Fall 2004 - Volume 7 Number 4
100 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature
New York: Checkmark Books, 1999.
"I am Spartacus!" So cried every captured slave whose uprising the Romans consuls Pompey and Crassus crushed in 71 BC. They did this so that the victors could not single out their leader for an especially cruel pubishment. As a result, they were all crucified. Spartacus, of course, was played by Kirk Douglas in the epic 1960 Hollywood movie.
Some people did not like the movie, which is understandable on purely aesthetic grounds. The more common complaint, however, was that it was communist propaganda. There was some justification for this opinion.
The historical name was taken by left-wing activists in Germany following World War I. Their Spartacist League soon became the official German Communist Party. A contemporary journal called The Spartacist remains the official publication of the Fourth International. There is also a website that introduces visitors to revolutionary poetry:
We are Trotskyists and we know how to rap
We are sick of all this petit-bourgeois crap.
It is easy to see how some Americans might have fretted about a blockbuster movie dedicated to the celebration of a former slave who took on the whole Roman Empire. It is easy to see how some might worry about such a movie today. It might give the wrong kind of people ideas. Worse still was the man that Kirk Douglas (who produced as well as starred in the film) chose to write the script. His name was Dalton Trumbo and he was one of the "Hollywood Ten", a screen-writer blacklisted for his leftist views. Like other so-called subversives, Trumbo was not entirely out of work; however, he was hired by major studios in secret. They wanted to exploit his talent but be unsullied by his politics. After his public humiliation and for the rest of the 1950s, his name did not appear on movie credits.
Then, Kirk Douglas did something courageous. He made sure that Trumbo's name went on the film. The collapse of the Hollywood blacklist is sometimes attributed to that act alone. Good for Kirk Douglas! Good for Dalton Trumbo!
Others have not been so lucky.
English professor Nicholas Kariolides and his colleagues have compiled a list of books that have suffered banishment at one time or another. The classics are all there: The Talmud, The Holy Bible, The Qur'an, On the Origin of Species and Galileo's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which expressed the outrageous view (finally accepted by Pope John Paul II a little over a decade ago) that the Earth revolved around the Sun, not the other way around.
Good for Pope John Paul II (who, in 1996, also accepted the Theory of Evolution)! Good for Charles Darwin! Good for Galileo!
Karolides and his co-editors divide the reasons for suppression into four categories: political, religious, sexual and social. Each type contains not only "the usual suspects," but some surprises (at least to me) too. I had forgotten how controversial books like Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, Montaigne's Essays and Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass had been. The reason why Judy Blume's Forever should be on the list continues to escape me. The inclusion of John Milton's Areopagitica and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 show how hard it is to write ironically in a time when reality satirizes itself. Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut are on the list. So is Dalton Trumbo.
Each inclusion is summarized and its censorship history is presented, complete with such justifications as could be fabricated, for keeping the volumes out of the hands of men and women and children. It is explained, for instance, that Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, a novel that was published in 1969, had its origins in the author's survival, as an American POW, of the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany during the last dreadful months of World War II. It has some science-fiction in it. It also has a handful of bad words, but only one that might trouble the positively prudish (and it is only used once). The real problem is that the book has nothing good to say about the bombing of Dresden in particular or about war in general. Vonnegut's troubles began in 1973 when a student in North Dakota's Drake High School objected to "unnecessary language." Since then, it has been attacked in plenty of other places. Sometimes the disputes turned into lawsuits. Slaughterhouse Five has the dubious distinction of being the focus of a US Supreme Court decision to uphold the right of school boards to ban books that are alleged to be "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy," despite First Amendment guarantees of free speech.
Not all the news is bad, however; in the Drake case, an out-of-court settlement resulted in permission for the book to be used in Grade 11 and 12 English classes. As well, Bruce Severy, the teacher who had originally used the book, was awarded $5,000 cash. It also prompted Vonnegut to write a compelling letter to the authorities in Drake, which has been reprinted in his autobiographical collage, Palm Sunday. More recently, a school committee in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, voted 11-0 (with one abstention) to keep Vonnegut's now famous book on the curriculum. A committee member named Bill Huey stated: "I don't want to live in a community that sanctions bingo and bans books." On the other hand, in 1991, parents in Plummer, Idaho wanted the book removed from a Grade 11 English course. Since the school had no policy on the issue, it was removed and the teacher using it was ordered to "throw away all copies." The struggle continues.
100 Banned Books has nothing very new to tell us about the principle of free speech and the problem of censorship. It is, however, an informative and well-crafted reminder both of how important and of how current the topics are. This is a book that, if it were not so serious, I would even call entertaining.
• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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