Banned Books That Shaped America: Gone With the Wind

The Library of Congress created an exhibit, “Books that Shaped America,” that explores books that “have had a profound effect on American life.” Many of the books in the exhibit have been banned/challenged.  Give yourself the gift of a beautiful story and read one and them imagine what your life would be like if you were never given that gift.

Fight censorship.

Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell, 1936

The Pulitzer-prize winning novel (which three years after its publication became an Academy-Award Winning film) follows the life of the spoiled daughter of a southern plantation owner just before and then after the fall of the Confederacy and decline of the South in the aftermath of the Civil War. Critically praised for its thought-provoking and realistic depiction of ante- and postbellum life in the South, it has also been banned for more or less the same reasons. Its realism has come under fire, specifically its realistic portrayal – though at times perhaps tending toward optimistic — of slavery and use of the words “nigger” and “darkies.”

gone with the wind

In a film that had four directors, at least twelve scriptwriters, and a rotation of cameramen, the one unifying vision for the production of Gone With the Wind belonged to its producer, David O. Selznick. Born on May 10, 1902, to pioneering movie mogul Lewis Selznick, David lived his early years in financial comfort. Lewis gave his sons lavish personal allowances, advising them to spend it all and stay broke. Selznick’s family wealth vanished abruptly, taken not by the ravages of war but by his father’s poor business decisions and his gambling addiction. By 1923 Lewis Selznick declared bankruptcy, spending his last years financially supported by his sons.

Selznick moved to Hollywood in 1926 and quickly got a job in MGM’s story department, where he began working his way up the ranks. Just two years later he moved to Paramount Pictures, where he was hired as an executive before continuing on to become vice president in charge of production at RKO. He then returned to MGM to help produce several films, most notably David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, and Anna Karenina. When the original head of production at MGM returned, Selznick lost the creative freedom he craved and left to form his own production company in 1935. The following year, Selznick bought the film rights to Margaret Mitchell’s wildly popular novel Gone With the Wind.

Films about the old South were popular during the first half of the twentieth century. One of the first of these films was Edwin S. Porter’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and twelve years later the epic The Birth of a Nation electrified the country, redefining cinema as an art form. By the late 1930s, however, the genre had gone into a steep decline, and when Irving G. Thalberg, the head of production at MGM, heard the synopsis of Gone With the Wind he was unimpressed. “Forget it,” he was famously quoted as saying after he rejected the story. “No Civil War picture ever made a nickel.”

Selznick had his own reservations about the story, including the cost of screen rights and production and the difficulties of choosing a cast that wouldn’t alienate the many fans of the novel. Problems continued during the shooting of the film, ranging from wars between starlets over the lead role of Scarlett to Selznick’s constant rewriting of the script. The production surpassed its budget before any of the action sequences were filmed, the hours were so long that some of the cast and crew took drugs to keep going, and the once supportive press abandoned the project entirely. Selznick, however, remained unbeaten through these trials, firm in his vision of a sweeping romantic drama and determined to prove that the film the press was now calling “Selznick’s Folly” would be a success.

In the end, Selznick’s vision didn’t fail him. After its December 1939 premiere, Gone With the Wind proved to be a huge critical and box office success. It was labeled a masterpiece by the very critics who had once called it a folly, and it went on to be one of the top grossing films of all time. It was nominated for thirteen Academy Awards and won eight of them, including Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Actress (Leigh), Best Director (Fleming), and Best Color Cinematography. In addition, the Academy bestowed upon the film a special achievement award and an honorary plaque. Hattie McDaniel also walked into film history with her win as Best Supporting Actress, the first Oscar ever won by an African American. In England, Gone With the Wind ran in theaters for the duration of World War II, with Scarlett serving as a symbol of resistance and liberation. For these same reasons, the Nazis banned the film.

Such success, however, could not last. Despite the film’s achievements, Gone With the Wind’s enormous scope and budget precluded the chance of it strongly influencing other films. Even if the film had spawned an imitator, there would have been no market for it. By the end of World War II, protests over Hollywood’s racial stereotyping had permanently tainted Southern films, sending their popularity into steep decline. Selznick had another success in 1940 with the film Rebecca, but after that he was unable to repeat the success of his two most famous films and began losing money. The creative control of producers fell as directors rose in influence, and shifting balances of power marked the end of the glory days of the studio system. Like the story of the South in the Civil War, Gone With the Wind proved to be the end of an era.

