Book Burning Analysis

At Issue

Books are often burned on the grounds that they contain subversive political or religious ideas, or include language and material not appropriate for young readers. Governments and organizations wishing to repress certain thoughts and ideas have faced a problem in censoring material that already has been printed. One solution has been the physical destruction of the printed matter, usually by fire. Books have also been deliberately ruined by water. The public burning of books often does more than merely destroy unwanted material, however, it can serve as an impressive expression of the power of the state, and as a unifying and exciting experience for the crowds that participate in the burnings.

Records of book burning date back thousand of years. Unhappy with the prophecies of Jeremiah, King Jehoiakim burned the first book of the prophet in 605 b.c.e. Jeremiah promptly rewrote the book. Another instance of mass book burning occurred in the third century b.c.e. in China. The first emperor of the Ts’in Dynasty ordered the works of Confucius destroyed. Less than thirty years later, the Emperor Shih huang-ti ordered all printed works in his empire destroyed except for those containing practical information, which would be housed in the Imperial Library. He hoped that the destruction of historical records would hamper the efforts of contenders to the throne. Although neither emperor was completely successful in his efforts, the possibility of losing the works of Confucius so frightened later Chinese rulers that they ordered the philosopher’s works carved on enormous stone tablets, impervious to flame.

Religious Burnings

Books condemned as heretical by various churches often have been burned. The Book of Acts in the Bible states that after hearing the ministry of Paul, the Ephesians burned books of “curious arts,” or magic, worth fifty thousand pieces of silver. The Christian church often targeted the works of other religions for burning. Monastic orders commanded the burning of Hebrew books in Egypt in 1190; the destruction of Hebrew books by Christian religious authorities continued for centuries. In Paris fifty years later the Talmud and other Hebrew works were denounced as blasphemous. Twenty-four carts were required to haul the condemned texts to the public burnings. In Florence in 1497 the cleric Girolamo Savonarola ordered the burning of the vanities, which included playing cards, dice, works of art, and the works of celebrated authors such as Dante and Giovanni Boccaccio. Savonarola and his works, in turn, were destroyed by fire the following year when the church condemned him as a heretic.

The works of Martin Luther were burned in St. Paul’s churchyard in England in 1521. Four years later copies of William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament were denounced and burned, making Tyndale the first Englishman to have his work destroyed on British soil. Luther’s translation of the Bible was denounced by the papacy and burned in Germany in 1624. During the years of the English Revolution, when Puritans controlled the British government, numerous religious tracts and pamphlets were publicly burned as heretical.

Puritan values also reached across the Atlantic. The first publicly burned book in North America was William Pynchon’s The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption (1650). Pynchon was among the leading citizens of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was founded on the principles of Puritanism. Originally published in London, Pynchon’s pamphlet contained theological arguments that deviated from Puritan orthodoxy. When copies became available in Massachusetts, the General Court condemned the work as heretical. Copies were burned in the Boston marketplace on October 20, 1650. Pynchon soon departed for England.

Political Burnings

Burnings also occur in the context of military conquest or political revolution. The new ruler destroys the remnants of the old regime in order to eradicate possible subversive influences and to display the power of the new state. In the early years of the French Revolution the books of the monasteries were gathered and destroyed; estimates for those burnings run as high as four million books and twenty five thousand manuscripts. Governments have also destroyed pamphlets and manuscripts that question their legitimacy. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries England witnessed a number of burnings as the kings and queens of that nation burned material that criticized the monarchy. In 1614 King James I ordered Sir Walter Ralegh’s History of the World (1614) burned for “being too saucy in censuring princes.” During the Restoration several authors, including John Milton, had their political tracts burned by the command of King Charles II.

The Spanish military conquest of the Yucatan Peninsula met with resistance and revolts. Determined to force the Maya to convert to Christianity and obey Spanish rule, the Spanish proceeded to annihilate the remnants of Mayan culture. The Spanish targeted the sacred books of the Jaguar Priests, which were actually deerskin and bark inscribed with hieroglyphics. Bishop Diego de Landa enacted a policy of burning the sacred texts. While historians debate the veracity of the tale of a massive book burning directed by Landa in Mani in 1562, they agree that Landa participated in many burnings. Landa condemned the sacred texts as the work of the devil and reported that their destruction caused great dismay among the Maya.

