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A history of censorship in three books

Written by Beulah | 20th September 2019

Banned Books Week has become an internationally recognised celebration of censored books, with readers all over the world joining in. Titles on the list of banned books include Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Satanic Verses and The Communist Manifesto. However our rare books expert – Mark Harrison – believes that we should be paying just as much attention to the books that didn’t get banned.

The banning of books has never been a logical process and the “rules” that govern its are not uniformly upheld or administered. “Banned books are fascinating, but often it is what is left out that is more interesting,” Mark explains. “We often find that controversial books that didn’t get banned can tell us a lot about the social mores and hypocrisies governing censorship at the time.”

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, 1792

A landmark feminist essay that touched on many subjects that are still controversial today, it’s miraculous that A Vindication of the Rights of Woman hasn’t been banned by any country or ended up on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (a list of works which Roman Catholics were forbidden to read). Universal education and rights for women are the main themes Wollstonecraft touches upon, but it’s the strong undercurrent of republicanism running throughout Vindication, the anti-monarchy, anti-aristocracy sentiment that makes the lack of banning even more bewildering. So how did Vindication avoid censorship?

Ironically, it may well be that the sexism that Wollstonecraft railed against is what saved Vindication. The censorship of books for reasons of national security has overwhelmingly focused on literature by male authors. For the majority of the UK’s history, women have had less opportunity to partake in political and public life, which meant that they were also less likely to see their work censored. Happily, the emergence of women as credible political agitators coincided with a relaxing in censorship, leaving Wollstonecraft’s work in a (literal) no-man’s land: strong enough to merit publication, underestimated enough to avoid censure.

A statue of Charles Darwin at the London Natural History Museum

On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, 1859

“The Index Librorum Prohibitorum seemed to include virtually every interesting work prior to its abolition in 1966,” Mark says. “Yet the works of Charles Darwin were never placed on the index, despite the enormous impact his work had on the faith of millions and on the view of contemporary religion in the 19th century.”

The reason that Darwin’s works didn’t make it onto the Index Librorum Prohibitorum is that the list focused on books that were considered to be obviously heretical or immoral. Despite the fact that On the Origin of Species laid the foundations for evolutionary biology, Darwin didn’t go as far as to claim that the Christian God was not the creator. He instead laid out an alternative version of the story of Genesis; a controversial argument in itself but not explicitly heretical.

Another interesting theory as to why On the Origin of Species didn’t get banned was advanced by Reverend Hubert Wolf in 2005. Wolf surmised that the Catholic church may have adopted a more relaxed attitude to banning scientific texts following the controversial and high-profile censorship of Galileo. Galileo’s theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun was eventually proved to be correct. Not long after, the Index ceased reviewing scientific publications, unless they explicitly focused on theology.

Banned Books Week was founded in 1982 by Judith Krug

Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin, 1955

Much like A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, James Baldwin’s seminal collection of essays – Notes of a Native Son – was groundbreaking enough that had it been written by a white man, it almost certainly would have been banned. The collection dealt with subjects that were considered taboo to mid-20th century Western society: racism (both in the United States and in Europe), colourism, classism, disillusionment within the black community, domestic violence and toxic masculinity. All of which was enough to see books dealing with similar subjects banned.

Despite causing a stir upon publication, Notes of a Native Son was never banned. In fact, the only book of Baldwin’s explosive bibliography to be banned was Another Country, which was outlawed by the Australian government (describing it as: “continually smeared with indecent, offensive and dirty epithets and allusions”). As Baldwin’s contemporaries were frequently banned (Ralph Ellis, Toni Morrison, Allan Ginsberg, etc) it’s surprising to see that Baldwin, one of the most influential voices of the civil rights movement, remained uncensored.

These three books escaped censorship and helped influence generations of thought leaders and arguably the world. And while censorship still exists, it’s worth remembering, as with these books, that truth and meaning always finds a way of working its way through. While these writers’ contemporaries overlooked them, it’s a lesson in history that to be quiet is not to be silent.

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