14 Scandalous Books That Changed the Face of Controversy

Long before video games and comic books became the targets of censors, Americans had to settle for censoring plain old books. “In the era before TV and movies completely overtook literature as the popular entertainment du jour… novels caused their fair share of scandals,” writes Alex Heimbach for Bustle. “In the U.S., books with explicit sexual content were often banned for obscenity, forcing authors to release their novels in France or Italy, where authorities were unconcerned with prosecuting English-language books, instead.”

Let’s take a closer look at some of the books in Heimbach’s list of 14 “scandalous” books…

Ulysses by James Joyce

Originally serialized in the American journal The Little Review from March 1918 to December 1920, Ulysses tells the story of Leopold Bloom and his various experiences as he travels through Dublin. Throughout the book, Joyce parallels the adventures of the protagonist to Homer’s epic of the same name — an aspect of the book that has made Ulysses one of the great classics of the modern era. However, in 1921 with the publication of several chapters describing characters in sexual situations, American society was in an uproar. The Little Review was refused distribution by the United States Post Office for its content, and the books were banned. The controversy surrounding Ulysses reached a peak when a young girl encountered the book, was offended by the content, and filed an official complaint against the magazine with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice saw the book to court and shortly thereafter it was declared “obscene,” the publishers of The Little Review were fined, and Ulysses was in effect banned from the United States.

It wasn’t until 1930 when Morris L. Ernst, the word’s leading authority on obscenity cases, took on the challenge of having the original 1921 obscenity charge rescinded. In a case called United States v. One Book Called “Ulysses,” Ernst brought the book before Judge John M. Woolsey–a lover of classic literature–and began his argument that the novel’s controversial scenes were not gratuitous descriptions of sex, but rather “honest” depictions necessary for Joyce to convey his intent behind the book. On December 6, 1933 Judge Woolsey ruled that Ulysses was neither obscene nor gratuitous:

I am quite aware that owing to some of its scenes Ulysses is a rather strong draught to ask some sensitive, though normal, persons to take. But my considered opinion, after long reflection, is that whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac. Ulysses may, therefore, be admitted into the United States… If one does not wish to associate with such folks as Joyce describes, that is one’s own choice.

A landmark case, the decision that came out of U.S. v. Ulysses laid the foundation for the three-prong Miller test which is still used by courts today when determining what can be considered legally “obscene.”

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

Since the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988, award-winning author Salman Rushdie has faced death threats and even exile due to the book’s controversial content. Referencing aspects of the Islamic religion and the Prophet Muhammad, the book incited upset from the Muslim community and to this day remains considered blasphemous in some circles.

Despite the hostile reception of the book, Rushdie has become, and continues to be, a fervent advocate for free speech. In a recent interview with the French magazine L’Express regarding the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo office earlier this year, Rushdie argued that the satire magazine and public learned the wrong lesson from the attacks–what we have learned is to be cautious in the face of fear as opposed to standing strong to exercise our right to free speech. “What no one talks about is the fear,” Rushdie said. “If people weren’t being killed right now, if bombs and Kalashnikovs weren’t speaking today, the debate would be very different. Fear is being disguised as respect.”

Rushdie has used this argument as the fuel for his literary and advocacy work. “Why can’t we debate Islam?” Rushdie asks. “It is possible to respect individuals, to protect them from intolerance, while being skeptical about their ideas, even criticising them ferociously.” Rushdie’s argument is one that could be applied to talking about Charlie Hebdo or defending his novel The Satanic Verses.

And Tango Makes Three written by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson

In 2014, the children’s book based on the true story of a baby penguin and her two dads–And Tango Makes Three–was ranked number three on the ALA’s most frequently challenged list. Citing references to the homosexual family situation, the book has been accused by challengers of promoting anti-family values and adverse political and religious viewpoints and has seen bans in schools and libraries across the United States and around the world.

Despite the challenges that the book has faced, though, free speech advocates continue to support and fight for the book to remain included in libraries and schools, noting the importance of having a diverse collection of titles available for patrons from all walks of life. “I think librarians are like First Amendment warriors, and they try so hard to fight for free speech,” said Tim Federle, author of Better Nate than Ever which also focuses on a young protagonist learning about his own sexuality. “And my issue has not been coming up against librarians so much as sort of occasionally scared school boards who don’t want parents saying, ‘Why is this book featuring a diverse character?’”

To celebrate Banned Books Week and the book in 2012, Stephanie Hartwell-Mandella, the Children’s Librarian at Katonah Village Library performed a virtual read-out of And Tango Makes Three.

Forever by Judy Blume

“Parents are getting cuckoo,” critcally acclaimed YA author Judy Blume said in an interview with Seth Meyers on Late Night regarding the rising trend in parents’ knee-jerk reaction to censor books that their children read. Blume’s own novel Forever met with controversy when the publisher was unable to find a suitable category to classify the book under; it was a little too old for children, but not something that would necessarily be read by adults. Today we have the Young Adult (YA) classification, but in 1975 “there was no such thing. I was writing books for young readers,” Blume noted. “Maybe if Forever were published now, it would be published YA. Certainly it would be. My publishers didn’t know what to do with it.”

In light of the experiences with censorship that Blume herself has faced, she has become a strong advocate for children’s rights to read and uses her status to speak out about the dangers of taking books away from children. According to Blume, “a lot of people will want to control everything in their children’s lives, or everything in other people’s children’s lives” by attempting to have books banned from schools and libraries, but they are only hurting their children. Blume has one piece of advice for both children and parents when it comes to reading; “I say go and read. Read what you like to read.”

See the full list of scandalous books included on Bustle’s list here.

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!