Secret Library

The Surprising Story of Literary Censorship

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews Matthew Fellion and Katherine Inglis’ study of literary censorship

Censored: A Literary History of Subversion & Control is a book that’s been sitting in my office for a long time now – an embarrassingly long time – since I was kindly sent a review copy by the British Library. This is not because I’ve been worried the book would not be both enjoyable and interesting (and, it turns out, it is both). But it’s the sort of book that, once I had picked it up, I feared would be hard to put down again. And now I’ve had a chance to give it the time it warrants, my fears were well-founded. Censored, co-authored by Matthew Fellion and Katherine Inglis, is that rare thing: an academic book written for both a specialist and a wider readership which manages to be informative, insightful, and interesting, with rigorous research underpinning its 25 (yes that’s right: twenty-five) case studies, ranging from early English Bibles and Fanny Hill to Persepolis.

And what case studies we find here, ranging from the well-known to the less obvious. All of the books one would expect to be covered in a book on literary censorship are here: Lolita, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Leaves of Grass, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ulysses, and The Well of Loneliness. But there are also many edifying chapters on books which are either less well-known (Frances Burney’s play The Witlings, for instance), or at least less well-known for having been censored (such as Shelley’s long poem Queen Mab or The History of Mary Prince).

The book is also, at numerous points, a record of changing social and political tastes. In the chapter on The Picture of Dorian Gray, for instance, it’s interesting to learn that a review of Wilde’s novel in the St James’s Gazette compared the scandalous novel to W. T. Stead’s sensational exposé of child prostitution, ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’, finding them both ‘corrupt but not dangerous’ and, more surprisingly, ‘incurably silly’. According to the reviewer, both were ‘catchpenny revelations of the non-existent’; the reviewer went on, as reviewers of this kind usually do, to recommend burning Wilde’s novel. In this chapter, I learned something I somehow didn’t know before, despite my long-standing admiration for Wilde’s novel: the name ‘Dorian’ was an allusion to the Dorian tribesmen, who practised pederasty.

Indeed, it’s frequently in the chapters on less high-profile banned books – and less well-known works of ‘literature’ – that Fellion and Inglis succeed in offering something surprising to the point of being jaw-dropping. For instance, in the chapter on the book Hit Man, we learn that a triple murder in 1993 in Maryland, which saw a hit man break into a family home and kill a mother, her eight-year-old son, and her son’s nurse, could be traced back to a mercenary husband eager to claim a two million dollar life insurance settlement for his wife and son’s death. The ensuing investigation eventually found a link between the murder and an instruction manual, Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors, which had been published in 1983.

What follows is a very timely discussion of the moral (and legal) responsibilities attendant on publishing such a manual: under the First Amendment, a publisher can legally defend their right to publish such a book, but this says nothing about the moral rectitude of doing so – or rather, the lack thereof. The author of Hit Man, Fellion and Inglis tell us, wasn’t a hit man – indeed, wasn’t a man at all. Instead, the (still anonymous) author was a divorced mother of two who pitched the idea for the book to the publisher, Paladin Press, as a fictional memoir, because she needed money to pay property taxes. Paladin suggested she turn the book into an instruction manual. It was published under the pseudonym ‘Rex Feral’. In the ensuing court case, the book was described as the assassin’s ‘blueprint for murder’. (Both the husband and the assassin he’d hired were found guilty.) The families of the victims then brought a law suit against Paladin Press for publishing Hit Man. The stage was set for a battle between the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment and the rights of the injured parties.

Astoundingly, the publisher readily admitted to marketing their books at criminals, with the intention of their manuals being used to carry out murder. They just happened to believe that their right to do so should be protected by the First Amendment. They were right: the judge found Hit Man to be reprehensible and ‘loathsome’, but the right to publish it fell under the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Given the current debates about the limits of free speech (and if there should be any: even the First Amendment makes exceptions for speech inciting imminent criminal action), this chapter of Censored seems especially relevant to our own times, perhaps even more so than it was in the 1990s. It’s worth noting that Fellion and Inglis see the Rice v. Paladin case as a turning point in legal attitudes to the First Amendment, and that the US has since banned the publication of certain kinds of criminal instruction manual.

This is just one of many eye-opening chapters in Censored: A Literary History of Subversion & Control, a well-researched, densely footnoted book, but it is also written in an accessible and engaging style, meaning it’s for a non-academic readership as well as an academic one. This is one book that shouldn’t be banned from your bookshelves; indeed, if you have an interest in the censorship of literature down the ages, whether as a literature fan or a specialist, this is a must-have book.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

5 Comments

  1. Great topic. You may know that Cleland wrote Fanny Hill (1749) to get $$ to bail out of debtor’s prison, made his $$, got out, and a few weeks later was thrown in jail for obsenity at a bishop’s request. Cleland’s smart-ass response? “I was surprised to be charged by Bishop xxx, as bishops are among my most avid readers” (paraphrase). A more recent curiosity is the 180-degree turn by liberals in my lifetime. When I was a kid in the 1960s and 70, libs were consistency in favor of wide-open speech while conservatives wanted to ban books. In the past decade, though, “woke progressives” have successfully had Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird banned in some school districts, have demanded that the Whitney Museum “remove and destroy” Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till solely because it was done by a white artist, and have adopted other ideas associated with the far right from those Civil Rights days (e.g., thanks to progressive activism, six of the Seven Sisters [fancy colleges like Barnard and Wellesley] now offer segregated housing that excludes all but the target minority group). It’s a strange world.

  2. I wonder if that book only lists banned books in English? What about book banning and destroying in Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia or other dictatorial states?

  3. What an interesting book.

  4. True story. I live in a small Colorado county with small towns that have schools. Back when the Harry Potter books were first published, one school banned them. Another school twenty miles away was giving the Harry Potter books away as prizes as incentives for kids to read. It just goes to show that one person’s banned book is another person’s treasure.

  5. Pingback: More censorship | Making Book

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