Censorship in Twentieth-Century Literature
Censorship in Twentieth-Century Literature
Literary censorship in the twentieth century has been both preventive—exercised prior to publication—and punitive—applied after the work has been published. Censorship can be explicitly laid out in laws forbidding publication of certain ideas or information, or it can take the form of implicit censure of unpopular ideas, in which people are threatened with losing their jobs or position in society. It is defined as the official prohibition or restriction of any type of expression believed to threaten the political, social, or moral order imposed by governmental, religious, or local powers. Censorship consists of any attempt to suppress information, points of view, or method of expression such as art or profanity. The purpose of censorship is to maintain the status quo, to control the development of a society, and to stifle dissent.
The history of literary censorship in the twentieth century builds on earlier traditions of censorship. The Catholic Church's Index, a list of publications that Catholics were forbidden to read, was initiated in the Middle Ages and not discontinued until 1966. The British Obscene Publications Act of 1857, although Victorian in origin, set the precedent for British and American censorship well into the 1960s, as did laws passed by groups such as Anthony Comstock's New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which in 1868 authored a comprehensive New York Statute making it a misdemeanor to sell or own “any obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, indecent, or disgusting books” and in 1873 secured legislation making it illegal to mail “indecent” matter. The Catholic Church's Index and the British and American anti-obscenity legislation of the late nineteenth century reflect a reaction against the forces of urbanization, industrialization, immigration, and accompanying social changes.
Several censorship trials in the twentieth century in the United Kingdom and the United States illustrate the cultural conflict over what has constituted obscenity and what was acceptable to be read by the general public. Early in the twentieth century, émigré publishing houses in France and Italy published English-language works, which were then smuggled into Britain and the United States. James Joyce's 1922 work, Ulysses, was confiscated and burned at New York customs offices in 1923 when Joyce's publisher, Shakespeare and Co., attempted to ship 500 first-edition copies from France into the United States. A long legal battle ensued, and in 1933, Justice John M. Woolsey decreed that Ulysses's literary merit justified publication and distribution of the book. The United States v. One Book Called Ulysses was a watershed case against censorship of literature in the United States. Novels, now considered classics, which were originally banned include D. H. Lawrence's erotic novel, The Rainbow (1915) banned in Britain under the Obscene Publications Bill of 1857, as was Radclyffe Hall's lesbian-themed novel, The Well of Loneliness (1928). During a 15-year period beginning in 1957, a series of court decisions relaxed restrictions on so-called obscene materials. Other important censorship trials in the United States and England involved Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928), Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (1936), and Allen Ginsberg's poem, Howl (1956) culminating with the 1965 obscenity trial of William S. Burrough's Naked Lunch (1959).
Although the most publicized American and British censorship of literature in the twentieth century has involved debates over obscenity and pornography, the United States government also has censored literature for political reasons. The 1917 Espionage Act and 1918 Sedition Amendment suppressed antiwar periodicals and deported communists, labor activists and other radicals. During the Cold War, in addition to censoring films and “blacklisting” writers who were deemed “Communist sympathizers,” Sen. Joseph McCarthy had books by writers deemed politically suspect removed from U.S. Information Agency libraries abroad.
Literary censorship has been particularly and thoroughly practiced by authoritarian and totalitarian states in the twentieth century. Strict censorship of all forms of public expression characterized the Soviet Union, the Communist satellite states of Eastern Europe and the apartheid regime of South Africa. Many writers in the Communist block were sentenced to hard labor or sent into exile. The writing of Nobel Prize winners such as Boris Pasternak, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Joseph Brodsky was banned in the Soviet Union and Poland. Prevented from publishing their work in the Soviet Union, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and other Communist countries, Eastern European and Soviet writers relied on samizdat—surreptitious self-publishing and dissemination of literary works—and tamizdat—émigré publishing houses in Western Europe—to evade censors. Many writers from authoritarian regimes went into exile in order to be able to write and publish freely.
Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) were formed in 1930 to protest against censorship. Periodicals such as Index on Censorship track the state of writers and writing internationally. Censorship in democratic nations continues to be fought around issues of prurience and obscenity; under more repressive regimes, censorship revolves primarily around issues of dissent and political expression.
Stikhotvoreniya, 1909-1957 (poetry) 1958
Poema Bez Geroya; Triptykh [Poem Without a Hero; Triptych] (poetry) 1960
Death of a Hero (novel) 1929
Les exploits d'un jeune Don Juan (novel) 1907
Les onze mille verges (novel) 1908
Ryder (novel) 1928
And Death White As Words: An Anthology of the Poetry of Breyten Breytenbach (poetry) 1977
Stikhotvoreniia i poemy (poetry) 1965
Ausgewahlte Gedichte (poetry) 1966
Xol 'mi (poetry) 1966
Elegy to John Donne and Other Poems (poetry) 1967
Velka elegie (poetry) 1968
Ostanovka v pustyne (poetry) 1970
William S. Burroughs
Naked Lunch (novel) 1959
The Soft Machine (novel) 1962
The Ticket That Exploded (novel) 1962
God's Little Acre (novel) 1933
The Genius (novel) 1915
Notre-Dame-Des-Fleurs [Our Lady of the Flowers] (novel) 1942
Journal du voleur [The Thief's Journal] (novel) 1949
Howl, and Other Poems (poetry) 1956
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Webb, W. L. “An Embarrassment of Tyrannies.” In An Embarrassment of Tyrannies: Twenty-Five Years of Index on Censorship, edited by W. L. Webb and Rose Bell, pp. 17-24. London: Victor Gollancz, 1997.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1972, Webb provides a brief history of the journal Index on Censorship and the state of censorship around the world in the second half of the twentieth century.]
‘Wake up!’ Solzhenitsyn taunted the Kremlin's geriatrics after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968: ‘Your clocks are slow in relation to our times!’ Index, a child of the better ideals and aspirations of the sixties, was a response to that impatience at the stalling of yet another turning point of history. What moved Stephen Spender and some of his writer and scholar friends was not so much the dramas lately enacted on the political barricades, but the appeals from writers and other intellectuals in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, driven by frustration at the holding back of change, asking directly and openly for help and solidarity from their peers in the West. The cases they described were disturbing enough, like that of Andrei Sinyavsky, and the trial in Moscow of Yuri Galanskov and Aleksander Ginzburg, which Pavel Litvinov in a brave and unprecedented letter to The Times called ‘a wild mockery of … the accused … and of the witnesses unthinkable...
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SOURCE: West, Mark I. “The Role of Sexual Repression in Anthony Comstock's Campaign to Censor Children's Dime Novels.” Journal of American and Comparative Cultures 22, no. 4 (winter 1999): 45-9.
[In the following essay, West explores the psychological tensions behind the censorship campaign of the American reformer, Anthony Comstock.]
Censors tend to use political or religious arguments to justify their positions, but beneath the surface of their arguments often runs an unstated and personal subtext. Some censors play out their internal psychological conflicts on a very public stage. These censors attempt to renounce their repressed impulses and desires through censorship campaigns. An example of such a censor is Anthony Comstock. Recognized as the most famous censor in America during the second half of the nineteenth century, Comstock led a national crusade against vice. An examination of his personal life suggests that his censorship activities stemmed from the repugnance that he felt toward his own sexual impulses. This internal conflict not only led him to campaign against pornography, but it also entered into his efforts to ban other forms of popular culture that he found repugnant, such as children's dime novels.
Comstock's crusading spirit surfaced well before he began his campaign against dime novels. During his teenage years in New Canaan, Connecticut, he developed a...
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Criticism: Censorship And Obscenity Trials
SOURCE: Hutchison, E. R. “The Trials and Tribulations of Cancer—.” In Tropic of Cancer, pp. 33-50. New York: Grove Press, 1968.
[In the following essay, Hutchison discusses the publishing history of Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, in the context of the American legal system's censorship of “obscene” materials against the increasing popularity of publications such as Playboy magazine and changing attitudes about sex. The author argues that the first American publication of Miller's novel in 1961, along with the ensuing trial about its obscenity, was carefully planned by Barney Rosset of Grove Press, who fiercely opposed censorship.]
