Many classics struggle to stand the test of time and face much criticism after their initial publication. These ground-breaking authors dared to push the boundary in literature, resulting in censorship and restriction. Here are some classic examples that faced such scrutiny.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Steinbeck’s acclaimed novella Of Mice and Men has been a popular target for censorship due to its racial themes and language. It has remained a favoured choice on literature curricula around the world for its frank yet simplistic discussions of race, mental illness and class during 1930s America. Despite its regard as an American classic, some critics have argued that the novella’s content is not suitable for the school age children and has been challenged fifty-four times since its initial publication in 1936. Steinbeck’s characters are rooted in realism, following the otherwise unextraordinary George and Lennie as they try to succeed in a society which overlooks and rejects them. Its significance lies in the portrayal of complex issues in a digestible and honest way, without diminishing or endorsing the hardships, but merely observing life as it was.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is a controversial novel, written in 1955, about Humbert Humbert and his obsession – and subsequent sexual relationship – with 12-year-old Lolita. The novel was first published in France, despite being written in English, due to difficulties of finding a British publisher.
After its publication, the book was banned in England and France for two years. When it was eventually published in England in 1959, the controversy was enough to contribute towards the end of one Conservative MP's career due to his connection with the book's publisher.
Although initially dismissed as a "lewd" book, critics came to see the book's literary value. Nabokov uses Humbert as an unreliable narrator, and yet the narration is so eloquent and seductive that it draws the reader into its repulsive narrative, contrasting the horror of the novel with its evocative and elaborate style.
Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg
Published in 1956, the poetry collection of Howl and Other Poems was a ground-breaking release during the Beat Generation. Just a year after it was published the poetry book went under mass scrutiny during the 1957 Obscenity Trial. This was a long, high profile case which was widely publicised. Shig Murao and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were arrested for publishing it. They were both defendants at the trial, amongst many other literary experts testifying in favour of Howl. Eventually, this led to success with the California State Supreme Court ruling Howl to be of social importance and not obscene.
Howl vividly explores sexuality with homosexual and heterosexual practices, along with references to drugs, causing for the obscene label. Despite the highly profiled court case, Howl arguably remains one of the best pieces in American literature.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Solzhenitsyn’s innovative story was first published in 1962, in the Soviet literary magazine Novy Mir, as part of Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization program. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich instantly became a literary phenomenon, catalysing a wave of camp literature which sought to expose the brutal realities of Stalinist repression inside the Gulag system.
The novel follows the day in the life of prisoner Ivan Denisovich Shukho in a 1950s Soviet labour camp. Solzhenitsyn had first-hand experience of life in a Gulag, having been imprisoned in a forced labour camp from 1945-1953. By the 1960s, libraries had started to withdraw copies of One Day from circulation and by 1974 all of Solzhenitsyn’s works were banned across the Soviet Union, with the man himself being arrested and deported that same year. To this day One Day is regarded as the most realistic and damning indictment of the Soviet Gulags - so if you’re interested in history, this is definitely a must read.
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
American Pyscho by Bret Easton Ellis has long been criticised for its disturbing content and graphic depictions of violence against women, which go far beyond anything featured in the film adaptation. Just months before the book’s anticipated 1991 publication date, Simon & Schuster famously decided to drop American Psycho due to the controversy surrounding it. It was eventually published by Vintage Books and has been dividing readers and critics ever since.
Under national censorship legislation in Australia, American Psycho has a “restricted classification” and must only “be sold in a sealed wrapper” to those over eighteen. In 2015, a bookshop in Adelaide was reported to police for breaching this legislation and selling copies of the novel without its plastic wrapping. Similarly, Germany also saw restrictions in place around the sale of AmericanPsycho up until 2000, with the book widely considered inappropriate for those under eighteen.