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By Linda Wagner-Martin

American fiction -- from Edgar Allan Poe's stories in the early 19th century to today's blatant graphic novels -- has often been provocative. Books have been banned, censored, shunned, and even, in the case of Henry Miller, refused admission to the States after being published abroad. Many of the texts that seemed so objectionable to readers at the time of their publication -- Mark Twain's THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN (1884), Theodore Dreiser's SISTER CARRIE (1900), John Steinbeck's THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1939), Richard Wright's NATIVE SON (1940), Vladimir Nabokov's LOLITA (1955), Sylvia Plath's THE BELL JAR (1963), and others -- have now become staples of American literary history.

Readers in the United States recognized from the early days of independence how precious literacy was. Along with the privileges of education came a kind of responsibility to improve this young, untried democratic culture. Societies for "uplift" set the moral tone; reading was held to an accountability as well. United States literature -- poetry, essay, fiction -- should be its own province, free from the influence of British letters, and it should also be morally improving. In the exhausting days of frontier living, there was no time for frivolity; in the midst of a religiously self-questioning society, there was no reason to admit even the suggestion of evil.

The American insistence that literature be moral was stubborn. Even Nathaniel Hawthorne's THE SCARLET LETTER (1850) was suspect: no matter that the primary conflict was between Arthur Dimmesdale and his God, the question remained: Why had the author made Hester Prynne, who wore the letter of the title, so sympathetic? As a sexually promiscuous woman, she should have faced death for her sins. As the dominance of religious beliefs themselves gave way before the advent of all types of science, literary characters who avoided punishment for obvious sin -- i.e., Huck Finn, trying hard to escape the Christian rearing of his benefactors and wishing for the death of his father; Carrie Meeber, who lived as a successful actress even after she had prostituted herself; and Kate Chopin's Edna Pontillier (THE AWAKENING, 1899), who not only gave herself to passion but also chose to die and leave her young sons as well as her husband -- seemed to valorize the wrong kinds of life choices. Sometimes considered "European" (or at least certainly "French") rather than American, these works were condemned for the very ambivalence that made them brilliant and prescient pieces of writing.

Throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th, books were forbidden on the grounds of immorality (which was usually translated as sexual impropriety) and of sacrilege (they were seen as tools of the devil, likely to lead readers astray). They could also have unfortunate political purposes -- like the group of various slave narratives, which were only published in limited quantities, and Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1851 abolitionist work UNCLE TOM'S CABIN. Admired throughout the English-speaking world, Stowe's novel was criticized in the States for being sentimental, obvious, and limited in its focus on the domesticity of both women's lives and that of African-American slaves. As the example of UNCLE TOM'S CABIN showed, if outright banning was not appropriate, literary leaders would find some way to denigrate a text on the basis of its style of writing.

The notion that a literary work was a waste of valuable time was as damning as the concept of the work's being reprehensible on seriously moral grounds. But with the economic prosperity of the 20th century and the establishment of more and more publishing houses, controlling literary output became difficult. Diversity began to not only be prized but also reign. Dreiser's SISTER CARRIE, which had been repressed in 1900, was republished and distributed a decade later. Gertrude Stein's THREE LIVES (1909), her narrative of the unhappy existences of poor women (two of them German immigrants -- one a lesbian and one an African-American bisexual) chilled readers interested in women's rights, but the book was never banned. Neither were F. Scott Fitzgerald's shocking novels about wild college men ushering in the Jazz Age (for example, THE BEAUTIFUL AND DAMNED [1922], which outsold his modernist classic, THE GREAT GATSBY [1925]). And although readers were appalled at the sex and drinking in Ernest Hemingway's THE SUN ALSO RISES (1926), the book not only sold but made its young author's reputation.