What happened to Tropic of Cancer had broader significance, of course, than the impact upon Grove Press of Henry Miller. With the American publication of Cancer, a new and critical phase in the continuing struggle over freedom of expression in literature began.
From the very beginning, in Paris in the 1930's, Cancer was in trouble. When Obelisk publisher Jack Kahane first read the manuscript at his country home in France, he was deeply stirred. This Englishman, publisher of salacious novels as well as books of noted authors, said this of Cancer: “At last! … I had read the most terrible, the most sordid, the most magnificent manuscript that had ever fallen into my hands; nothing I had yet received was...
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SOURCE: Girodias, Maurice, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsburg, Carl Solomon, and James Grauerholz. “The Struggle Against Censorship: A Round Table Discussion.” In The Art of Literary Publishing: Editors on Their Craft, edited by Bill Henderson, pp. 212-29. Yonkers, N.Y.: Pushcart Press, 1980.
[In the following essay, adapted from a 1974 radio program, Girodias of Olympia Press speaks with William Burroughs, whose controversial novel, Naked Lunch, he published in 1959, and Allen Ginsburg, the author of Howl, which was the subject of a landmark censorship trial in 1957. Also part of the conversation are Carl Solomon, who published Burrough's 1953 book, Junkie as a pulp paperback, and James Grauerholz, Burrough's assistant. The 1962 trial of Naked Lunch was the last major censorship trial of a literary work in the United States. In the 1966 case Memoirs v. Massachusetts, the court “found that Naked Lunch was not without social value, and therefore, not obscene.”]
[Girodias]: It was Allen who first brought the manuscript [of Naked Lunch] to me, in '58, in Paris. I was publishing books in the English language at the time, books which were unpublishable in America … the prose was scintillating but the typing was pretty horrendous. I don't know what happened to that manuscript before it reached me.
[Ginsberg]: Kerouac had...
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SOURCE: Bowlby, Rachel. “‘But She Would Learn Something from Lady Chatterley’: The Obscene Side of the Canon.” In Decolonizing Tradition: New Views of Twentieth-Century ‘British’ Literary Canons, edited by Karen R. Lawrence, pp. 113-35. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.
[In the following essay, Bowlby discusses the British 1960 censorship trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence, along with its literary reception, in the context of a history of British censorship.]
Modern British Literature, the final volume of The Oxford Anthology of English Literature, includes a long extract—nine pages, almost the whole essay—from D. H. Lawrence's “Pornography and Obscenity.” This could be cited as one of many pieces of evidence for the contemporary stature of Lawrence, the kind of writer whose auxiliary publications are considered canonical; and the essay's subject matter might be seen as an allusion to the particularly violent curbs Lawrence's works faced (among others, The Rainbow and Lady Chatterley's Lover were banned following their publication) and overcame before he attained his deserved place. The anthology's editors, John Hollander and Frank Kermode, draw attention to this latter aspect in their introduction to the piece: They begin with the statement that “Lawrence had first-hand experience of those he called ‘the...
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SOURCE: Pagnattaro, Marisa Anne. “Carving a Literary Exception: The Obscenity Standard and Ulysses.” Twentieth-Century Literature 47, no. 2 (summer 2001): 217-40.
[In the following essay, Pagnattaro discusses the legal definitions of obscenity confronted by James Joyce's 1922 novel Ulysses when its publication was challenged by U.S. courts.]
What did I tell you? raged Quinn. You're damned fools trying to get away with such a thing as “Ulysses” in this puritan-ridden country. … I don't think that anything can be done. I'll fight for you, but it's a lost cause. You're idiots, both of you. … You haven't an ounce of sense.
