At the conferences and in the journals of historians, attention to literature of the early republic is more often than not justified by linking that literature to the formation of the polity and the party systems. Literature becomes like the bird who rides around on the rhinoceros — a sweet little creature worthy of attention only by its odd connection to that great beast of early republic history, politics. This sorely limits our understanding of literature’s role in the world, and perhaps also limits, at least in this historiography, our understanding of politics.
According to the American Library Association, this is Banned Books Week. From now (actually yesterday) through Saturday, we get to celebrate press freedom by, for example, ostentatiously reading naughty books. It’s my kind of subversion — theoretically shaking the roots of authoritarianism and ignorance, but really just giving me a good excuse to read things with squelchy bits.
I have mixed feelings about the origins of Banned Books Week. Keeping certain books away from children may be problematic, but it’s simply not the same thing as adult censorship. So I’m never very impressed by the ALA’s lists of “challenged” books, which inevitably are full of angsty teen titles that some parents just don’t want stocked on low shelves next to The Magic School Bus Lost in the Solar System. Still, there are greater forces at work in the world, and sometimes there isn’t as much distance as I would like between a lovingly nervous parent, a nondenominational loon trying to rid the world of the Expelliarmus charm, and a cultural fascist ordering a man’s assassination for writing an otherwise unremarkable book about immigration. There’s easily enough real book-banning in the world to justify having a fun little anti-censorship holiday.
So today I’m trying to decide what book I should read this week to celebrate. The ALA’s dorky lists of most-challenged books don’t impress me. (Gossip Girl? Please.) I’m leaning more toward titles with a hardcore burn-all-his-writings-and-kill-his-entire-family sort of vibe. But I’m open to persuasion. Here are some of the tools I’m using to brainstorm:
- The Index. Where else to start but the Index Librorum Prohibitorum? Maintained by the Catholic Church between 1559 and 1966, this list is Christendom’s gold standard for banned subversive ideas. The last edition, published in 1948, is available here. Voltaire On Toleration, anyone?
- Banned in Boston. Who needs popes and councils when you have Brahmins? Long before their mayor tried to silence Chick-fil-A, the descendants of the people who exiled Anne Hutchinson were notorious for suppressing books on the grounds that they were the least bit interesting. Perhaps this would be a good week to read Faulkner, Hemingway, or Dreiser.
- The Great Postal Campaign. In the 1830s, southern postmasters, with the blessing of Postmaster General Amos Kendall, systematically denied antislavery writers the right to circulate their ideas in the mail. The censorship intensified in response to the American Anti-Slavery Society’s direct mail campaign, but it really began in 1829, when David Walker’s magnificent Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World terrified white southern officials. But just about any antebellum antislavery work would qualify for my attention as something that white Americans, feeling guilty and expecting a race war, found bannable.
- Nobel Prizes. As it turns out, there’s a pretty high correlation between winning the Nobel Prize in Literature and having your work banned somewhere in the world. Maybe it’s time to read Herta Müller or Doris Lessing.
What else should I be considering as I make up my mind today?