“It seems hard to believe that people would find me to be a threat,” Lois Lowry said, accepting an award from the National Coalition Against Censorship in New York. “I have grey hair, I’m a widow. I live with a cat named Lou Lou, and I knit,” she said, much to the amusement of the crowd.
But Lowry was referencing the fact that she is the author of The Giver, a dystopian novel for young readers that has faced censorship all over the world due to its serious themes on the power of the individual, and suicide. Two other honorees at the NCAC benefit, Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, the authors of And Tango Makes Three, ruminated on the struggles their book, which tells the story of two male penguins raising an egg together, has faced over the years. Parnell said, “My reaction to our book being banned was, ‘fantastic!’ Because banned books have power.”
Indeed, some of the most influential and widely-read books in world initially faced censorship. Some, depending on the cultural climate, still do. Here are eight of the most controversial novels ever published. Stick it to the man and, if you haven’t already, read and cherish them all.
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The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
Alice Walker’s 1982 novel, which tells the story of African-American life in the South in the 1930s from an all-female perspective, is not an easy book to read. The plot deals with rape, sexual and emotional abuse, sexism, incest, and violence. As a result, the novel was controversial. Classrooms all over the United States rejected the book from their syllabi, claiming it was too “sexual” and many libraries argued the same point. One school official in Pennsylvania went as far to call the novel “smut.” Other schools took issue with what they saw as the novel’s negative portrayal of black men. Perhaps the issue is denial here—that people would rather forget the dark history of slavery and racism in this country. The Color Purple doesn’t allow for this denial. It’s a tough but essential book.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
Twain’s book was met with much criticism when it was first published in 1885, and the controversy has followed the book, in different forms, ever since. First critics felt the book was too kind to Jim, Huck’s family slave. Then, Twain was accused of using racist stereotypes to create a “minstrel” effect around Jim. Finally, people reacted to Twain’s frequent use of the n-word as offensive and not suitable for children.
The most recent lawsuit was brought in 2009 in Washington. Others have argued that to excise the word or to remove the book from schools is a form of censorship and that Huckleberry Finn is a product and important reflection of the social atmosphere of its time. When critics proposed the removal of the n-word for the word “slave,” one scholar pointed out that children who read the book today would not have the opportunity to ask why Huck uses such hateful language, thus missing out on an important conversation about racism in the classroom.
Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
From a literary viewpoint, Lolita is a gorgeously written, compelling work of genius. The novel’s plot, however, about the sexual relationship between a much older man and a teenage girl, made it hard for some to appreciate its beautiful prose when the book was first published in the UK in 1955. John Gordon, in one of the first reviews in the London Express, called it “the filthiest book I have ever read,” and “sheer, unrestrained pornography.”
Contemporary critics of the novel still cite it as an example of statutory rape and child sex abuse. The book eventually was banned in the UK and in France, and was not published in America until 1958. In 1998, it came in fourth place in the Modern Library’s list of the greatest novels in the English Language.
Ulysses, by James Joyce
Joyce’s masterpiece was published at a time when art could still be censored and its creators punished for “obscenity.” Before the novel was published, excerpts that appeared in The Little Review and other literary journals led to an overall ban of the finished book in England, which was not lifted until 1930. In 1920, a case was brought against the book in the United States for a masturbation scene. The United States Post Office reportedly burned any copies of the book that came across their path. Finally, in 1933, the case of Ulysses was re-opened, and the court ruled that because the book was not “pornographic” it could not be banned. In a review, T.S. Eliot wrote, “I hold this book to be the most important expression which the present age has found; it is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape.”
The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell
The Kindly Ones, which takes place during WWII and is told from the point of view of a Nazi SS officer, was awarded the Prix Goncourt, one of France’s biggest literary prizes, in 2006. (Littell is American, but wrote the book in French.) At that point, the book was translated into German and English. In Germany, it received almost totally negative criticism. One reviewer called it “a strange, monstrous book,” and Littell was accused of being “a pornographer of violence.”
In the United States, it received similar reactions. Critic Ruth Franklin called it “one of the most repugnant books I have ever read,” and Michiko Kakutani wrote in her review for The New York Times that the book was “willfully repellent.” Other American critics disagreed, saying the book was an accurate portrayal of true evil, and British historian Antony Beevor said it was one of the top five books of World War II fiction. Well, there’s only one way to have an opinion about this book … you’ll just have to read it.
Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller
Henry Miller’s semi-autobiographical novel of his sexual escapades in Paris and his frequent use of the c-word made this a banned book in the United States shortly after its first publication in France in 1934. The ACLU tried to sue the U.S. Government that it was illegal to censor the book, but lost its case. Finally, when the novel was published in 1961 by Grove Press, 60 obscenity cases were brought against it in 21 different states. Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Musmanno wrote: Cancer is “not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity.” (Henry Miller must’ve thought, well gee, thanks!) Though at the time the American reaction to the book was prudish, the controversy over Tropic of Cancer rages on, particularly with those who find Miller’s depiction of women and sex to be deeply misogynist.
Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
According to the Modern Language Association, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was the most banned book in the United States between the years of 1963 and 1982. Though the message of the novel and its protagonist Holden Caulfield still ring as deeply misanthropic, most of the issues censors had with the book, like its language, seem super tame by today’s standards. Perhaps the fact that school-shooters and criminals (including Mark David Chapman, who shot and killed John Lennon) citing the book as an influence has kept The Catcher in the Rye on the controversial list in school libraries as recently as 2009.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence
Like Ulysses and Tropic of Cancer, D.H. Lawrence’s novel about an aristocratic lady who has a sexual affair with her groundskeeper was also published at a time when novels could be labeled “obscene.” Arguments included the novel’s frank discussion of sex (and the importance of orgasm! Horrifying!) and the frequent use of the f-word and the c-word. One U.S. Senator exclaimed, “I’ve not taken 10 minutes on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, outside of looking at its opening pages. It is most damnable! It is written by a man with a diseased mind and a soul so black that he would obscure even the darkness of hell!” Due to its legal troubles, the novel was published in different censored and abridged forms over the years. Because, truly, the only thing more terrifying than the c-word is a story about a woman who enjoys sex. Boy, that’s controversial.