Censorship of literature never works. The act of censorship itself only imbues the original text with a newfound mystique. That something could be offensive enough for it to be permanently altered only makes the original that much more exciting.
Censorship also provides a few quite absurd moments to analyze. Here’s a sampling of some of the more ridiculous instances of censorship affecting titles you likely know and love:
Thomas Bowdler is so famous for his censorship that “bowdlerizing” has become a pejorative for the act of neutering texts. In 1807, Bowdler, an English physician, published The Family Shakspeare (sic; it was later changed to its proper spelling), an expurgated tome featuring 24 vanilla versions of Shakespeare’s plays. In Bowdler’s rendering, exclamations of “God!” are changed to “Heavens!”, Ophelia accidentally drowns instead of committing suicide in Hamlet and sex is removed entirely from Romeo and Juliet, swapping mentions of “love performing night” for “civil night.” How romantic!
2. Little Red Riding Hood by The Brothers Grimm
Early versions of the tale depict Little Red Riding Hood carrying a picnic basket containing, among other things, a bottle of wine for her grandmother because, seriously, grandma needs her fix.
In 1990, two California school districts banned this version in favor of one in which Little Red Riding Hood carries only cookies. At the time, the Culver City School Board President told the L.A. Times that the book “says drinking wine (makes) one feel better,” which was inconsistent with their substance abuse policy. What he somehow forgets is that there are MURDERS in every version of Little Red Riding Hood, with either grandma being eaten or a lumberjack chopping up the wolf. So in Culver City School Board’s opinion: wine, not OK; horrific violence, just fine.
3. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Big Read is a NEA-backed program in which states receive federal money to stage community events and discussions around a single book. In 2009, Alabama opted in, choosing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Part of the grant money went to NewSouth, an independent publisher located in Montgomery who published a commemorative edition that significantly altered the text: 219 mentions of the word “nigger” were replaced with “slave,” and “Injun Joe” became “Indian Joe.” Never mind that “Indian” is still 100 percent inaccurate in describing Native Americans, but this all came at the urging of Auburn University Professor Alan Gribben, who edited the NewSouth edition and claims he grew up without ever hearing the word “nigger.” In Alabama.
Sure, man. Sure you didn’t.
4. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway's work has been burned by Nazis, banned by fascists and censored by Texans. Such uproar over short sentences and overwrought masculinity!
A Farewell to Arms is, perhaps, Hemingway’s most bowdlerized text, and it happened right under his nose: Hemingway’s editor replaced any use of the words “shit,” “fuck” and “cocksucker” with dashes. Rightfully so, Papa was pissed and wrote curse words by hand back into two copies of the published text, which were gifted to Maurice Coindreau and James Joyce.
Modern versions of the text still contain dashes, but you can play a fun game called “Shit, Fuck or Cocksucker?” while reading along. Try it with your next English class.
Dreiser wrote Sister Carrie in fits and starts between 1899 and 1900. The novel went through several rounds of self-imposed censorship. The most extensive censorship came after the manuscript was rejected by Harper and Brothers. In the official letter, Harper Editor Henry Mills notes that the novel did indeed have artistic merit but felt Dreiser wasn’t capable of depicting “without offense to the reader the continued illicit relations of the heroine.” This is in reference to protagonist Caroline Meeber’s out-of-wedlock relations with a few different men. Following this rejection, Dreiser, his wife Sara and writer friend Arthur Henry worked to remove 40,000 words from the novel, aimed at tightening the plot and watering down sexual overtones.
It wasn’t until 1981 when the University of Pennsylvania Press put together a restored version based off of Dreiser's original typeset manuscript that the original, semi-lewd story came to the surface, including the original, incredibly dark final scene.
6. In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
People got really angry at the presence of penises in Sendak’s Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book. In it, Mickey, our protagonist, suddenly begins floating through the air, loses his pajamas, then falls into a bowl of batter, busting through the mixture moments before it enters the oven. Several scenes contain a full-frontal Mickey, including one in which he’s downing a pitcher of milk.
Concerned parents also saw dicks in the form of a phallic milk-bottle and claimed that the presence of milk flying every which way hinted at semen. Many libraries across the country chose to pull it from the shelves, but some kept their copies and drew diapers onto naked Mickey. Really, they did that.
7. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
It took Bradbury a while to find out that his book on the dangers of censorship was itself censored for a spell. Ballantine Books’ initial publication of Fahrenheit 451 in 1953 contained such evil-inducing language as “hell,” “damn” and “abortion,” so without Bradbury’s approval, Ballantine released an expurgated paperback version in 1967, intended for use in high schools.
Bradbury didn’t know of this until 1979, when a pal pointed it out. He immediately confronted Ballantine, and the publishers restored the text the next year. That version includes a wonderful, biting coda in which Bradbury calls the edits a “mutilation,” deeming those that spurred the changes “cubby hole editors … fearful of contaminating the young….”
8. Arabian Nights
When this classic tome found its way into the hands of Victorians, the text was censored heavily, removing references to sodomy and, really, sex altogether. It wasn’t until 1882 when the poet and translator John Payne used the original source text and put together a nine-volume, subscription-only (to circumvent obscenity laws) series called The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night that restored references to homosexuality, among other things.
The more widely heralded unabridged, unexpurgated translation belongs to Sir Richard Francis Burton, which was published shortly after in 1885. Burton’s was 10 volumes and also only available via private subscription.
9. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
We know Oompa-Loompas as orange skinned, green haired and terrifying, but this wasn’t always the case. In Dahl’s 1964 version, Oompa-Loompas are African Pygmies who work solely for cacao beans. Dahl claims he never meant to portray the Pygmies as slaves, saying, “It didn’t occur to me that my description of the Oompa-Loompas was racist, but it did occur to the N.A.A.C.P. and others…. After listening to the criticisms, I found myself sympathizing with them, which is why I revised the book.” In 1973, The Oompa-Loompas turned white with golden locks and now came from Loompaland, not Africa.
Also, in early, unpublished drafts, Oompa-Loompas were called Whipple-Scrumpets. Just so you know for your next trivia night.
10. The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence by Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks
Washington won this one ... sort of. Prior to publication, the C.I.A. demanded 399 separate passages be removed from this book on the grounds that one of its authors, Victor Marchetti, was a former C.I.A. employee and his bean-spilling was in direct violation of the contract he had signed. Knopf, the book’s publisher, resisted, and the conflict went to court, but ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that 168 of the passages had be removed from the text.
In the court-approved printing, redacted passages are blacked out and challenged passages that remain in the book are set in bold-face type. The 1974 paperback would be the first book the United States attempted to censor prior to its publication. Even today, the “History” section of the book’s Wikipedia page is eerily empty.
In most of the cases mentioned above, censorship is merely a diversion, as a censored text’s original bawdiness almost always comes to light. Of course, that fact doesn’t prevent censorship, and it probably never will, which is just as well. Readers might be bored without anything to rage against.
KEEP READING: More History
- A Tour of Sister Carrie’s Chicago
- 11 Historic Book Burnings
- The Ghosts of Boom Mining in Butte, Montana