Yesterday marked the start of the American Library Association’s annual “Banned Books Week.” In light of that, it’s a good time to celebrate the fact that ultra-conservative religious groups no longer have the power to determine what we read.
A little story about the bad old days is illustrative: In 1927, American novelist Sinclair Lewis published Elmer Gantry. This tale of a hypocritical preacher who prefers money, booze and women over saving souls is today considered a classic. But at the time, some folks didn’t take well to it.
Lewis was at the height of his creative powers when he wrote Elmer Gantry, and many critics consider it his finest work. But some Americans were furious that a writer would dare to satirize a member of the clergy and sought to suppress the novel.
Mark Schorer, a leading biographer of Lewis, describes what happened next: “The book, to the great advantage of its sales, was immediately banned in Boston….” It was also banned in Kansas City, Mo., Camden, N.J. and other cities. Public libraries would not stock it, and many booksellers announced that they would not carry it.
The popular evangelist Billy Sunday called Lewis “Satan’s cohort” and threatened to beat him up. Others favored legal action. Schorer writes that “one cleric suggested that a prison sentence of five years was clearly in order.”
A few outraged people lashed out directly at Lewis. The writer received a note inviting him to observe a lynching in Virginia – his own.
Some were able to find a little humor in the situation. Will Rogers wrote to The New York Times, “When I am playing in a town and it looks like there is not going to be much of a house, I announce through the papers that that night I will read passages from Elmer Gantry, the Baptist sheik, and the house will be packed with Methodist and Presbyterian women.”
In the end, the censorship efforts backfired. Within six weeks, Elmer Gantry had sold more than 175,000 copies. The would-be censors were left fuming, but they did not stop. Years later, groups like the Catholic Legion of Decency and the New England Watch and Ward Society still targeted “smutty” novels. Titles they went after included Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.
The decency crusaders also zeroed in on stage plays, and when movies became popular, they tried to censor those as well. They were often successful. Many cities had official censorship boards that were heavily influenced by conservative clerics.
The courts eventually put a stop to this wave of “vice suppression,” and the censorship boards were dismantled. But don’t think everything today is just fine. Public libraries and public schools remain in the Religious Right’s crosshairs. Last month, I wrote about a pastor in Cleveland, Texas, who is trying to remove “dangerous” books from the local library. Sadly, it’s not an isolated incident.
One way to celebrate Banned Books Week is to read a banned book. You can find a list of banned classics here. (Some of my favorites are on there.) That’s certainly a good way to mark the week. But don’t stop there. Once you’ve finished the book, resolve anew to stand up to anyone who would brazenly assault all that books give us and remember what is at stake – nothing less than the freedom to read, learn, understand and grow intellectually.