Some novels by America's most significant authors, Hemingway and William Faulkner, also illustrate the narrow line readers found between "acceptable" and "unacceptable" fiction. In 1929, when SCRIBNER'S MAGAZINE began serializing Hemingway's A FAREWELL TO ARMS, the Boston area banned the later chapters of the magazine publication. (Once Catherine Barkley, the Red Cross nurse, had gone to Switzerland with the deserting Frederic Henry, it became clear they were sexually involved -- and unmarried. Because the second half of the novel deals with Catherine's pregnancy and the birth of their child, no reader would remain innocent of the situation.) Ironically, when the book was published in the fall, A FAREWELL TO ARMS became a best-seller, at least partly because of the notoriety of the Boston banning. Similarly, when Faulkner published SANCTUARY (1931), his novel about prohibition and its criminal culture, coupled with the rape and degradation of a Mississippi coed, his reputation as an innovative modernist (following the publication of THE SOUND AND THE FURY [1929] and AS I LAY DYING, [1930]) was irreparably harmed. Both men eventually received the Nobel Prize for Literature, Faulkner in 1949 and Hemingway in 1954.

As the 20th century progressed, the power of censorship (Anthony Comstock, who had founded the Society for the Suppression of Vice in the 19th century, died in 1915, effectively ending "Comstockery," though it echoed into the 21st century) diminished. It flared when U.S. publication was threatened for Henry Miller's TROPIC OF CANCER (published in France in 1934) and TROPIC OF CAPRICORN (published in France in 1936); these books were not available in the States until the early 1960s. Miller's sexually driven male character was therefore repressed for a quarter of a century. But during the 1930s, other kinds of "unsuitable" publishing activity did transpire -- the so-called "proletarian" or collective novel flooded what was left of the depression-stunned marketplace. Books that were critical of capitalism, and by implication, American democracy, such as John Steinbeck's IN DUBIOUS BATTLE (1936, a classic "strike" novel) and THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1939), were considered dangerous (and the latter was burned with impunity in California, the target for the author's criticism of large-scale fruit and vegetable production and unfair labor practices). The proletarian novel, despite its name, did not often champion Marxism per se, but as the frightening fallout during the 1950s with the Hollywood 10 and the McCarthy House Un-American Activities Committee censure showed, politics could be dangerous. Livelihoods were lost, as were reputations. That so few of these 1930s novels remained in print also gave a warning to writers.

More controversial at mid-century were novels related to outright violence (as the shock that followed Richard Wright's 1940 NATIVE SON proved) and those describing sexual difference (beginning with Djuna Barnes's 1936 NIGHTWOOD, moving to James Baldwin's 1956 GIOVANNI'S ROOM and John Rechy's 1963 CITY OF NIGHT, and capped by Vladimir Nabokov's still-sensational LOLITA, U.S. publication in 1958, and the move to sexual frankness underscored by Erica Jong's comic FEAR OF FLYING, 1973). Published in a parallel stream were those novels that treated madness with sympathy -- J. D. Salinger's THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, 1951; Sylvia Plath's THE BELL JAR, 1963, 1970 in the States, and Toni Morrison's THE BLUEST EYE, 1970. Once the possibility of suicide became a staple of commercial fiction, though reactions were still mixed (see outcries over Marilyn French's THE WOMEN'S ROOM, 1977), fewer novels were condemned because of their sympathies.

Those who compile lists of "banned books" have inherited the responsibility for charting what our American society finds objectionable today. The 2006 listing still includes HUCKLEBERRY FINN and THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, but those titles appear sandwiched among the middle-school classics, THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS and the Harry Potter series. Perhaps the power of moral censorship is finally waning.

Linda Wagner-Martin is Hanes Professor of English &Comparative Literature at The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill where she teaches 20th century American literature. She has published books on American fiction and poetry, on such authors as John Dos Passos, William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Zelda Fitzgerald, and others, and co-edited THE OXFORD COMPANION TO WOMEN WRITERS IN THE U.S. A Guggenheim fellow, she has received grants from the NEH, Rockefeller Foundation, the Bunting Institute, and other research sites.

A bathing beach policeman measures the distance between a woman's knee and her swim suit, Washington, D.C., 1922. He is enforcing an order that women not wear suits that fell more than six inches above the knee.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress, National Photo Company Collection
Suggested Novels
Book cover of LOLITA. Book cover of THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. Book cover of SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE.
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Photo of Philip Roth.    Philip Roth
Photo of Vladimir Nabokov.    Vladimir Nabokov
Photo of Kate Chopin.    Kate Chopin
The American Novel