The history of book bans in the United States
Mark Twain. Harriet Beecher Stowe. Judy Blume. William Shakespeare. These names share something more than a legacy of classic literature and a place on school curriculums: They’re just some of the many authors whose work has been banned from classrooms over the years for content deemed controversial, obscene, or otherwise objectionable by authorities.
Book banning is once again in the headlines. Earlier this year, Utah approved a state law suppressing “sensitive material” in classrooms. Meanwhile, a group of Georgia moms have gotten attention for attending school board meetings and reading passages out loud from books they find objectionable, such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, claiming they are “pornographic materials.” (Did Ovid’s erotic poetry lead to his exile from Rome?)
Though censorship is as old as writing, its targets have shifted over the centuries. Here’s how book banning emerged in the United States—stretching as far back as when some of the nation’s territories were British colonies—and how censorship affects modern readers today.
Religion in the early colonial era
Most of the earliest book bans were spurred by religious leaders, and by the time Great Britain founded its colonies in America, it had a longstanding history of book censorship. In 1650, prominent Massachusetts Bay colonist William Pynchon published The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, a pamphlet that argued that anyone who was obedient to God and followed Christian teachings on Earth could get into heaven. This flew in the face of Puritan Calvinist beliefs that only a special few were predestined for God’s favor.
Outraged, Pynchon’s fellow colonists denounced him as a heretic, burned his pamphlet, and banned it—the first event of its kind in what would later become the U.S. Only four copies of his controversial tract survive today.
Slavery and the Civil War
In the first half of the 19th century, materials about the nation’s most incendiary issue, the enslavement of people, alarmed would-be censors in the South. By the 1850s, multiple states had outlawed expressing anti-slavery sentiments—which abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe defied in 1851 with the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel that aimed to expose the evils of slavery.
As historian Claire Parfait notes, the book was publicly burned and banned by slaveholders along with other anti-slavery books. In Maryland, free Black minister Sam Green was sentenced to 10 years in the state penitentiary for owning a copy of the book.
As the Civil War roiled in the 1860s, the pro-slavery South continued to ban abolitionist materials while Union authorities banned pro-Southern literature like John Esten Cook’s biography of Stonewall Jackson.
A war against ‘immorality’
In 1873, the war against books went federal with the passage of the Comstock Act, a congressional law that made it illegal to possess “obscene” or “immoral” texts or articles or send them through the mail. Championed by moral crusader Anthony Comstock, the laws were designed to ban both content about sexuality and birth control—which at the time, was widely available via mail order.
The law criminalized the activities of birth control advocates and forced popular pamphlets like Margaret Sanger’s Family Limitation underground, restricting the dissemination of knowledge about contraception at a time when open discussion about sexuality was taboo and infant and maternal mortality were rampant. It remained in effect until 1936. (Read more about the complex early history of abortion in the United States.)
Meanwhile, obscenity was also a prime target in Boston, the capital of the state that had sanctioned the first book burning in the U.S. Boston’s book censors challenged everything they considered “indecent,” from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which the society’s president called a “darling morsel of literary filth,” to Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.
The New England Watch and Ward Society, a private organization that included many of Boston’s most elite residents, petitioned against printed materials they found objectionable, sued booksellers, pressured law enforcement and courts to bring obscenity charges against authors, and spurred the Boston Public Library to lock copies of the most controversial books, including books by Balzac and Zola, in a restricted room known as the Inferno.
By the 1920s, Boston was so notorious for banning books that authors intentionally printed their books there in hopes that the inevitable ban would give them a publicity boost elsewhere in the country.
Schools and libraries become battlegrounds
Even as social mores relaxed in the 20th century, school libraries remained sites of contentious battles about what kind of information should be available to children in an age of social progress and the modernization of American society. Parents and administrators grappled over both fiction and nonfiction during school board and library commission meetings.
The reasons for the proposed bans varied: Some books challenged longstanding narratives about American history or social norms; others were deemed problematic for its language or for sexual or political content.
The Jim Crow-era South was a particular hotbed for book censorship. The United Daughters of the Confederacy made several successful attempts to ban school textbooks that did not offer a sympathetic view of the South’s loss in the Civil War. There were also attempts to ban The Rabbits’ Wedding, a 1954 children’s book by Garth Williams that depicted a white rabbit marrying a black rabbit, because opponents felt it encouraged interracial relationships. (How Jim Crow laws created “slavery by another name.”)
These attempted bans tended to have a chilling effect on librarians afraid to acquire material that could be considered controversial. But some school and public librarians began to organize instead. They responded to a rash of challenges against books McCarthy-era censors felt encouraged Communism or socialism during the 1950s and fought attempted bans on books like Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird and even The Canterbury Tales.
A constitutional right to read
In 1969, the Supreme Court weighed in on students’ right to free expression. In Tinker v. Des Moines, a case involving students who wore black armbands protesting the Vietnam War to school, the court ruled 7-2 that “neither teachers nor students shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
In 1982, the Supreme Court overtly addressed schoolbooks in a case involving a group of students who sued a New York school board for removing books by authors like Kurt Vonnegut and Langston Hughes that the board deemed “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy.”
“Local school boards may not remove books from school libraries simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books,” the court ruled in Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, citing students’ First Amendment rights.
Nonetheless, librarians contended with so many book challenges in the early 1980s that they created Banned Book Week, an annual event centered around the freedom to read. During Banned Book Week, the literary and library community raises awareness about commonly challenged books and First Amendment freedoms.
Still, book challenges are more common than ever. Between July 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022 alone, there were 1,586 book bans in 86 school districts across 26 states—affecting more than two million students, according to PEN America, a nonprofit that advocates for free speech. Stories featuring LGBTQ issues or protagonists were a “major target” of bans, the group wrote, while other targets included book with storylines about race and racism, sexual content or sexual assault, and death and grief. Texas led the charge against books; its 713 bans were nearly double that of other states.
According to the American Library Association, the most challenged book of 2021 was Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, a memoir about what it means to be nonbinary. Other books on the most-challenged list include Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.
First Amendment advocate Pat Scales, a veteran South Carolina middle- and high-school librarian and former chair of the ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, notes that outright censorship is only one face of book bans. Shelving books in inaccessible places, defacing them, or marking them with reading levels that put them out of students’ reach also keep books out of would-be readers’ hands, and challenges of any kind can create a chilling effect for librarians.
“Censorship is about control,” Scales wrote in 2007 in the book Scales on Censorship. “Intellectual freedom is about respect.”
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.