Censorship in Twentieth-Century Literature Essay - Critical Essays

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.

Representative Works

Anna Akhmatova
Stikhotvoreniya, 1909-1957 (poetry) 1958
Poema Bez Geroya; Triptykh [Poem Without a Hero; Triptych] (poetry) 1960

Richard Aldington
Death of a Hero (novel) 1929

Guillaume Apollinaire
Les exploits d'un jeune Don Juan (novel) 1907
Les onze mille verges (novel) 1908

Djuna Barnes
Ryder (novel) 1928

Breyten Breytenbach
And Death White As Words: An Anthology of the Poetry of Breyten Breytenbach (poetry) 1977

Joseph Brodsky
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

Erskine Caldwell
God's Little Acre (novel) 1933

Theodore Dreiser
The Genius (novel) 1915

Jean Genet
Notre-Dame-Des-Fleurs [Our Lady of the Flowers] (novel) 1942
Journal du voleur [The Thief's Journal] (novel) 1949

Allen Ginsberg
Howl, and Other Poems (poetry) 1956


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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

W. L. Webb (essay date 1972)

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...

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Mark I. West (essay date winter 1999)

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...

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Criticism: Censorship And Obscenity Trials

E. R. Hutchison (essay date 1968)

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.]


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Maurice Girodias, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsburg, Carl Solomon, and James Grauerholz (essay date 1980)

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...

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Rachel Bowlby (essay date 1992)

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...

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Marisa Anne Pagnattaro (essay date summer 2001)

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....

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Criticism: Censorship And Sexual Politics

Adam Parkes (essay date winter 1994)

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...

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John Phillips (essay date 1999)

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...

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Criticism: Censorship And War

Marlene J. Mayo (essay date 1991)

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...

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J. H. Willis Jr. (essay date winter 1999)

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...

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Criticism: Political Censorship And The State

Nadine Gordimer (essay date fall 1973)

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...

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Herbert P. Rothfeder (essay date February 1981)

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...

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Roger Allen (essay date March-June 1995)

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...

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Geoffrey F. Peterson (essay date 2000)

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...

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Criticism: Censorship And The Writer

Michael Scammell with Joseph Brodsky (interview date 1972)

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...

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J. M. Coetzee (essay date 1996)

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...

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Further Reading


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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