There are a number of books that have been banned over the years in the United States, but there are three classic books banned for three distinct purposes that many publishing houses still have issues with today. One such novel is Ulysses James Joyce.
Ulysses is an epic novel composed of over 260,000 words, and it chronicles the travels of the main character, Leopold Bloom. Now, that doesn’t sound too scandalous by any means, until you realize this book was published in 1922 and contains an array of explicit sexual content. In the U.S., it was banned the moment it was published in Paris2, but there was a court ruling that eventually overturned the ban in the U.S. in 1933. But, when it was overturned, it was one of the first books that came with an age limitation of 18+. This is the book that actually started the practice of defining specific ages for books in the United States.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe is another novel that was banned in the Confederate States when it was published in 1852 due to the anti-slavery content it housed. Today, there are many that believe this published book actually helped lay the foundation for the Civil War3. In the book, a character by the name of Uncle Tom is a black slave who has suffered a great deal under the idea of slavery in the South. It graphically depicts the realities of slavery, the struggles, and death he endured and witnessed, and then it juxtaposes the entire content of the book alongside the fact that Christian love can overcome anything– especially something as destructive as the enslavement of other human beings. In the 19th century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the second best-selling novel.
The book that trumped it during that century? The Bible.
Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis was published in 1926, and it was banned in hundreds of U.S. cities due to its seemingly anti-religious content. The book follows Reverend Dr. Elmer Gantry through his tent revival crusades he conducted while on the road. While giving these sermons and preaching the ‘good and unfailing Word of the Lord’, the book also describes his trysts with underaged girls, booze, and his obsessive love for money1. Then, after his tent revival forays and fountain-spewing evangelism, he ends up becoming a successful Methodist minister, even as he continues his fascination for alcohol, money, and younger women.
These three books were banned for three distinct purposes that are very telling about the United States and its history: one was banned for its explicit sexual content that was deemed obscene and revealing to the masses, one was banned for its graphic content with regard to the lives of slaves, and the other was banned because of its juxtaposition of an evangelical reverend and the lewd and obscene habits he willingly indulged in ruthlessly.
However, all these books have one common thread, and that is a thread of truth. Many of the sexual exploits of the fictional character, Leopold Bloom, are sexual exploits many people now engage in on a regular basis. The painting of slavery Beecher Stowe gave us was an unwaveringly correct bird’s eyes view of the horrors an entire enslaved population was undergoing, and the Christ-less evangelical preacher– though caricatured for the book– is a stark truth to the types of bastardizations that occur in religious hierarchies even today.
It’s interesting, to think a country could ban a text simply for being truthful.