As a modern reader, it might be hard to imagine the practice of book banning in the 21st century, but the fact is that censorship remains a very real threat to the availability of important works today. From obscenity trials to jail time to school board scandals, writers and their works face surprising hurdles on their way to connecting with readers.
The story of how a book was received when it was published—especially if it was censored in some way—can make for rich discussion about the culture of its day. Whether we look at the 1899 response to Kate Chopin’s then-scandalous The Awakening, or the 2007 ban of Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides, public response to literature speaks volumes about the social standards of an era.
So, let’s celebrate our right to read.
The Book: The Prince of Tides, by Pat Conroy
The Story Behind the Censorship: Scandalized parents attempted to remove this novel—a stirring saga of a man’s journey to free his sister (and himself) from a tragic family history—from a West Virginia high school in 2007, citing violence and explicit sexuality. Conroy replied, “Because you banned my books, every kid in that county will read them.” Read his letter to the editor of the Charleston Gazette here.
The Book: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown
The Story Behind the Censorship: First published in 1970, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee generated shock waves with its frank and heartbreaking depiction of the 19th-century systematic annihilation of American Indian tribes across the Western frontier. A school district in Wisconsin banned this now-classic history in 1974 for its controversial subject matter.
The Book: Always Running, by Luis J. Rodríguez
The Story Behind the Censorship: School districts in several states—including the author’s home state of California—have banned this gritty autobiography, in which Rodríguez portrays the sex, drugs, and violence of his former gang life in Los Angeles.
The Book: The King Must Die, by Mary Renault
The Story Behind the Censorship: In myth, Theseus was the slayer of the child-devouring Minotaur in Crete. What the founder-hero might have been in real life is another question, brilliantly explored in The King Must Die. Drawing on modern scholarship and archaeological findings at Knossos, Mary Renault’s Theseus is an utterly lifelike figure—a king of immense charisma, whose boundless strivings flow from strength and weakness—but also one steered by implacable prophecy. This work of historical fiction about Ancient Greece has been banned in some middle school libraries for having too much sex.
The Book: The Confessions of Nat Turner, by William Styron
The Story Behind the Censorship: Styron, a white, Southern author, wrote from the point of view of the leader of an infamous American slave rebellion. The Pulitzer Prize committee commended it, but it was challenged in some schools, and some activists burned the novel.
The Book: God’s Little Acre, by Erskine Caldwell
The Story Behind the Censorship: God’s Little Acre is a classic dark comedy, a satire that lampoons a broken South while holding a light to the toll that poverty takes on the hopes and dreams of the poor. During a visit to Manhattan, Erskine Caldwell was arrested when the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice charged him with obscenity for this novel. Caldwell won his case, then countersued, in an important moment for First Amendment rights.
The Book: The Awakening, by Kate Chopin
The Story Behind the Censorship: “First published in 1899, this novel so disturbed critics and the public that it was banished for decades afterward,” according to the American Library Association. Overwhelmingly criticized in its day for its frank depictions of female sexuality, marriage, and a woman’s desire for independence, The Awakening is now celebrated as one of the earliest—and most revolutionary—feminist novels in American literature.
The Book: Candy, by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg
The Story Behind the Censorship: Originally released under a pseudonym, this book was first published in France in 1958, then immediately banned. The racy novel, which echoes Voltaire’s scandalous classic Candide, became a chart-topping bestseller in the United States, and brought its authors both acclaim and infamy for breaking the grip of American literary censorship along with Lolita.
The Book: Kramer vs. Kramer, by Avery Corman
The Story Behind the Censorship: Adapted as the landmark film starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer is an unforgettable and heartrending story of love and devotion in the wake of divorce. A teacher removed Avery Corman’s novel about the end of a marriage and the bond between father and son from a Seattle school reading list.
The Book: Gentleman’s Agreement, by Laura Z. Hobson
The Story Behind the Censorship: A landmark novel that ranked #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for five months straight, Gentleman’s Agreement speaks to the pervasive nature of prejudice after World War II. This novel was banned by one of New York’s largest public high schools in 1948, for supposedly making light of extramarital affairs.
The Book: Citizen Tom Paine, by Howard Fast
The Story Behind the Censorship: In the middle of his productive, highly public writing career, Howard Fast’s Communist ties led to blacklisting and a jail sentence. In 1947, Citizen Tom Paine, his bestselling historical novel about a man who was a voice of the people and a prophet of democracy, was banned in New York public schools for supposed “vulgar scenes.”
The Book: Contract with the World, by Jane Rule
The Story Behind the Censorship: Contract with the World, told from the perspectives of six characters, brings together feminism, creativity, and sexual politics. It was denied entry into Canada because “customs officials had (and have) the power to exercise ‘prior restraint’ of any book, magazine or picture they believe to be obscene.”
The Book: Zone of the Interior, by Clancy Sigal
The Story Behind the Censorship: Clancy Sigal’s hilarious, semiautobiographical saga, based on his association with the notorious psychiatrist R. D. Laing, was banned from publication in Britain, where the work is set.
The Book: Letty Fox, by Christina Stead
The Story Behind the Censorship: Australia declared this frank and comedic novel a prohibited import in mid-1947 for several years. The coming-of-age tale of a woman who spins between New York City and London during her chaotic upbringing and entry into adulthood, which spans the Great Depression and the Second World War, was banned for its salacious and obscene content.
The Book: The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
The Story Behind the Censorship: According to the American Library Association,
in 2005, an Alabama congressional representative proposed legislation that “would prohibit the use of public funds for the ‘purchase of textbooks or library materials that recognize or promote homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle.’ The bill also proposed that novels with gay protagonists and college textbooks that suggest homosexuality is natural would have to be removed from library shelves and destroyed. The bill would impact all Alabama school, public, and university libraries. While it would ban books like Heather Has Two Mommies, it could also include classic and popular novels with gay characters such as Brideshead Revisited, The Color Purple or The Picture of Dorian Gray.”