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Banned Books That Shaped America: Invisible Man

The Library of Congress created an exhibit, “Books that Shaped America,” that explores books that “have had a profound effect on American life.” Many of the books in the exhibit have been banned/challenged.  Give yourself the gift of a beautiful story and read one and them imagine what your life would be like if you were never given that gift.

Fight censorship.

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, 1952

Ellison’s book won the 1953 National Book Award for Fiction because it expertly dealt with issues of black nationalism, Marxism and identity in the twentieth century. Considered to be too expert in its ruminations for some high schools, the book was banned from high school reading lists and schools in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington state.

invisible man

The grandson of slaves, Ralph Ellison was born in 1914 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and was raised largely in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His father was a construction worker, and his mother was a domestic servant who also volunteered for the local Socialist Party. As a young man, Ellison developed an abiding interest in jazz music; he befriended a group of musicians who played in a regional band called Walter Page’s Blue Devils, many of whom later played with Count Basie’s legendary big band in the late 1930s. Ellison himself studied the cornet and trumpet, and planned a career as a jazz musician. In 1933, he left Oklahoma to begin a study of music at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. The Institute, which is now called Tuskegee University, was founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington, one of the foremost black educators in American history, and became one of the nation’s most important black colleges. It later served as the model for the black college attended by the narrator in Invisible Man.

Ellison left the Tuskegee Institute in 1936 and moved to New York City, where he settled in Harlem. As an employee of the Federal Writers’ Project, Ellison befriended many of the most important African-American writers of the era, including Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. Ellison also befriended the eminent jazz writer and sociologist Albert Murray, with whom he carried on a lengthy and important literary correspondence, later collected in the book Trading Twelves. After a year editing the Negro Quarterly, Ellison left for the Merchant Marines, in which he served during World War II. After the war, Ellison won a Rosenwald Fellowship, which he used to write Invisible Man. The first chapter appeared in America in the 1948 volume of Magazine of the Year, and the novel was published in its entirety in 1952.

Employing a shifting, improvisational style directly based on Ellison’s experience of jazz performance, Invisible Man ranges in tone from realism to extreme surrealism, from tragedy to vicious satire to near-slapstick comedy. Rich in symbolism and metaphor, virtuosic in its use of multiple styles and tones, and steeped in the black experience in America and the human struggle for individuality, the novel spent sixteen weeks on the best-seller list and won the National Book Award in 1953. Achieving one of the most sensational debuts of any novel in American history, Invisible Man was hailed by writers such as Saul Bellow and critics such as Irving Howe as a landmark publication; some critics claimed that it was the most important American novel to appear after World War II.

Invisible Man was heavily influenced by the work of a number of twentieth-century French writers known as the existentialists. Existentialism, whose foremost proponents included Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, explored the question of individuality and the nature of meaning in a seemingly meaningless universe. Ellison adapted the existentialists’ universal themes to the black experience of oppression and prejudice in America. He also engaged powerfully with the tradition of African-American social debate. In the character of Dr. Bledsoe, the novel offers a vehement rejection of the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, which advocated that blacks should work toward economic success as a means of achieving racial equality. It also critiques, through the character of Ras the Exhorter, Marcus Garvey’s philosophy of black nationalism.

Despite—or possibly because of—the overwhelming success of Invisible Man, Ellison never published another novel in his lifetime. Though he published two books of essays—Shadow Act in the 1960s and Going to the Territory in the 1980s—Ellison spent his later decades laboring on a vast novel, which he never finished. Upon his death in 1994, Ellison left behind more than 2,000 pages of unedited, incomplete manuscript. In heavily abridged and edited form, this manuscript was published five years after his death under the title Juneteenth, to generally unfavorable reviews.

Fight all forms of censorship.

Fight all forms of censorship.

 

Banned Books That Shaped America: For Whom the Bell Tolls

The Library of Congress created an exhibit, “Books that Shaped America,” that explores books that “have had a profound effect on American life.” Many of the books in the exhibit have been banned/challenged.  Give yourself the gift of a beautiful story and read one and them imagine what your life would be like if you were never given that gift.

Fight censorship.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway, 1940

Shortly after its publication the U.S. Post Office, which purpose was in part to monitor and censor distribution of media and texts, declared the book nonmailable. In the 1970s, eight Turkish booksellers were tried for “spreading propaganda unfavorable to the state” because they had published and distributed the text. This wasn’t Hemingway’s only banned book – A Farewell to Arms and Across the River and Into the Trees were also censored domestically and abroad in Ireland, South Africa, Germany and Italy.

for whom the bell tolls

 Ernest hemingway was born in 1899 in a wealthy, conservative Chicago suburb. The second of six children, he showed an early talent in writing that he honed through work on his high school’s literary magazine and student newspaper. Upon graduating from high school in 1917, Hemingway moved away from home and embarked on a professional writing career, starting as a reporter for the Kansas City Star.