—Margaret Anderson, My Thirty Years' War (215)
As it turns out, great patron of the arts and prima donna lawyer John Quinn was right. Well, partly right. In 1921, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap were convicted of publishing “indecent matter”1 in The Little Review—the concluding part of “Nausicaa,” the thirteenth episode of Ulysses, in which Gerty MacDowell deliberately strikes a provocative pose for the concupiscent Leopold Bloom—and fined ＄50 each (Anderson, Thirty Years' War 221). Attempting to buttress the standing of The Little Review, Quinn produced three literary experts as witnesses to “testify that Ulysses in their...
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Criticism: Censorship And Sexual Politics
SOURCE: Parkes, Adam. “Lesbianism, History, and Censorship: The Well of Loneliness and the Suppressed Randiness of Virginia Woolf's Orlando.” Twentieth Century Literature 40, no. 4 (winter 1994): 434-60.
[In the following essay, Parkes compares the treatment of lesbian themes in The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, which was declared obscene by the British courts, and Orlando by Virginia Woolf, which was not.]
At Bow Street Magistrates Court on 16 November 1928, Sir Chartres Biron ordered the destruction of Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, a polemical novel pleading for social tolerance for lesbianism. It is tempting to think that Hall got into trouble simply for raising the issue of lesbianism, since female “sexual inversion” (as it was then known) was not legally recognized in early twentieth-century Britain. A proposal to extend to women the 1885 Labouchère Amendment, which outlawed “acts of gross indecency” between men, ran aground in the House of Commons in 1921 because, Samuel Hynes speculates, “men found it [lesbianism] too gross to deal with” (375). However, at least two other novels published in the autumn of 1928, Compton Mackenzie's Extraordinary Women and, more important, Virginia Woolf's Orlando, clearly broached the same subject, yet escaped official censure. In Hall's case the aggravating factor seems to have...
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SOURCE: Phillips, John. “Pornography, Poetry, Parody: Guillaume Apollinaire's Les Onze Mille Verges.” In Forbidden Fictions: Pornography and Censorship in Twentieth-Century French Literature, pp. 25-42. London: Pluto Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Phillips discusses Guillaume Apollinaire's pornographic novel, Les Onze Mille Verges, written in 1908 but not legally published until 1970, and considers how Apollinaire parodies the work of the Marquis de Sade.]
It was not until 1970 that the first legal edition of the pornographic novel, Les Onze Mille Verges, bearing the name of Guillaume Apollinaire, was published. The heirs to his estate had finally admitted the existence of the book, written over 60 years earlier, and which has been described as the most explicit and violent erotic novel ever written in French. As Jean-Jacques Pauvert observes, there was no immediate public outcry, although only two years previously, in 1968, the Commission de protection de l'enfance et de la jeunesse had attempted to prosecute Pauvert himself for illicit publication of the work, having found it to contain ‘une accumulation des vices les plus variés, l'érotisme, la pornographie et les perversions de tous genres y voisinant avec la scatologie et le sadisme’ (‘an accumulation of the most varied vices, with eroticism, pornography and perversions of all kinds mixed in with...
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Criticism: Censorship And War
SOURCE: Mayo, Marlene J. “Literary Reorientation in Occupied Japan: Incidents of Civil Censorship.” In Legacies and Ambiguities: Postwar Fiction and Culture in West Germany and Japan, edited by Ernestine Schlant and J. Thomas Rimer, pp. 135-61. Washington, D.C.: The Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, Mayo describes and analyzes the ways in which the U.S. occupying forces censored fiction and poetry by Japanese writers and how Japanese writers resisted and subverted attempts at censorship.]
From September 1945 to April 1952, political, economic, and psychological reorientation of occupied Japan was a conscious policy of the postwar American government. This included an ambitious program of ideological reprogramming in support of the American rise to globalism. Japan was in effect reconstituted as a giant reeducation camp under the supervision of General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers Japan (SCAP). The concrete aims were to end Japan's “feudal” concepts, characterized specifically as class stratification, glorification of the military, and subservience to authority, together with its racial consciousness and belief in divine mission, and to foster new beliefs, labeled as democracy, individual responsibility, and fair dealing.1 For the first four years, 1945 through 1949, as millions of overseas troops and civilians were repatriated,...
