Challenging and Banning Literary Classics

This week is Banned Book Week (September 26-October 1, 2016), a week in which many libraries, teachers, readers, and their many allies celebrate the freedom to read and the many books which have historically (and still) face challenges and bans by a variety of people, organizations, or even whole countries. The ALA Banned Book website explains that “[a] challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials.”

Taking a tour through our British and American literature books, we’ve put together a slide show of 10 banned classics you’ll find on our shelves, along with an explanation of what has made each of them the topic of so much controversy and attention. Some books were banned or challenged in a specific place, during a specific time, and/or for a specific reason. Dates in the gallery indicate the year our edition was published. A number in parentheses indicates year the book was first published.

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  • Ulysses by James Joyce. First published in serial format between 1918 and 1920, first published as a single volume in 1922. Ours is number 222 of the first 1000 printed. Ulysses was not only banned for obscenity, it was actually burned in some countries, including the U.S. (1918), Ireland (1922), Canada (1922), and England (1923). It was banned outright in England in 1929; not officially, but unofficially banned following an obscenity trial in the U.S. in 1921; never officially banned in Ireland, but never easily available. In 1934, it was available freely for the first time in the U.S.
  • An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser. Banned in Boston, MA, in 1927, following several censorship efforts for alleged obscenity, and a subsequent trial.
  • The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Challenged at a religious college in South Carolina in 1987 due to both language and sexual references.
  • The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway. Banned in Boston, MA, in 1930, in Ireland in 1953, and in Riverside and San Jose, CA, in 1960 because of it language and use of profanity, and its central focus on sex, promiscuity and the overall decadence of its characters. It was also burned by the Nazis in Germany in 1933, possibly for the decadence of its characters and/or for its realistic depictions of war.
  • Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence. Banned for obscenity by U.S. Customs (1929), in Ireland (1932), Poland (1932), Australia (1959), Japan (1959), India (1959), and Canada (1960-1962). In addition, it was banned by the Chinese government in 1987.
  • A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway. The novel appeared in a June 1929 issue of Scribner’s Magazine, resulting a ban of the magazine in Boston, MA, that year. The novel was banned in Italy in 1929 for its depictions of war actions (specifically those taken by Italian forces); in Ireland in 1939; and, like many of Hemingway’s works, was burned by Nazis in 1933. It was later challenged by school districts in Texas (1974) and in New York (1980) for its discussions and depictions of sex.
  • As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner. Banned in a school district in Kentucky (1986) for profanity and language (eventually overturned due to pressure from the ACLU and negative publicity). Challenged in school districts in Kentucky (1987) and Maryland (1991) for language, dialect, and obscenity. Banned temporarily by a school district in Kentucky (1994) for profanity and questions about the existence of God.
  • Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. Banned in Anaheim, CA, high school (1978) and an Illinois school district (1984) for use of racial slurs.
  • Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh. In 2005, an Alabama Representative proposed legislation limiting the use of public money to purchase books that “recognize or promote homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle” and proposed removing any such books from school, public, and university library shelves.
  • Rabbit, Run, by John Updike. Banned in Ireland (1962-1967) for obscenity, indecency, and promiscuity. Restricted to students with parental permission in a Maine school district (1976). Removed from a Wyoming school district reading list in 1986.

Not every book is challenged or banned for the same reason, but even with these 10 examples, you can certainly see some themes. You can read more about other challenged or banned classics, as well other kinds of challenged or banned books and the reasons behind them online. But, as always, the decision about what to read is in your hands.

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Serialization of the 19th Century Novel

In the 1830s, a new trend began in publishing (a “novel” idea, if you will!): Novels started to appear in newsstands. But rather than publishing in a large, cumbersome form that one couldn’t carry easily, they were issued in small, portable, serialized segments. Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers was the first to appear this way in print, but he wouldn’t be the last author to try it (a bit more on that in a moment). For authors AND audiences, this format had a number of advantages. For authors, it meant they could begin to sell a story before it was completed, that they didn’t actually have to have everything plotted out, and they had a little more time to write. For audiences, it meant following a story as it unfolded (rather than waiting for a full novel), a more dramatic reading experience that was drawn out by having to wait, talk with people, and guess, and easier to access the literature of the era. Novels were expensive, but a single serial volume could be purchased for a shilling and passed from person to person. Of course, this does mean the volumes were ephemeral, on cheap paper, and not meant to last. Lucky for us, some of them survived. Special Collections is home to a number of serialized novels, either in complete or mostly complete form.