In 1918, during the height of World War I, Hemingway volunteered to serve as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross, which sent him to Italy. Within just a few weeks of his arrival, Hemingway was injured by an exploding shell and was sent to a hospital in Milan. During his recovery, he became romantically involved with a nurse—an episode that he portrayed years later in his novel A Farewell to Arms (1929).

After the war, Hemingway worked as a newspaper correspondent in Paris, where he moved among a circle of expatriate artists and writers, including American writers F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, Irish writer James Joyce, and Spanish painter Pablo Picasso. Stein, in particular, became Hemingway’s mentor. Some critics have suggested that she provided the inspiration for the character Pilar in For Whom the Bell Tolls, who serves as a mother figure for the protagonist, Robert Jordan.

During his time as a correspondent, Hemingway traveled extensively in Spain and developed a strong interest in Spanish culture. He became especially interested in bullfighting, which he viewed as a uniquely Spanish experience that accustomed Spaniards to face death and thus enabled them to live fuller lives. Hemingway’s interest in Spain led to literary masterpieces such as The Sun Also Rises (1926), a chronicle of a group of disaffected Americans in postwar France and Spain, and Death in the Afternoon (1932), a nonfiction work about bullfighting.

For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) takes place during the Spanish Civil War, which ravaged the country throughout the late 1930s. Tensions in Spain began to rise as early as 1931, when a group of left-wing Republicans overthrew the country’s monarchy in a bloodless coup. The new Republican government then proposed controversial religious reforms that angered right-wing Fascists, who had the support of the army and the Catholic church.

After a strong Communist turnout in the 1936 popular elections, the Fascist army commander Generalísimo Francisco Franco initiated a coup in an attempt to overthrow the Republican government. Unexpectedly, the key cities of Madrid and Barcelona remained loyal to the Republic. This divide marked the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, a conflict between the right-wing Fascists (Nationalists) and the left-wing Republicans (Loyalists), a large number of whom were Communists. Violence exploded all over Spain, and both sides committed atrocities. Many western countries saw the Spanish Civil War as a symbolic struggle between fascism and democracy. Eventually, the superior military machine of the Fascist alliance prevailed, and the war ended in the spring of 1939.

During the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway was involved in the production of two Loyalist propaganda documentary films. Later in the conflict, he served as a war correspondent for the North American Newspaper Alliance. For Whom the Bell Tolls expresses Hemingway’s strong feelings about the war, both a critique of the Republicans’ leadership and a lament over the Fascists’ destruction of the earthy way of life of the Spanish peasantry. The novel is set in the spring of 1937, at a time when the war had come to a standstill, a month after German troops razed the Spanish town of Guernica. At this point, the Republicans still held out some hope for victory and were planning a new offensive. For Whom the Bell Tolls explores themes of wartime individuality, the effects of war on its combatants, and the military bureaucracy’s impersonal indifference to human life. Most important, the novel addresses the question of whether an idealistic view of the world justifies violence.

Hemingway’s novels are known for portraying a particular type of hero. Critic Philip Young famously termed this figure a “code hero,” a man who gracefully struggles against death and obliteration. Robert Jordan, the protagonist of For Whom the Bell Tolls, is a prime example of this kind of hero. The tragedy of the code hero is that he is mortal and knows that he will ultimately lose the struggle. Meanwhile, he lives according to a code—hence the term code hero—that helps him endure a life full of stress and tension with courage and grace. He appreciates the physical pleasures of this world—food, drink, sex, and so on—without obsessing over them.

Hemingway is particularly known for his journalistic prose style, which was revolutionary at the time and has influenced countless writers since. Hemingway’s writing is succinct and direct, although his speakers tend to give the impression that they are leaving a tremendous amount unsaid. This bold experimentation with prose earned Hemingway the 1953 Pulitzer Prize and 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature for his most popular work, the novella The Old Man and the Sea (1952).

Although Hemingway wrote several more novels afterward, he was never again able to match the success of The Old Man and the Sea. In the late 1950s, the combination of depression, deteriorating health, and frustration with his writing began to weigh heavily on him. His depression worsened, and in July 1961, he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Ketchum, Idaho. Although Hemingway’s long career ended sadly, his novels and short stories remain as popular today as ever before, and he maintains a reputation as one of the most innovative and influential authors of the twentieth century.

