The history of banned books in the U.S. provides a list of must-reads of American literature. Among those works: The Scarlet Letter (1850), Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), The Great Gatsby (1925), Native Son (1940), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970), Beloved (1987), and many more. The roster of interdicted authors is broad and inclusive, too: women, Native Americans, African-Americans, as well as white men whose putative privilege has failed to obviate the fears of bluestockings and hanky-clutchers. Many of the banned authors wrote with a determination to right the wrongs of the American past, ranging from sexual hypocrisy to racism to mindless self-indulgence. Not that any of this matters to the new censors.  

In the past, it was the uptight, upright moralizers who proscribed the offending books. No longer. Today, the job is taken by timorous education officials in the name of sensitivity. Take To Kill a Mockingbird.  Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has just been banned from the school curriculum in Biloxi, Mississippi. “There were complaints about it,” explained board vice president Kenny Holloway. “There is some language in the book that makes people uncomfortable.” Mockingbird tells the story of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of rape in segregated 1930s Dixie. Neither the town jail nor the efforts of the incorruptible white attorney, Atticus Finch, can protect the victim from a lynch mob bent on murder. Of course there were complaints about the book; of course it made some readers uncomfortable. That’s the point of such books, to get people out of their “comfort zone.”

This is, alas, an old story. It took its most extreme form some 80 years ago, when Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels exhorted students shoveling loads of books onto a late-night bonfire. Among those volumes were works by Hemingway, Mann, Galsworthy, H.G. Wells, and Dostoyevsky. “You do well in this midnight hour to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past,” the minister shouted. “This is a strong, great, and symbolic deed.”

Goebbels, like many another censor before and after him, made the fatal error of believing that if books were destroyed, the ideas in them would perish. It’s a mistake now being committed in Biloxi, where, not that long ago, those who wanted to destroy freedom of thought wore white sheets and carried the banner of the Klan. Now they come in business suits and dresses, bearing bromides of “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces,” and “uncomfortable” works of art. They’re just the latest in a long and sorry tradition.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next