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SOURCE: Willis, J. H. Jr. “The Censored Language of War: Richard Aldington's Death of a Hero and Three Other War Novels of 1929.” Twentieth-Century Literature 45, no. 4 (winter 1999): 467-87.
[In the following essay, Willis considers how the political and cultural climate in Britain and America contributed to the censorship of four war novels by Richard Aldington, Erich Maria Remarque, Ernest Hemingway, and Frederick Manning.]
When Richard Aldington published his first novel, ironically titled Death of a Hero, in September 1929, he had his English publisher Chatto & Windus include a note on how his manuscript had differed from the printed text. In it he said:
To my astonishment, my publisher informed me that certain words, phrases, sentences, and even passages, are at present taboo in England. I have recorded nothing which I have not observed in human life, said nothing I do not believe to be true. I had not the slightest intention of appealing to any one's salacious instincts. … But I am bound to accept the opinion of those who are better acquainted with popular feelings than I am. At my request the publishers are removing what they believe would be considered objectionable, and are placing asterisks to show where omissions have been made. … In my opinion it is better for the book to appear mutilated than for me to say what I don't believe....
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Criticism: Political Censorship And The State
SOURCE: Gordimer, Nadine. “98 Kinds of Censorship.” The American PEN: An International Quarterly of Writing 5, no. 4 (fall 1973): 16-21.
[In the following polemical essay, Gordimer argues that South African censorship laws conspire with the apartheid government to both limit and silence writers' life experiences.]
South Africa has a Censorship Act that lists no less than 97 definitions of what it considers undesirable in literature. Two of my own novels have been banned under this Act. It contains no clause providing that the author of a banned book shall be told which of the 97 offenses his work has committed, so I cannot tell you why my books, or those of any other writer who has fallen foul of the Censors, were banned.
I have said elsewhere that writers in our country are a persecuted professional group. This is not an opinion but a statement of fact. Under legislation other than the Censorship Act, all the work, past, present and future, of an individual writer can be erased from South African literature by a ban on the spoken and written word of that writer; such a ban not only restricts his political activity, which is its avowed intention, but negates his creativity and his contribution to the cultural life of the country.
With all this gleaming legal cutlery poised over his head, the South African writer, whatever his color, faces a second set of problems,...
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SOURCE: Rothfeder, Herbert P. “Amt Schrifttumspflege: A Study in Literary Control.” German Studies Review 4, no. 1 (February 1981): 63-78.
[In the following essay, Rothfeder discusses how the totalitarian government of Nazi Germany deployed bureaucracy on national and local levels to effectively censor literature it considered problematic.]
Modern totalitarian dictatorships have developed the practice of censorship into a highly refined art. Through an interlocking network of party and state agencies, the opponents of the regime are denied a forum for expressing their views, while at the same time, ideology consistent with the government in power is fostered. The effectiveness of censorship depends on the interaction of the central organization with its local representatives. The largest, but certainly not the most powerful literary control agency in Nazi Germany was Amt Schrifttumspflege (Office for the Propagation of Literature).1 Because its operations encompassed such a wide range of activities, a study of this comparatively unknown organization throws more light on the workings of censorship in the Third Reich.
The origins of Amt Schrifttumspflege can be traced back to 1932, when the Landesleiter (Provincial Director) of the Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur2 (Fighting Association for German Culture; KfdK), Hans...
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SOURCE: Allen, Roger. “Arabic Fiction and the Quest for Freedom.” Journal of Arabic Literature 26, no. 1-2 (March-June 1995): 37-49.
[In the following essay, Allen compares the religious and political censorship of Arabic literature to the censorship of Western literature, discussing the treatment of writers in Arabic-speaking countries and how writers of Arabic literature confront and resist censorship in their work.]
I laugh in the dark, I cry in the dark; in the dark I also write till I no longer distinguish pen from finger. Every knock at the door, every rustle of the curtain, I cover my papers with my hand like a cheap tart in a police raid. From whom have I inherited this error, this blood as skittish as the mountain panther? No sooner do I spot an official form on the threshold or a helmet through a crack in the door than my bones and tears start to shudder, my blood scatters to the four winds as though some eternal squad of progeny police were chasing it from one vein to the next.