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Fight all forms of censorship.
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Banned Books That Shaped America: The Call of the Wild

The Library of Congress created an exhibit, “Books that Shaped America,” that explores books that “have had a profound effect on American life.” Many of the books in the exhibit have been banned/challenged.  Give yourself the gift of a beautiful story and read one and them imagine what your life would be like if you were never given that gift.

Fight censorship.

The Call of the Wild, Jack London, 1903

Generally hailed as Jack London’s best work, The Call of the Wild is commonly challenged for its dark tone and bloody violence. Because it is seen as a man-and-his-dog story, it is sometimes read by adolescents and subsequently challenged for age-inappropriateness. Not only have objections been raised here, the book was banned in Italy, Yugoslavia and burned in bonfires in Nazi Germany in the late 1920s and early 30s because it was considered “too radical.”

call of the wild

Jack London was born in San Francisco on January 12, 1876, the illegitimate son of Flora Wellman, the rebellious daughter of an aristocratic family, and William Chaney, a traveling astrologer who abandoned Flora when she became pregnant. Eight months after her son was born, Flora married John London, a grocer and Civil War veteran whose last name the infant took. London grew up in Oakland, and his family was mired in poverty throughout his youth. He remained in school only through the eighth grade but was a voracious reader and a frequent visitor to the Oakland Public Library, where he went about edu-cating himself and laying the groundwork for his impending literary career.

In his adolescent years, London led a rough life, spending time as a pirate in San Francisco Bay, traveling the Far East on sealing expeditions, and making his way across America as a tramp. Finally, temporarily tired of adventure, London returned to Oakland and graduated from high school. He was even admitted to the University of California at Berkeley, but he stayed only for a semester. The Klondike gold rush (in Canada’s Yukon Territory) had begun, and in 1897 London left college to seek his fortune in the snowy North.

The gold rush did not make London rich, but it furnished him with plenty of material for his career as a writer, which began in the late 1890s and continued until his death in 1916. He worked as a reporter, covering the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 and the Mexican Revolution in the 1910s; meanwhile, he published over fifty books and became, at the time, America’s most famous author. For a while, he was one of the most widely read authors in the world. He embodied, it was said, the spirit of the American West, and his portrayal of adventure and frontier life seemed like a breath of fresh air in comparison with nineteenth-century Victorian fiction, which was often overly concerned with what had begun to seem like trivial and irrelevant social norms.

The Call of the Wild, published in 1903, remains London’s most famous work, blending his experiences as a gold prospector in the Canadian wilderness with his ideas about nature and the struggle for existence. He drew these ideas from various influential figures, including Charles Darwin, an English naturalist credited with developing theories about biological evolution, and Friedrich Nietzsche, a prominent German philosopher. Although The Call of the Wild is first and foremost a story about a dog, it displays a philosophical depth absent in most animal adventures.

London was married twice—once in 1900, to his math tutor and friend Bess Maddern, and again in 1905, to his secretary Charmian Kittredge, whom he considered his true love. As his works soared in popularity, he became a contradictory figure, arguing for socialist principles and women’s rights even as he himself lived a materialist life of luxury, sailing the world in his boat, the Snark, and running a large ranch in northern California. Meanwhile, he preached equality and the brotherhood of man, even as novels like The Call of the Wild celebrated violence, power, and brute force.

London died young, on November 22, 1916. He had been plagued by stomach problems and failing kidneys for years, but many have suggested that his death was a suicide. Whatever the cause, it is clear that London, who played the various roles of journalist, novelist, prospector, sailor, pirate, husband, and father, lived life to the fullest.

Fight all forms of censorship.
Fight all forms of censorship.
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Banned Books That Shaped America: Stranger in a Strange Land

The Library of Congress created an exhibit, “Books that Shaped America,” that explores books that “have had a profound effect on American life.” Many of the books in the exhibit have been banned/challenged.  Give yourself the gift of a beautiful story and read one and them imagine what your life would be like if you were never given that gift.

Fight censorship.

Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein, 1961

The book was actually retained after a 2003 challenge in Mercedes, TX to the book’s adult themes. However, parents were subsequently given more control over what their child was assigned to read in class, a common school board response to a challenge.

stranger in a strange land

Robert A. Heinlein was one of the most famed and respected writers of science fiction’s “Golden Age,” which occurred from the 1940s to the 1950s. He began writing stories for John W. Campbell Jr.‘s periodicals, Astounding and Unknown, in 1939 and quickly made a career of his fiction writing. Although he tried his hand at a number of other genres, like his alter ego, Jubal Harshaw, in Stranger in a Strange Land who writes for a vast array of magazines, Heinlein soon found that he was best suited to and most successful at science fiction. Many of his stories took place in a continuum Heinlein called “Future History”—these stories cross-referenced each other and Heinlein’s alternate universe became more and more elaborate over the years.

