now consider classics were once banned by federal, state, and local governments in an effort to keep undesirable influences out of the mainstream American consciousness. It didn't work. You can thank the First Amendment—and centuries of activism by authors, publishers, and supporters who took considerable risks to make banned books available to readers.

1821

Most literary works declared obscene in U.S. history were characterized in such terms because they were regarded as encouraging either adultery or prostitution. John Cleland's Fanny Hills, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, which holds the distinction of being the longest-banned work of literature in U.S. history, describes both.

1930

Senators Reed Smoot (R-UT) and Willis Hawley (R-OR) propose a ban on the import of purportedly obscene books. Newspapers, by and large, saw this as an attempt by Smoot and Hawley to pander to their constituents. As one Salt Lake City Tribune article put it:
In March 1930, Smoot rose on the floor of the Senate to save the nation. On his desk were Lady Chatterley's Lover, Balzac's Droll Tales, the Kama Sutra, Casanova's memoirs and some titillating ditties that Robert Burns tossed off when not being Scotland's most revered poet.

The galleries leaned in for a helping of degeneracy, eager to be appalled. What they got was a "thoroughgoing outburst of indignation."

"I'd rather a child of mine use opium than read these books!" thundered Smoot, arguing that it was better to keep a thousand good books out of the United States rather than let a single bad one slip through.

Robbed of its naughty thrill, the crowd was instead treated to the more common spectacle of a senator in high moral dudgeon.
The bill passed anyway.

1933

In United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, Judge John Woolsey of the U.S. federal court for the Southern District of New York eloquently defends the novel on obscenity charges:
Joyce has attempted — it seems to me, with astonishing success — to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries, as it were on a plastic palimpsest, not only what is in the focus of each man's observation of the actual things about him, but also in a penumbral zone residua of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by association from the domain of the subconscious. He shows how each of these impressions affects the life and behavior of the character which he is describing ...

It is because Joyce has been loyal to his technique and has not funked its necessary implications, but has honestly attempted to tell fully what his characters think about, that he has been the subject of so many attacks and that his purpose has been so often misunderstood and misrepresented. For his attempt sincerely and honestly to realize his objective has required him incidentally to use certain words which are generally considered dirty words and has led at times to what many think is a too poignant preoccupation with sex in the thoughts of his characters ...

I am quite aware that owing to some of its scenes "Ulysses" is a rather strong draught to ask some sensitive, though normal, persons to take. But my considered opinion, after long reflection, is that, whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.

Ulysses may, therefore, be admitted into the United States.
In addition to defending Ulysses in a rather stirring way, the ruling also demonstrated the absurd conditions that bans on obscene books imposed on judges—requiring each of them to function as literary critics, and to analyze their own responses to the book for hints of possible sexual arousal. Judge Woolsey made the best of a ridiculous situation.

1964

In Jacobellis v. Ohio, the U.S. Supreme Court declares that Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, banned in the United States since 1934, is not obscene. In the process, it essentially dismantles the rationale used by censors to restrict the import and publication of allegedly obscene books. While library officials, retailers, and other authorities have sometimes restricted access to books, wholesale federal bans on books on the basis of obscene content have been relatively rare over the past half century.
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