The first of two we’re sharing today is Charles Dicken’s Bleak House, originally published in 20 parts (though two are combined, so it’s only 19 volumes) between 1952-1953.  (Due to the fragile nature of the publications and the bulky nature of their housing, I had to photograph, rather than scan these items. Apologies for the occasionally blurry quality and/or fingertips!)

The second example is William Thackeray’s The Virginians, published in 24 parts between November 1857 to October 1859.

Other than the obvious fact that these are different authors and different novels, there’s something else unique about the serialized novel: when a novel was issued independent of another publication (the parts of many serialized novels appears within literary magazines of the time), authors had their own color for a cover. It made new parts stand out on shelves and caught potential readers’ eyes. Dickens’ covers were blue, Thackeray’s were yellow. George Eliot’s covers were green, and from what I’ve found so far, Anthony Trollope’s were brown (at least those from the same publisher). I think I recall another writer having purple covers, but I haven’t been able to come up with who that was. If you know, let me know in the comments!

A little later in the 19th century, another form of the serialized book emerged: the “three-volume” novel (aka the “three-decker” or  my favorite, the “triple-decker”). Longer novels like Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady or George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss both appeared in this format (we have a copy of the latter in our collection). The triple-decker afforded some of the convenience of the serial in a more condensed form and by the time it was popularized, book-making processes (and consequently book-buying) had become cheaper. On the other hand, both established and new authors of the age began to make their living this way, many of them through sensational, overly-dramatic tropes and as a result, in some literary circles, the triple-decker took a lot of criticism and mockery. As one of Oscar Wilde’s characters remarks in one of my favorite plays, The Importance of Being Ernest, “It [a baby carriage] contained the manuscript of a three-volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality.” (Wilde himself published some of his writings in serial format in literary journals of the time, though he didn’t produce any triple-deckers.)

Whether you’re an English major, a literature lover, or just curious about unique formats of books, you’re always welcome to pay us a visit to see our serial sets, three-deckers, and more!

Victoria Cross & Other Pseudonyms

Virginia Tech Special Collections may not be known for our literary collections, but we have our fair share of literary surprises among the stacks. And we constantly find new ones. We have a wonderful selection of British and American first editions on our shelves, including a first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses and a signed Langston Hughes’ A New Song. Although I am an archivist at heart, my background is in literature and the long 19th century of British writing. One day, perusing manuscript collections from the days before VT had a Special Collections department, I found a letter written by Victoria Cross. Her name may not sound familiar, but the letter says something about an author who was considered racy and bold in her own time.

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July 20, 1909

Dear Mr. Morris

I am sending you an autograph copy of Life’s Shop window and I should be so glad if you will read it through carefully from beginning to end and form your own opinion on it. People who are jealous of me always howl at my writings the reproach that they are immoral From my own point of view I have never written a single immoral line in my life. I am immensely proud of my books and would read them aloud to a jury of Bishops with the greatest of pleasure any time.

It is most important for you to feel the same confidence as I do in them and to know personally the contents of one at least so that you can combat the rediculous [sic] statements made about me. I know how extremely busy you are but if you will make time to read it carefully, I know when you are in the U. S. and can speak with authority on my work, you will feel the time spend in reading it was not wasted.

With so many thanks for all the trouble you have taken for me already

Yours sincerely

Victoria Cross

Victoria Cross was one of several pseudonyms of Annie Sophie Cory (1868-1952), a British writer in the late 19th and early 20th century. She also wrote as Victoria Crosse, Vivian Cory, and V. C. Griffin. Cory was born in India and educated in England. She never married, and traveled extensively– two things that put her outside the normal expectations of her gender and place in society. Both are aspects of her life that influence her writing, likely leading to declarations of her “immorality” mentioned in the letter. And yet she, and a score of other late Victorian “New Women” writers helped to shape the next generation of women authors.

Despite the claims of their scandalous, exotic, or “immortal” nature, Cory’s works were well-read and popular in many circles. After all, how many readers are tempted by the novel that they are told isn’t appropriate reading? Life’s Shop-Window, the book she mentions in her letter, was first published in 1907. You can read it online through the Internet Archive. In 1914, it was even made into a movie! If you’re seeking a slightly shorter introduction to “Victoria Cross,” I recommend her first published short story, “Theodora: A Fragment” which appeared in The Yellow Book in 1895. Contemporary morals may be different, but you’ll still be in for a treat.

And as for us, well, we get to keep a little piece of that progressive, confident, “New Woman” history in our Special Collections.