The Nazi Burnings

In May, 1933, four months after the Nazis came to power, huge bonfires burned thousands of books in cities throughout Germany. The new regime had announced that only “good art,” art that served the people, would be tolerated. In response to this pronouncement, the German Student’s Corporation planned the mass book burnings. The largest was a well-organized event held in Berlin. A torchlight parade of five thousand students marched into the Franz Joseph Plaza and ignited a huge mound of wood. Trucks and oxcarts hauled the condemned books into the plaza, where crowds of enthusiastic students pitched them into the bonfire. Nearly forty thousand people assembled to watch the burning. At midnight Nazi official Joseph Goebbels spoke to the crowd and announced that Germany had been cleansed and that a new era had begun.

Burned books included works by the German authors Karl Marx, Thomas Mann, and Erich Maria Remarque. Works by foreign corrupters such as Ernest Hemingway, André Gide, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, and Margaret Sanger were thrown into the flames. Smaller book burnings continued throughout Germany. After the Germans conquered Austria in 1938, the libraries in that nation were stripped of controversial works, which were then burned.

In the repressive atmosphere of the Third Reich the burnings generated no strong criticism. Many professors supported the burnings, and at most Germans rationalized the burnings as the work of...

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The disturbing features of book burning, however, did not end the practice. While the United States government did not sanction book burning, individuals and groups continued to burn books they found objectionable. The conflict shifted from national governments to school boards as most of the burned books came from public school libraries. With the rise of Fundamentalist religious groups in the twentieth century, books were often condemned as blasphemous or immoral, often on the grounds that they contained obscene language or inappropriate sexual content.

One case that garnered national attention occurred in 1974 in Drake, North Dakota. A high school English teacher assigned Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), James Dickey’s Deliverance (1970), and a short- story anthology. The school board pronounced the books dirty, fired the teacher, and ordered the books burned. The public burning of Slaughterhouse-Five generated so much negative publicity that the school board rescinded the order. The school superintendent claimed that the school board’s actions had been proper. The teacher filed a lawsuit and won an out-of-court settlement.

Despite the reaction to the Drake burning, the destruction of books continued in the United States. In 1977 John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937) was burned in Pennsylvania, and in 1981 copies of National Geographic magazine and several comic books were burned in Omaha, Nebraska. The children’s books Cinderella and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs were reported burned in Louisiana in 1982 because they contained references to witches. In 1993 a crowd assembled on the steps of the school district building in Kansas City and burned a single copy of a juvenile book that offered a positive portrayal of lesbianism. A telephone poll conducted after the burning revealed that 50 percent of the respondents approved of the incident. However, many high school students protested the event by checking thousands of books out of school libraries to illustrate how empty library shelves would be if controversial books did not exist.

Fundamentalist book burnings are not merely an American phenomenon. After the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemned Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) and called for Rushdie’s assassination, Islamic fundamentalists in the British town of Bradford burned copies of the novel in the streets in early 1989.


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

A comprehensive survey of book burning as a form of censorship remains to be written. Readers interested in the topic should refer to works on banned literature for chapters or articles on book burning. Some works that include material on book burning include Anne Lyon Haight’s Banned Books: Informal Notes on Some Books Banned for Various Reasons at Various Times and in Various Places (New York: R. R. Bowker, 1970). Marc Drogin’s Biblioclasm: The Mythical Origins, Magic Powers, and Perishability of the Written Word (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1989) contains a short chapter on book burning. For China in the eighteenth century, see Luther Carrington Goodrich’s The Literary Inquisition of Ch’ien- Lung (New York: Paragon Book Reprint, 1966). On English book burnings, see Charles Ripley Gillett’s Burned Books: Neglected Chapters in British History and Literature (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1964).