In 1947, Heinlein published his first novel, Rocket Ship Galileo. It was a simple sci-fi adventure, intended for the lucrative adolescent market; such books were known as “juveniles.” Heinlein prolifically produced these juveniles, and a number of short stories throughout the end of the 1940s and through the 1950s. Though all of the novels were intended to be compelling and comprehensible for adolescents, some of them touched upon mature subject matter, such as the handling of militarism and politics in Starship Troopers. Heinlein enjoyed writing for the juvenile market, but he longed to write a novel that could deal with truly adult, controversial subject matter. Throughout the 1950s he worked on the story that would become Stranger in a Strange Land. Early working titles included The Man from Mars and A Martian Named Smith—the title that Jubal Harshaw gives to the “stereoplay” he begins composing at the end of Stranger. Heinlein had several false starts on writing the novel, between other works, but in 1960 was finally able to complete a draft to his own satisfaction. With its challenging, eccentric, and occasionally bizarre philosophies about human sexuality and organized religion, Heinlein was uncertain if he would ever be able to find a publisher for Stranger.

G. P. Putnam boldly took on the book, which was more complex and brazenly satirical than any mainstream science fiction novel to date. The sales were not immediately impressive, but as the years progressed, the paperback edition of the novel slowly accumulated word of mouth advertising from a dedicated core group of admirers, and the novel blossomed into a sensation. Stranger found a place alongside such books as Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 as a touchstone of the 1960s counterculture. Because of its broad themes and ambiguous moral stance, one could easily interpret the novel’s philosophies to appease many different viewpoints. Stranger appealed to many far flung subcultures: it was a novel equally well-suited to conservative, hardcore science fiction fans and to radical members of the 1960s hippie movement, since the free love and communal living of Valentine Michael Smith‘s church anticipated many hippie tenets. Some avid fans of the novel went so far as to found cults of their own based on Heinlein’s “teachings.” Heinlein kept as much distance as possible between himself and these fans, whom he felt had emotionally overinvested in what, for whatever wisdom it may have contained, was still only a work of fiction. After Charles Manson and his “family” committed multiple murders in 1969, it was widely rumored that Manson had been inspired by Stranger, though those rumors proved to be unfounded.

Until his death in 1988, Heinlein went on to write several more adult novels, many of which continued to grapple with the controversial themes of Stranger. Although many of those novels, such as The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Time Enough for Love, and The Number of the Beast were quite popular, none ever repeated the tremendous cultural impact of Stranger.

Fight all forms of censorship.
Fight all forms of censorship.
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Banned Books That Shaped America: Fahrenheit 451

The Library of Congress created an exhibit, “Books that Shaped America,” that explores books that “have had a profound effect on American life.” Many of the books in the exhibit have been banned/challenged.  Give yourself the gift of a beautiful story and read one and them imagine what your life would be like if you were never given that gift.

Fight censorship.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, 1953

Rather than ban the book about book-banning outright, Venado Middle school in Irvine, CA utilized an expurgated version of the text in which all the “hells” and “damns” were blacked out. Other complaints have said the book went against objectors religious beliefs. The book’s author, Ray Bradbury, died this year.

fahrenheit_451

Ray Bradbury was born in Waukegan, Illinois, on August 22, 1920. By the time he was eleven, he had already begun writing his own stories on butcher paper. His family moved fairly frequently, and he graduated from a Los Angeles high school in 1938. He had no further formal education, but he studied on his own at the library and continued to write. For several years, he earned money by selling newspapers on street corners. His first published story was “Hollerbochen’s Dilemma,” which appeared in 1938 in Imagination!, a magazine for amateur writers. In 1942 he was published in Weird Tales, the legendary pulp science-fiction magazine that fostered such luminaries of the genre as H. P. Lovecraft. Bradbury honed his sci-fi sensibility writing for popular television shows, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. He also ventured into screenplay writing (he wrote the screenplay for John Huston’s 1953 film Moby Dick). His book The Martian Chronicles, published in 1950, established his reputation as a leading American writer of science fiction.

