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Friday, October 1, 2010

Banned Books Week: The History


I am no where near done with my current book, Obscene in the Extreme, and I don't think I'll finish it this week, but it has some fascinating facts about book banning that I thought I'd share:

The library system in question, while the banning of The Grapes of Wrath was being debated, loaned their books to other nearby library systems which had backlogs of reserves. So funny, banning the books at one library system didn't actually stop the circulation of those books. Hah. I hope libraries today, when books are banned, do something similar, and don't just trash the books or put them on a back shelf to gather dust.

In 1938, only one book was banned in the U.S. (To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway.) While that is partly because people in the 1930s were more open, it's also partly because, thanks to the Comstock Law, a lot of people (publishers, authors) were self-censoring. That's not so good.

The first known instance of censorship was in 585 BC when "Aesop was hurled off the cliffs of Delphi for the blasphemy contained in his fables." (p. 50-51)

Publishers Weekly in 1916 had this to say about book banning, "There is a borderland in which the exact delimitation of the obscene is a very complex matter, and the excessive zeal sometimes displayed by semi-official censorship in the suppression of 'borderland' literature has been often ludicrous, generally annoying and sometimes positively unjust." Sounds like it was said just last week, not 94 years ago, doesn't it?

But the depression turned Americans' focus away from book banning to more important matters (not starving), not to mention the Nazis' book burnings left a bad taste in most people's mouths when it came to books. The emblem of the New York Vice Society had long been a man tossing books into a fire, and that was changed in 1933 thanks to Germany.

In 1933, the ban on James Joyce's Ulysses in the US, was also lifted, thanks to federal judge Munro Woolsey. I love that his defense of the word "fuck" and other cussing is that they are "old Saxon words known to almost all men and, I would venture, to many women." Steinbeck's agent, Elizabeth Otis, was concerned about the amount of swearing in The Grapes of Wrath, and she flew out to California to try to talk him into a few edits. She was successful, but she was initially unsuccessful in notifying his publishing house of said changes, as the telegraph operator refused to send her telegram. Ms. Otis was able to talk her into it, although I wonder if she would have been successful in her endeavor, had she been a male trying to talk the female operator into including all the swear words.

I also like Eleanor Roosevelt's quote about Grapes: "The book is coarse in spots, but life is coarse in spots." Boy that's true! Sometimes cussing is called for.

Oh, and the county supervisor who called for the ban? An avowed member of the KKK. Coincidence?

1 comment:

Suzanne said...

Love some of the facts you found in the book. Hmm, now I guess I should read that book for Banned Books Week!

Thank for sharing!