Censorship in Twentieth-Century Literature Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.