In the spring of 1950, while living with his family in a humble home in Venice, California, Bradbury began writing what was to become Fahrenheit 451 on pay-by-the-hour typewriters in the University of California at Los Angeles library basement. He finished the first draft, a shorter version called The Fireman, in just nine days. Following in the futuristic-dustpan tradition of George Orwell’s 1984, Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953 and became Bradbury’s most popular and widely read work of fiction. He produced a stage version of the novel at the Studio Theatre Playhouse in Los Angeles. The seminal French New Wave director François Truffaut also made a critically acclaimed film adaptation in 1967.

Bradbury has received many awards for his writing and has been honored in numerous ways. Most notably, Apollo astronauts named the Dandelion Crater on the moon after his novel Dandelion Wine. In addition to his novels, screenplays, and scripts for television, Bradbury has written two musicals, co-written two “space-age cantatas,” collaborated on an Academy Award–nominated animation short called Icarus Montgolfier Wright, and started his own television series, The Ray Bradbury Theatre. Bradbury, who still lives in California, continues to write and is acknowledged as one of the masters of the science-fiction genre. Although he is recognized primarily for his ideas and sometimes denigrated for his writing style (which some find alternately dry and maudlin), Bradbury nonetheless retains his place among important literary science-fiction talents and visionaries like Jules Verne, H. P. Lovecraft, George Orwell, Arthur C. Clarke, and Philip K. Dick.

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Banned Books That Shaped America: Leaves of Grass

The Library of Congress created an exhibit, “Books that Shaped America,” that explores books that “have had a profound effect on American life.” Many of the books in the exhibit have been banned/challenged.  Give yourself the gift of a beautiful story and read one and them imagine what your life would be like if you were never given that gift.

Fight censorship.

Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman, 1855

If they don’t understand you, sometimes they ban you. This was the case when the great American poem Leaves of Grass was first published and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice found the sensuality of the text disturbing. Caving to pressure, booksellers in New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania conceded to advising their patrons not to buy the “filthy” book.

leaves-of-grass_mm

This book is notable for its discussion of delight in sensual pleasures during a time when such candid displays were considered immoral. Where much previous poetry, especially English, relied on symbolism, allegory, and meditation on the religious and spiritual, Leaves of Grass (particularly the first edition) exalted the body and the material world. Influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalist movement, itself an offshoot of Romanticism, Whitman’s poetry praises nature and the individual human’s role in it. However, much like Emerson, Whitman does not diminish the role of the mind or the spirit; rather, he elevates the human form and the human mind, deeming both worthy of poetic praise.

Banned Books That Shaped America: Catch-22

The Library of Congress created an exhibit, “Books that Shaped America,” that explores books that “have had a profound effect on American life.” Many of the books in the exhibit have been banned/challenged.  Give yourself the gift of a beautiful story and read one and them imagine what your life would be like if you were never given that gift.

Fight censorship.

Catch-22, Joseph Heller, 1961

A school board in Strongsville, OH refused to allow the book to be taught in high school English classrooms in 1972. It also refused to consider Cat’s Cradle as a substitute text and removed both books from the school library. The issue eventually led to a 1976 District Court ruling overturning the ban in Minarcini v. Strongsville.

catch 22

Joseph Heller was born in Brooklyn in 1923. He served as an Air Force bombardier in World War II and enjoyed a long career as a writer and a teacher. His best-selling books include Something Happened, Good as Gold, Picture This, God Knows, and Closing Time, but his first novel, Catch-22, remains his most famous and acclaimed work. He died of a heart attack in December 1999.

Heller wrote Catch-22 while working at a New York City marketing firm producing ad copy. The novel draws heavily on his Air Force experience and presents a war story that is at once hilarious, grotesque, cynical, and stirring. The novel generated a great deal of controversy upon its initial publication in 1961. Critics tended either to adore it or despise it, and those who hated it did so for the same reasons as the critics who loved it. Over time, Catch-22 has become one of the defining novels of the twentieth century. It presents an utterly unsentimental vision of war, stripping all romantic pretenses away from combat, replacing visions of glory and honor with a kind of nightmarish comedy of violence, bureaucracy, and paradoxical madness. This kind of irony has come to be expected of war novels since the Vietnam War, but in the wake of World War II, which most Americans believed was a just and heroic war, Catch-22 was shocking. It proved almost prophetic about both the Vietnam War, a conflict that began a few years after the novel was originally published, and the sense of disillusionment about the military that many Americans experienced during this conflict.

