"Books That Shaped America": A Library of Congress exhibit of controversial books

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Reprinted courtesy of: Bellemeade Books: Writing about Reading

By: M. Bromberg

The Library of Congress has created an exhibit, "Books that Shaped America," which explores books that "have had a profound effect on American life." Below is a list of books from that exhibit that have been challenged as acceptable reading in schools, or banned outright. Below are notes about some of the featured titles from the Banned Books Week organization.

(To learn more about challenges to books since the inception of Banned Books Week, check out the timeline created by the American Library Association.)

Moby-Dick; or The Whale, Herman Melville (1851): In a real head-scratcher of a case, a Texas school district banned the book from its Advanced English class lists because it “conflicted with their community values” in 1996. "Community values" are frequently cited in discussions over challenged books by those who wish to censor them.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain (1884): The first ban of Mark Twain’s American classic in Concord, MA in 1885 called it “trash and suitable only for the slums.” Objections to the book have evolved, but only marginally. Twain’s book is one of the most-challenged of all time and is frequently challenged even today because of its frequent use of the word “nigger.” Otherwise it is alleged the book is “racially insensitive,” “oppressive,” and “perpetuates racism.”

The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane (1895): Restricting excess and refusing to allow teachers to teach books is still a form of censorship in many cases. Crane’s book was among many on a list compiled by the Bay District School board in 1986 after parents began lodging informal complaints about books in an English classroom library.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley (1965): Objectors have called this seminal work a “how-to-manual” for crime and decried because of “anti-white statements” present in the book. The book presents the life story of Malcolm Little, also known as Malcolm X, who was a human rights activist and who has been called one of the most influential Americans in recent history.

Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987): Again and again, this Pulitzer-prize winning novel by perhaps the most influential African-American writer of all time is assigned to high school English students. And again and again, parental complaints are lodged against the book because of its violence, sexual content and discussion of bestiality.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown (1970): Subtitled “An Indian History of the American West,” this book tells the history of United States growth and expansion into the West from the point of view of Native Americans. This book was banned by a school district official in Wisconsin in 1974 because the book might be polemical and they wanted to avoid controversy at all costs. “If there’s a possibility that something might be controversial, then why not eliminate it,” the official stated.

The Call of the Wild, Jack London (1903): Generally hailed as Jack London’s best work, The Call of the Wild is commonly challenged for its dark tone and bloody violence. Because it is seen as a man-and-his-dog story, it is sometimes read by adolescents and subsequently challenged for age-inappropriateness. Not only have objections been raised here, the book was banned in Italy, Yugoslavia and burned in bonfires in Nazi Germany in the late 1920s and early 30s because it was considered “too radical.”

Catch-22, Joseph Heller (1961): A school board in Strongsville, OH refused to allow the book to be taught in high school English classrooms in 1972. It also refused to consider Cat’s Cradle as a substitute text and removed both books from the school library. The issue eventually led to a 1976 District Court ruling overturning the ban in Minarcini v. Strongsville.

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger (1951) Young Holden seems to be the favorite child of the censor. Frequently removed from classrooms and school libraries because it is “unacceptable,” “obscene,” “blasphemous,” “negative,” “foul,” “filthy,” and “undermines morality.” And to think Holden always thought “people never notice anything.”

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (1953): Rather than ban the book about book-banning outright, Venado Middle school in Irvine, CA utilized an expurgated version of the text in which all the “hells” and “damns” were blacked out. Other complaints have said the book went against objectors religious beliefs. The book’s author, Ray Bradbury, died this year.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (1940): Shortly after its publication the U.S. Post Office, which purpose was in part to monitor and censor distribution of media and texts, declared the book nonmailable. In the 1970s, eight Turkish booksellers were tried for “spreading propaganda unfavorable to the state” because they had published and distributed the text. This wasn’t Hemingway’s only banned book – A Farewell to Arms and Across the River and Into the Trees were also censored domestically and abroad in Ireland, South Africa, Germany and Italy.

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