Next week, on Feb. 18 at 7 p.m., Dr. Joey Senat will present "Popular Intolerance and Political Cowardice: Stepping Stones to a ‘Fahrenheit 451’ Future” where he’ll discuss censorship that occurs today, the meaning of the First Amendment and the public's ignorance of First Amendment rights. Last week, I discussed censorship in the form of some of the most significant acts of book burning throughout history.
This week, I’m looking at incidents in our own country. In the last 15 years, Harry Potter has been the fuel for multiple pyres, along with books by Shirley MacLaine and psychic Edgar Cayce. A Cleveland radio station even held a joke-burning of “50 Shades of Grey.” These incidents have been the result of individuals, but our country has certainly seen its share of state sponsored book burning as well.
The first known book burning in the “U.S.” was William Pynchon's 1650 book, “A Meritorious Price of Our Redemption.” The book, which was published in England and made its way to the new world, horrified the Massachusetts General Court. Containing heresy and errors in its criticism of Puritan doctrines, the book was ordered burned by the public executioner.
In 1873, Anthony Comstock, U.S. Postal Inspector, created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, whose organizational seal included a scene of a public book burning. The society influenced Congress to pass Comstock Act which outlawed the ownership and delivery of “obscene” material though the U.S. mail including items like birth control materials written by Margaret Sanger and “The Canterbury Tales.” Fifteen tons of material may have been burned under the law, but Comstock claimed to have been responsible for the destruction of 160 tons of material and the arrest of more than 3000 people.
James Joyce created turmoil across the globe with every new book he wrote. In 1918, the magazine, “Little Review” published portions of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” The U.S. Post Office burned copies in its possession and the magazine’s publisher was eventually arrested for obscenity.
“An American Tragedy” by Theodore Dreiser is listed on Modern Library’s 100 best Novels of the 20th Century and Time’s list of best novels since 1923, but the book got no love from the library in Dreiser’s hometown of Warsaw, Indiana. The library trustees burned all of Dreiser’s work in 1935 due to their obscene and leftist content.
At the height of McCarthyism, the Senator had subversive and leftist books burned in overseas U.S. libraries. Following the incidents, President Eisenhower asked, “How will we defeat communism unless we know what it is, what it teaches, and why does it have such an appeal for men, why are so many people swearing allegiance to it?....And we have got to fight it with something better, not try to conceal the thinking of our own people. They are part of America. And even if they think ideas that are contrary to ours, their right to say them, their right to record them, and their right to have them at places where they're accessible to others is unquestioned, or it's not America.”
The last significant book burning happened in 1973 in North Dakota when the Drake Public School board had copies of “Slaughter House Five” burned in the school’s furnace after a student complained about the language it contained.
Other material order burned included "Deliverance," by James Dickey and "Short Story Masterpieces," with stories by Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. Many students refused to return their copies of the books and in a now famous letter, author Kurt Vonnegut wrote the school board president (who ironically had the last name McCarthy) the following:
“I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry from all over the country about what you have done. Well, you have discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your fellow Americans can’t stand it that you have behaved in such an uncivilized way. Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.”