(from Muḥammad Māghūṭ, “Al-Washm,” from Al-Faraḥ laysa mihnatī.)
The topic chosen by a revered and beloved teacher is rich in potential significances. On the purely semantic level, the word “quest” implies the process of searching or looking for something, implying thereby, of course, that the entity that is the object of...
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SOURCE: Peterson, Geoffrey F. “The Soviet Censorship and Samizdat.” In The Images of the Twentieth Century in Literature, Media, and Society, edited by Steven Kaplan, pp. 79-84. Pueblo, Colo.: University of Colorado, 2000.
[In the following essay, Peterson explains how samizdat, or underground émigré publishing, functioned as a response to Soviet censorship in the twentieth century.]
On September 8, 1965, Andrei Sinyavsky was on his way to read a lecture at Moscow State University when he was arrested in the streets. As Sinyavsky recalled a few years ago, “A first arrest is almost like first love. You remember everything down to the smallest details. The last words my wife said to me before I left the house were, ‘Dear, we've run out of money. Maybe you could borrow from someone until you get your salary.’”1 For the next five months, Sinyavsky had no contact with his wife and son and did not know whether or not they had gotten money for food. During this time, he was held for interrogation along with his friend, Yuli Daniel, who had also been arrested under Article 70 of the Soviet Criminal Code, which states in part:
Agitation of propaganda carried out with the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime or in order to commit particularly dangerous crimes against the state, the dissemination for the said purposes of slanderous...
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Criticism: Censorship And The Writer
SOURCE: Scammell, Michael. “Interview with Joseph Brodsky.” In An Embarrassment of Tyrannies: Twenty-Five Years of Index on Censorship, edited by W. L. Webb and Rose Bell, pp. 51-7. London: Victor Gollancz, 1997.
[In the following interview, conducted in 1972, British journalist and translator Scammel speaks with Joseph Brodsky, a Russian poet who was sentenced to hard labor by the Soviet government before being expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972.]
[Scammell]: Joseph, when did you start writing poetry?
[Brodsky]: When I was 18.
Was your work ever published in the Soviet Union?
Yes, when I was 26 I had two poems published in the literary almanac, Young Leningrad. That was in 1966.
And how many poems have you had published since then in the Soviet Union?
When did it become clear to you that your poems were not going to be published generally in the Soviet Union and what was the effect of this realization upon you?
I must say that it was never really clear to me. I always thought that they would be published one day and so this idea has had no effect on me at all—not for the last ten years or so, at any rate.
Why do you think that your poems were not published while you were in the Soviet Union?...
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SOURCE: Coetzee, J. M. “Zbigniew Herbert and the Figure of the Censor.” In Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship, pp. 147-62. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Coetzee considers how censorship by the Communist Party has informed and shaped the poetry of Polish writer Zbigniew Herbert.]
Under pressure at the 1934 Soviet Writers' Congress to embrace socialist realism, Isaac Babel announced that he would prefer to practice “the genre of silence.”1 As a form of resistance to ideological prescription, the genre of silence was obdurately followed by a handful of Russia's leading writers. Widely interpreted as a refusal to accommodate their art to the demands of the state, their silence had an enduring moral and even political impact.
Until Stalin's death in 1953, and for a few years thereafter, writers in the Soviet Union and its satellite states had what Stanislaw Baranczak calls a “complex system of terrors, baits, lies and sophistic rationalizations” deployed against them.2 After 1956 the component of outright terrorization in this mixture diminished. Of the Hungarian variant of the new and more manipulative censorship that evolved, Miklos Haraszti wrote:
Traditional censorship presupposes the inherent opposition of creators and censors; the new censorship strives to eliminate this...
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Coetzee, J. M. “Censorship and Polemic: Solzhenitsyn.” In Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship, pp. 117-46. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Discusses the workings of Soviet censorship and how Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago, and recipient of the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature, responded.
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