American book-banning tradition is as old as the Mayflower

Recently, Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” the acclaimed graphic novel about the Holocaust, has been removed from the eighth-grade public school curriculum in McMinn County, Tennessee.

The reasons given included “rough, objectionable language” as well as “unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide.” Bowdlerizing the Holocaust takes chutzpah, no doubt. But Spiegelman can take comfort in the fact that he’s part of a long, distinguished history of targets.

Partisans enmeshed in today’s battles over efforts to cleanse the culture of offensive speech and speakers tend to focus on clashing contemporary sensitivities over race and identity. But the battle is part of much longer American tradition of book banning, particularly when it comes to works made available to children.

Though there’s some difference of opinion among literary scholars, the prize for first-book-banned in America probably goes to Thomas Morton’s “New English Canaan,” written in 1634 by a dissident who fled the Plymouth Colony in what is now Massachusetts. Morton attacked the Pilgrims for their religious zealotry and cruelty toward the natives of the land they settled, going so far as to claim that “the Divell was the setter of their church.”

William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony, took grave offense. He complained that Morton had written an “infamouse & scurillous booke against many godly & cheefe men of ye cuntrie; full of lyes & slanders, and fraight with profane callumnies against their names and persons, and ye ways of God.” He got his revenge by arresting Morton and banning the book.

So began an American pastime.

One instructive episode revolved around an antislavery broadside, “Appeal,” that rolled off the presses in Massachusetts in 1829.

David Walker’s book counseled African Americans to take revenge. “The whites have had us under them for more than three centuries, murdering and treating us like brutes,” he wrote. “Kill or be killed.”

Slaveholders began seizing and burning copies of the book that trickled into the South. Pro-slavery politicians remonstrated with the governor of Massachusetts, who sympathized with their anxiety but patiently explained the principles of free speech. Ineffectual book bans also trailed Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Books deemed obscene also evaded bans at first. But over the course of the 19th century, individual states, and then the federal government, passed obscenity laws that permitted the seizure and destruction of books and other material deemed prurient.

This led to ban on many books, some frankly erotic ones like “Fanny Hill” and others far less so. But obscenity laws began falling by the wayside in the early 20th century, making it harder to ban books on this basis. In one case decided in 1913, Judge Learned Hand issued an opinion in the federal district court in New York City in which he questioned whether Americans would be “content to reduce our treatment of sex to the standard of a child’s library.”

As it became increasingly difficult to ban books for adults, books available to children in schools and public libraries became the focus of aspiring censors; so, too, did books elevated to prominent places in the curriculum. Many Americans concluded that children’s literature would be the hill that they would die on in their fight to stop the circulation of ideas they found offensive.

Southern segregationists took the lead. In 1941, it came to the attention of Georgia Gov. Eugene Talmadge that African American children in his state had been given access to “We Sing America,” by the prominent Harlem Renaissance intellectual Marion Vera Cuthbert. It addressed the plight of African Americans and made a plea for racial equality. The discovery prompted Talmadge to hold what one newspaper described as a “big book burning.”

As the civil rights movement gathered steam, book bans and bonfires multiplied. A book that attracted some of the most virulent attacks in the 1950s was “The Rabbits’ Wedding” by Garth Williams, who also illustrated classics like “Charlotte’s Web” (itself a target of a book ban in 2006 that called talking animals “blasphemous and unnatural.”)

Williams’s story, aimed at the five-and-under set, described two fuzzy bunnies who get married in the company of equally adorable woodland creatures. It was perceived as a full-scale attack on the Southern racial order because one rabbit was white and one was black. An Alabama state legislator declared that the book should be “taken off the shelves and burned.” Not long afterward, the White Citizens’ Council of Alabama managed to have it removed from the state’s libraries.

But book banning wasn’t just a Southern thing. In New York City, many parents targeted Howard Fast’s “Citizen Tom Paine,” an admiring portrait of the Revolutionary War agitator famed for his contempt for Christian theology and George Washington. Critics cited its “vulgarity” and “lascivious passages” in school board meetings, but the real reason seems to have been that Fast was a Communist who portrayed the American Revolution as a class struggle. The parents got their way and the book disappeared.

In the 1960s and 1970s, a new generation of books attracted parental ire. “Down These Mean Streets,” by Piri Thomas, was both a staple of high-school reading lists and a perennial target; many parents held its depiction of life in Harlem to be profane and vulgar. In 1971, activists in Queens succeeded in having it removed from reading lists. One told the New York Times: “Why is everyone so upset? Controlling what children read is entirely different from controlling what adults read.”

The same argument animated a growing number of bans promoted in progressive circles at this time. Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” was a famous target, but other works also ran afoul of left-leaning censors, who prefigured today’s enforcers of cancel-culture orthodoxy.

In general, though, book bans in the late 1960s and 1970s tended to originate from the right. One study found that none of the 20 most frequently banned books during this period had been attacked for racist or sexist content. Rather, popular targets — “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Black Like Me,” and “Manchild in the Promised Land” — drew fire because they directly discussed racism.

The legal questions raised by book bans came to a head after a school board in Island Trees, New York banned a number of books in 1976. The offending titles included the usual suspects, including Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice,” Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” and Oliver LaFarge’s “Laughing Boy.” The reasons given were much the same as the ones offered up for banning “Maus”: vulgarity, profanity and sex. One of the board’s press releases also claimed that the books were “anti-American, anti-Christian,” anti-Semitic and “just plain filthy.”

Unlike other book bans, though, this one went all the way to the Supreme Court. In a landmark case finally decided in 1982, the justices ruled that the school board could not remove a book simply because it disagreed with the ideas contained in the text.

Unfortunately, the decision also sanctioned the vague idea that books could be removed from schools based on “educational suitability,” opening a door to book bans that are nominally constitutional.

This led to a trickle, and now a flood, of efforts to remove books from schools. It is perhaps inevitable that the Supreme Court will be asked to rule on this question once again. When it does, it should reaffirm an obvious point: that book banning has an odious history and deserves no place in the nation’s schools.

Stephen Mihm, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to Bloomberg Opinion.

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