Unlike other antiromantic war novels, such as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Catch-22 relies heavily on humor to convey the insanity of war, presenting the horrible meaninglessness of armed conflict through a kind of desperate absurdity rather than through graphic depictions of suffering and violence. Catch-22 also distinguishes itself from other antiromantic war novels through its core values: the story of Yossarian, the protagonist, is ultimately not one of despair but one of hope. He believes that the positive urge to live and to be free can redeem the individual from the dehumanizing machinery of war. The novel is told as a series of loosely related, tangential stories in no particular chronological order. The narrative that emerges from this structural tangle upholds the value of the individual in the face of the impersonal, collective military mass; at every stage it mocks insincerity and hypocrisy, even when such values appear triumphant.

Despite its World War II setting, Catch-22 is often thought of as a signature novel of the 1960s and 1970s. It was during those decades that American youth truly began to question authority. Hippies, university protests, and the civil rights movement all marked the 1960s as a decade of revolution, and Heller’s novel fit in perfectly with the spirit of the times. In fact, Heller once said, “I wasn’t interested in the war in Catch-22. I was interested in the personal relationships in bureaucratic authority.” Whether Heller was using the war to comment on authority or using bureaucracy as a statement about the war, it is clear that Catch-22 is more than just a war novel. It is also a novel about the moral choices that every person must make when faced with a system of authority whose rules are both immoral and illogical.

Banned Books That Shaped America: Native Son

The Library of Congress created an exhibit, “Books that Shaped America,” that explores books that “have had a profound effect on American life.” Many of the books in the exhibit have been banned/challenged.  Give yourself the gift of a beautiful story and read one and them imagine what your life would be like if you were never given that gift.

Fight censorship.

Native Son, Richard Wright, 1940

Richard Wright’s landmark work of literary naturalism follows the life of young Bigger Thomas, a poor Black man living on the South Side of Chicago. Bigger is faced with numerous awkward and frustrating situations when he begins working for a rich white family as their chauffer. After he unintentionally kills a member of the family, he flees but is eventually caught, tried and sentenced to death. The book has been challenged or removed in at least eight different states because of objections to “violent and sexually graphic” content.

native-son

Richard Wright was born on September 4, 1908, on a farm in Mississippi. He was the first of two sons born to Nathan Wright, an illiterate sharecropper, and Ella Wilson Wright, a schoolteacher. When Wright was a small child, his father abandoned the family to live with another woman. Wright’s mother subsequently became chronically ill, and the family was forced to live with various relatives. During one particularly tumultuous period, Wright and his brother spent a month in an orphanage. The family eventually settled with Wright’s grandmother. Though Wright attended a Seventh-Day Adventist school where his aunt taught, he rebelled against religious discipline, much like the character of Bigger Thomas in Native Son.

The illnesses suffered by Wright’s mother drained the family financially, forcing Wright to work a number of jobs during his childhood and adolescence. Despite sporadic schooling, he became an avid reader and graduated as valedictorian of his junior high school. Financial troubles worsened, however, and Wright was forced to drop out of high school after only a few weeks to find work. Shortly before the beginning of the Great Depression, the family moved to Chicago, where Wright devoted himself seriously to writing.

In 1934, Wright became a member of the Communist Party and began publishing articles and poetry in numerous left-wing publications. Still his family’s sole financial support, Wright took a job with the Federal Writers’ Project helping research the history of blacks in Chicago. In 1937, he moved to New York, where he was Harlem editor for the Daily Worker, a communist newspaper. Around this time, he wrote and published Uncle Tom’s Children, a collection of short stories that addresses the social realities faced by American black men. The novel—like its namesake, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin—was banned or censored in parts of the United States.

However, it was Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son, that stirred up real controversy by shocking the sensibilities of both black and white America. The reaction to Uncle Tom’s Children had disappointed Wright—though he had worked hard to describe racism as he saw it, he still felt he had written a novel “which even bankers’ daughters could read and feel good about.” With his next work, Native Son, he was determined to make his readers feel the reality of race relations by writing something “so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.” The protagonist of the novel, Bigger Thomas, hails from the lowest rung of society, and Wright does not infuse him with any of the romantic aspects or traits common to literary heroes. Rather, given the social conditions in which he must live, Bigger is what one might expect him to be—sullen, frightened, violent, hateful, and resentful.

In his essay “How Bigger Was Born,” Wright explains that Bigger is a fusion of men he had himself known while growing up in the South. Confronted by racism and oppression and left with very few options in their lives, these men displayed increasingly antisocial and violent behavior, and were, in effect, disasters waiting to happen. In Chicago, removed from the terrible oppression of the South, Wright discovered that Bigger was not exclusively a black phenomenon. Wright saw, just as Bigger does in Native Son that millions of whites suffered as well, and he believed that the direct cause of this suffering was the structure of American society itself. Native Son thus represents Wright’s urgent warning that if American social and economic realities did not change, the oppressed masses would soon rise up in fury against those in power.

