Banned Book Club: Les Fleurs du Mal

Title: The Flowers of Evil

Published: 1857

Author: Charles Baudelaire

Challenge status: After publication of the book, both the author and the publisher were prosecuted for the French equivalent of obscenity, aka “outrage aux bonnes mœurs” (trans. “an insult to public decency”). Baudelaire was fined, and six poems were formally banned from publication/dissemnation: “Lesbos”, “Femmes damnés”, “Le Léthé”, “À celle qui est trop gaie”, “Les Bijoux”, and ” Les “Métamorphoses du Vampire”. The ban was not lifted in France until 1949; a second French edition was published in 1861 (with the suppressed poems removed, and new poems added). The censored poems were published in Brussels, in a volume called “Les Épaves” (Scraps). Book #44 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why: Too sexy, Charles

First line: From the first poem, “Bénédiction“:

”Lorsque, par un décret des puissances suprêmes / Le Poète apparaît en ce monde ennuyé / Sa mère épouvantée et pleine de blasphèmes / Crispe ses poings vers Dieu, qui la prend en pitié…”

When, on a certain day, into this harassed world / The Poet, by decree of the high powers, was born, / His mother, overwhelmed by shame and fury, hurled / These blasphemies at God, clenching her fists in scorn…” (Edna St. Vincent Millay translation)


You didn’t think i was going to end with a D.H. Lawrence book, did you?

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Banned Book Club: Sons and Lovers

Title: Sons and Lovers

Published: 1913

Author: D.H. Lawrence

Challenge status: #64 on Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, and frequent target of banning attempts (frequently challenged classics) according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #43 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why: Ok. This made me laugh out loud so here’s the quote verbatim:In 1961 an Oklahoma City group called Mothers United for Decency hired a trailer, dubbed it “smutmobile,” and displayed books deemed objectionable, including Lawrence’s novel“. I’ve looked for some other references: Wikipedia says it was banned as obscenity but I don’t see a source, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and The Rainbow seem to get more of the censorship press. Let’s go with “controversial” and/or “allegedly obscene” on this one.

First line: ”’The Bottoms’ succeeded to ‘Hell Row’”.


As you may remember from Women in Love, D.H. Lawrence is not my favorite author. But, this book was all that was standing between me and clearing the ALA OIF Frequently Challenged Classics list, so here we are.

Published in his 20’s, Sons and Lovers is considered by many critics to be Lawrence’s strongest work – though the infamy and popularity of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and some of his other, later works ended up eclipsing this novel. Loosely autobiographical, it is probably the best one to start with if you are going to review Lawrence’s books as a broader set of narratives, as we are able to grow with the protagonist Paul Morel – from birth through adulthood.

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Banned Book Club: Leaves of Grass

Title: Leaves of Grass

Published: 1855

Author: Walt Whitman

Challenge status: After Leaves of Grass was originally published, the Boston District Attorney and the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice worked to block publication of further copies/editions, and got retailers and bookshops to blackball the book. “With the single known exception of the Library Company of Philadelphia, libraries refused to buy the book, and the poem was legally banned in Boston in the 1880s and informally banned elsewhere“. Book #42 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why: Too sensual. Even with a LOT of allegory, Whitman was writing not just about love, but about sex, and very clearly. The outrage was such that the book was panned by critics, was the grounds for Whitman’s dismissal from his job (Whitman worked for the Department of the Interior, but was fired after Secretary of the Interior James Harlan read and was offended by the book), and the source of rumors around Whitman’s sexuality (historians are still arguing about his possible bisexual or homosexual tendencies).

First line (from Song of Myself): ”I celebrate myself, and sing myself / And what I assume you shall assume / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”


Whitman is, for all intents and purposes, the father of American poetry – and Leaves of Grass represents his life’s work. I would describe Whitman as a romantic naturalist. Meaning, he pulls in a lot of pastoral scenes and metaphors; his work is romantic (not always sentimental, though) and lush, effulgent, fecund – always an homage to fertility. Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of his influences. Incidentally, both Emerson & Mark Twain defended Leaves of Grass from critics/censors.

I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you, And you must not be abased to the other. — Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, “Song of Myself”

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Banned Book Club: The Color of Earth

Title: The Color of Earth (First book in the The Story of Life on the Golden Fields trilogy)

Published: 2003 (in Korea), 2009 (English translation)

Author: Kim Dong Hwa

Challenge status: In 2011, #2 most challenged book as tracked by ALA/OIF. Book #41 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why: Some of the reasons given for challenges were: nudity, sex education, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group.

First line: ”Them beetles are matin’.”


Ehwa lives with her mother in a small rural village. Every Spring, Ehwa learns a little more about life, and love – the book starts with her at age eight and follows her through puberty via a series of vignettes. If you can imagine Judy Blume’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” set in rural Korea, as a prettily illustrated graphic novel, with a little more lyricism and a little less suburbia, you’ll have a sense of it.

