Banned Books, Burned Books: Forbidden Literary Works

Banned Books coverBanned Books, Burned Books: Forbidden Literary Works
Maureen Corrigan, PhD
Georgetown University
$49.95 when on sale at The Great Courses
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On the day before I watched the final lecture in this series an Associated Press article appeared in our local newspaper noting that the American Library Association (ALA) counted more than 1,200 book challenges in 2022, nearly double the 2021 count and “by far the most since the ALA began keeping data twenty years ago.”

This lecture series by Maureen Corrigan, then, is disturbingly relevant. If you listen to National Public Radio you know Corrigan from her book reviews on the program Fresh Air. She is the ideal guide on this journey. In twenty-four lectures she discusses in detail the history of attempts to ban and censor books. While the drive to ban books is very much in the news today, Corrigan makes clear these attempts are far from new. In her first lecture, she discusses attempts to sanitize Shakespeare. One Thomas Bowdler’s name appears on the title page of The Family Shakespeare, published in 1818, although he may not have done most of the work himself. The book removes sexual references and puns, changes plot lines, and removes entire characters. Bowdler has earned his place in literary history with his name becoming both a verb and an adjective (“to bowdlerize a text” and “a bowdlerized text”). As a classics major I am familiar with Edith Hamilton and her famous bowdlerization of Greek myths.

Corrigan discusses the Inquisition, the Puritans, and nineteenth century attempts at censorship, although most of the topics she covers are from the twentieth century and the current century. She describes the debates over Ulysses by James Joyce and Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence. In the case of Ulysses, the publisher made a point of getting it seized when it came through customs from its European printer, simply to get the inevitable court case out of the way.

Corrigan pays attention in detail to the works one might expect: Huckleberry Finn, A Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird. But she also spends a lecture on attempts to bowdlerize or censor fairy tales and another on the controversies created by Young Adult (YA) books with their depictions of sexuality and violence. She points out that the YA genre did not exist until the publication of The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton in 1967.

One lecture focuses on authors being “canceled” on account of their personal actions, having nothing to do with their published works. Corrigan discusses the case of Blake Bailey who wrote a definitive biography of Philip Roth. After publication, accusations of Bailey’s sexual misconduct arose and the publisher withdrew the book from sale. This is a thorny issue without a simple resolution, and I devoted a blog post to this topic, in which I discussed my own dilemma regarding the fantasy novel The Mists of Avalon, whose author, Marion Zimmer Bradley, turns out to have engaged in child abuse.

The Harry Potter series receives a full lecture in which Corrigan describes protests not only on account of the magic and witchcraft, but more recently because of author J. K. Rowling’s expressed views on transgender people. Corrigan also addresses the issue of the graphic novel (which she considers a legitimate and valuable genre) by examining the controversy over the book Fun Home.

Maureen Corrigan offers a nuanced and balanced reflection on the topic of book banning and censorship and is careful to point out that such calls can come from the left as well as the right. If this topic is important to you Banned Books, Burned Books: Forbidden Literary Works is well worth your time and money.

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