Disenchanted over the Communist Party’s attempts to control the content of his writing, Wright quietly split with the Party in 1942. He continued to be active in left-wing politics, however, and was the subject of intense FBI scrutiny throughout his life. In the late 1940s, Wright moved to Paris with his wife and daughter. He became deeply interested in the philosophical movement of existentialism, often socializing with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, two of the movement’s leading figures.

Though Wright continued writing, his career never again reached the heights it attained when Native Son and Black Boy—his popular autobiographical novel—were published in the early and mid-1940s. Wright died of a heart attack in 1960. Today he is honored as one of the finest writers in African-American literature, a tremendous influence on such eminent contemporaries and followers as Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, among many others.

Fight all forms of censorship.

Fight all forms of censorship.

Banned Books That Shaped America: The Red Badge of Courage

The Library of Congress created an exhibit, “Books that Shaped America,” that explores books that “have had a profound effect on American life.” Many of the books in the exhibit have been banned/challenged.  Give yourself the gift of a beautiful story and read one and them imagine what your life would be like if you were never given that gift.

Fight censorship.

The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane, 1895

Restricting excess and refusing to allow teachers to teach books is still a form of censorship in many cases. Crane’s book was among many on a list compiled by the Bay District School board in 1986 after parents began lodging informal complaints about books in an English classroom library.

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Stephen Crane was born in 1871 in Newark, New Jersey. The fourteenth child of highly religious Methodist parents, Crane lapsed into a rebellious childhood during which he spent time preparing for a career as a professional baseball player. After brief flirtations with higher learning at Lafayette College and Syracuse University, Crane turned to writing full-time. Convinced that he must invest his work with the authenticity of experience, he often went to outlandish lengths to live through situations that he intended to work into his novels. For his first book, Maggie, a Girl of the Streets (1893), Crane lived in poverty in the Bowery slum of New York City. Similarly, he based his short story “The Open Boat” on his experience as a castaway from a shipwreck.

Crane’s most enduring work, the short novel The Red Badge of Courage, was published in 1895. Though initially not well received in the United States, The Red Badge of Courage was a massive success in England. The attention of the English critics caused many Americans to view the novel with renewed enthusiasm, catapulting the young Crane into international literary prominence. His realistic depictions of war and battle led to many assignments as a foreign correspondent for newspapers, taking him to such locales as Greece, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. He published volumes of poetry as well as many works of fiction, including the landmark “The Open Boat” (1897). In 1899, Crane moved into a medieval castle in England with his lover, the former madam of a Jacksonville brothel. Here Crane wrote feverishly, hoping to pay off his debts. His health began to fail, however, and he died of tuberculosis in June 1900, at the age of twenty-eight.

Ironically, for a writer so committed to the direct portrayal of his own experience, Crane’s greatest work is almost entirely a product of his imagination. When he wrote The Red Badge of Courage, Crane had neither fought in war nor witnessed battle, and was forced to rely on his powers of invention to create the extraordinarily realistic combat sequences of the novel. His work proved so accurate that, at the time of the book’s publication, most critics assumed that Crane was an experienced soldier.

Based loosely on the events of the Civil War Battle of Chancellorsville (May 2–6, 1863)—though neither the battle, the war, nor the armies are named in the book—The Red Badge of Courage shattered American preconceptions about what a war novel could be. In the decades before Crane’s novel, most fiction about the Civil War was heavily idealistic, portraying the conflict as a great clash of opposed ideals. Whereas previous writers had taken a large, epic view, Crane focused on the individual psychology of a single soldier, Private Henry Fleming, during his first experiences of battle. In this narrowed scope, Crane represents Henry’s mind as a maze of illusions, vanity, and romantic naïveté, challenged by the hard lessons of war. Crane does not depict a world of moral absolutes, but rather a universe utterly indifferent to human existence.

This startling and unexpected shift drew the world’s attention to The Red Badge of Courage, as did the novel’s vivid and powerful descriptions of battle. With its combination of detailed imagery, moral ambiguity, and terse psychological focus, The Red Badge of Courage exerted an enormous influence on twentieth-century American fiction, particularly, on the writings of the modernists. These qualities continue to make the work absorbing and important more than a century after it was written.