Note: Speaking of frequently challenged books and their authors: Judy Blume has five books on The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990 to 1999 list: Forever (7), Blubber (30), Deenie (42), Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (60), and Tiger Eyes (89).

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Banned Book Club: Howl

Title: Howl

Published: 1955/1956

Author: Allen Ginsberg

Challenge status: In 1957, 520 copies of the work being imported (from London) were seized by customs, and  the poem was the subject of an obscenity trial. City Lights bookstore in San Francisco was publishing/selling the book, and clerk Shig Murao was arrested and jailed after selling a copy to an undercover police officer. City Lights co-founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the publisher, was also arrested – the work, Murao, and Ferlinghetti were eventually acquitted, after a highly publicized trial. Book #40 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why: References to sex (graphic – both heterosexual & homosexual), and drugs

First line: ”I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,”


I do love me some poetry. I’m not a particularly skilled analyst of the Beats, though. I love how Howl is so clearly “of America” and speaks so clearly from a certain time period. A lot of poetry tends towards the pastoral and I do appreciate the more urban and political elements.

Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! – Allen Ginsberg, Howl

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Banned Book Club: Naked Lunch

Title: Naked Lunch

Published: 1959

Author: William Burroughs

Challenge status: Naked Lunch is #73 on Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, and frequent target of banning attempts (frequently challenged classics) according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #39 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why: Labeled as obscenity in Boston, MA Superior Court (1965), the following year the decision was reversed by the State Supreme Court. The book was originally published in Paris (1959), but a U.S. version wasn’t published until 1962, purportedly due to concern over U.S. obscenity laws – Naked Lunch was one of the most recent books to be tried as obscenity. Here’s an excerpt from the transcript of the Boston trial Mailer & Ginsberg are interviewed/deposed. Sounds like the California case (the book was also censored in Los Angeles) ended up getting overturned w/out going to trial. In Australia, it was banned by Customs after an imported copy was seized and labeled as  ‘hard-core pornography’ (Port Adelaide, 1960); it was released from the prohibited list in 1973.

First line: ”I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch and uptown A train…Young, good looking, crew cut, Ivy League, advertising exec type fruit holds the door back for me.”


Welp, so, how to describe this without “spoiling” any of it? Let’s start with this: Naked Lunch is the most disgusting book I’ve ever read. I’m trying to decide if it’s also the most disturbing. Difficult to say, I’ve read a lot of disturbing books.

What does that mean? Reading it is kind of like having a really graphic, vivid nightmare of drowning, and as you struggle to wake up, someone is firmly holding you under. I can see what all the fuss was about with the censors, if ever there was a book that needed a trigger warning, it’s this one. I wasn’t looking forward to it, having several years watched quite a bit of a movie adaptation (I think now it was the Cronenberg one, but I’m not eager to confirm).

The study of thinking machines teaches us more about the brain than we can learn by introspective methods. Western man is externalizing himself in the form of gadgets. – William S Burroughs, Naked Lunch

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Banned Book Club: Brideshead Revisited

Title: Brideshead Revisited

Published: 1945

Author: Evelyn Waugh

Challenge status: Brideshead Revisited is #74 on Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, and frequent target of banning attempts (frequently challenged classics) according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #38 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why: An interesting case. I could not find specific challenges, but everyone on the internet seems to quote the wording from ALA OIF verbatim, the “challenge” described there is blanket (not specific to Waugh’s book) but Very Severe. In 2004, Gerald Allen (R) brought a bill to the Alabama state legislature to “ban the use of state funds to purchase any books or other materials that “promote homosexuality”.” Allen’s argument is that the ban would not have constituted censorship, but instead was an attempt to “encourage and protect our culture”, and prevent the immoral ideas (i.e. homosexuality) to from spreading and facilitating the “re-engineering [of] society’s fabric in the minds of our children”. More coverage on that (failed) legislation here, here, and here.

First line: ”When I reached ‘C’ Company lines, which were at the top of the hill, I paused and looked back at the camp, just coming into full view below me through the grey mist of early morning.”


I had no idea what the book was about when I started reading, I kind of despaired when I got started because the book opens up on some vaguely military-esque goings on in London in the WWII range (I sure have read a lot of books about WWII lately), but it turns out this book had pretty much nothing to do with the war, and everything to do with high society pre-war leading up to WWII. In fact the first part of the book takes place at college (in Oxford), where aristocratic boys will be aristocratic boys.

Regarding the themes that might concern potential censors: the “homosexual lifestyle” is vaguely referred to, and not disapprovingly, but sort of matter-of-factly. The relationship between Charles Ryder (the main character) and his college buddy Sebastian is clearly some kind of love that borders on romantic but the protagonists never suggests any kind of actual consummation.  Some of the male characters “take up” with other gentlemen; live with them, travel with them – but details are not discussed. Which fits in context: extra-marital affairs are also described off-handedly, fodder for idle gossip (the scandal!) but never described in depth. I expect the tele-series (featuring Jeremy Irons, looking very louche) probably sets-up that aspect of the narrative a little more explicitly (more info here: Brideshead Revisited Series).

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Banned Book Club: The Naked and the Dead

Title: The Naked and the Dead

Published: 1948

Author: Norman Mailer

Challenge status: Pulitzer prize-winning author Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead is #80 on Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, and frequent target of banning attempts (frequently challenged classics) according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #37 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why: In 1949, the book was banned in Canada and Australia – ostensibly for language, though Mailer was also mocked for his use of the word “fug” as a replacement for the more typical expletive. In Canada the book was banned by the Minister of National Revenue, who thought the book was “disgusting” (he hadn’t read it).

First line: ”Nobody could sleep.”


The book is impressive and imposing even quietly at rest, given it’s heft (721 pages). Mailer wrote the book, considered one of the best novelistic account of WWII, after a two-year term deployed in the Philippines. Mailer was only 25 when he wrote the book, which became immensely popular, though with mixed reviews as to the full quality of the book. Gore Vidal skewered it, and Mailer himself sounded a bit apologetic in his introduction to the 50th Anniversary Edition (published before he passed away in 2007).

Regardless – the book weaves together a chorus of voices into a story about a platoon of American soldiers who are engaged in battle versus the Japanese for possession of the island of Anopopei. I understand now where Tom Clancy’s style might have emerged. Like Catch-22, the story takes form bouncing from point-of-view to point-of-view, and also makes timeline switches. The main story is told sequentially, from the evening before their first landing on the island, all the way through to a post-campaign wrap-up. Woven in are flashbacks, by character, to their lives before they had joined the Army, to provide context and depth.

They were dopes. And he was alone, a wise man without a skin. – Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead

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Banned Book Club: Rabbit, Run

Title: Rabbit, Run

Published: 1950

Author: John Updike

Challenge status: Pulitzer prize-winning author John Updike’s Rabbit, Run is #97 on Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, and frequent target of banning attempts (frequently challenged classics) according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #36 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why: Labeled as obscenity (for sex scenes and promiscuity) and banned in Ireland (1962) by the Irish Board of Censors, but apparently was allowed into circulation in 1967.  This board, btw, apparently still exists – meets in secret BUT is required to review all submissions (some cheek whoever submitted a complaint regarding the Bible, in 1988). In the US, was challenged in Maine (1976) and Wyoming (1986) – the Maine students were allowed to read it if parents granted permission. (Well, the whole story felt remarkably like a field trip…)

First line: ”Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a back-board bolted to it.”


John Updike is a fantastic writer. His protagonist Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is so unlikeable, though. I would have rather been re-reading The Witches of Eastwick. Or watching Eminem playing the role of Rabbit in 8-Mile. Pretty much a lot of other things I would have done w/that time, but, I finished it so let me tell you all about it.

Rabbit is a character that is all “id” and no shame. Nearly a sociopath in tendency. In some ways, he’s exactly what every moralistic movie tells us about the high school popular stud sports star: that in 10, 20, 30 years he’ll still be reliving his glory days, always looking back at the zenith of his life’s achievements. Mix that cocktail with the sort of dull disillusionment of a young man’s late 20’s, after following in lockstep exactly what his parents probably thought he ought to have done: graduated, maybe spent some time in the military or in college, get a job, get married have a kid…and live happily and predictably ever after.

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Banned Book Club: A Separate Peace

Title: A Separate Peace

Published: 1959

Author: John Knowles

Challenge status: #67 on Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, and frequent target of banning attempts (frequently challenged classics) according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #35 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why: Challenged in New York (1980 – Vernon-Verona-Sherill school district, AGAIN, what’s up VVS?) as a “filthy, trashy sex novel.” Challenged in Pennsylvania (1985, Tennessee (1989), Illinois (1991), and North Carolina (1996) for offensive language/profanity. Also challenged in Illinois (different city, also ’91) for not only profanity, but also “negative attitudes”. (Hmm. Indeed.)

First line: ”I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before.”


A Separate Peace is a lovely book, written well and subtly for young adults, about two teenagers at a private boarding school (pretty clearly a variant of Exeter) heading into their senior years. The book is compelling not only because it occurs not only at a pivotal time in the boys’ lives (as they are in the transition period between boyhood and adulthood), but also because it’s at such a specific point in time: during World War II.

In many ways this is a “normal” story: two boys who are best friends, but also rivals, negotiating their relationship through social and academic pressures. Part of the tension comes from the fact they care about each other so much – but “love” is not a comfortable expression, but also they’re not quite sure of each other. Ambitions and values are still fluid, not quite solid enough to make their alliance and brotherhood entirely comfortable.

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