A few months ago, Salman Rushdie visited my school to talk about politics and art. Rushdie – whose allegedly “blasphemous” novel The Satanic Verses led to a fatwa calling for his death from Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran – said that authors often do not write with a political agenda in mind, but instead controversy is forced upon their literature by external powers.
American books banned in other countries reflect the phenomenon that art often gains political or ideological meaning from context. Whether the historical backdrop is a World War or the Cold War, these five extraordinary novels threatened those in power for their ideological content, whether or not the authors intentionally wrote in such messages.
1. The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Published in 1903, The Call of the Wild is a story about a domesticated dog named Buck who is forced to work under brutal conditions as an Alaskan sled dog during the 19th-century Klondike Gold Rush. By learning to survive and become leader of the pack, Buck taps into his in-born violence and “returns to nature.” It was banned in Yugoslavia and Italy in 1929 for being “too radical,” and burned in Nazi bonfires along with other London works in 1933. While foreign powers gave cryptic reasons for censorship, The Call of the Wild is often seen as dangerous for targeting a teenage audience with an accessible dog protagonist while promoting a pessimistic view of human nature as brutish at its core.
2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning novel by American author John Steinbeck was deeply controversial in the United States and abroad. Published in 1939, the novel is about a family of farmers struggling from the Dust Bowl and Depression-era economic policy. Steinbeck was openly critical of the “greedy bastards” who caused the Depression, so his unforgiving portrait of poverty was read as “socialist” or “communist” propaganda. Ireland banned the book in 1953, while in 1973 an Istanbul martial law tribunal put eleven Turkish book publishers on trial for publishing, possessing, and selling anti-state books including The Grapes of Wrath.
3. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
One of the American author’s most famous works, A Farewell to Arms is about the Italian campaigns of World War I. The Italian government banned it for characterizing the fascist Armed Forces as cowardly retreating from the Battle of Caporetto.
4. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
For Whom the Bell Tolls is a novel about the Spanish Civil War inspired by Hemingway’s own experience. The protagonist, Jordan, fights on the side of the left-leaning Republicans against the right-wing fascists, and witnesses the brutalities of war. He struggles to decide between completing his duty to carry out a bombing with the communist-informed left-wing guerrillas, which he would not survive, and ditching the plan to be with his new love named Maria. Not only banned in the U.S. in 1941 for “pro-Communism,” the Istanbul tribunal also put this Hemingway classic on its list of anti-state texts.
5. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
The Progressive-era classic about the meatpacking industry was famous for sparking enough public dissatisfaction with food industry health standards to lead to the creation of the Food & Drug Administration. Little known is that the Sinclair novel was banned from public libraries in Yugoslavia in 1929 and burned in the Nazi bonfires in 1933 for Sinclair’s socialist views, and banned in East Germany in 1956 for not supporting communism (Sinclair was a studied socialist). It was apparently also banned in South Korea and Boston.
I searched for a long time for famous banned books by American female authors. Strangely, some of the most controversial novels in the United States are written by women – from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and The Awakening by Kate Chopin to Beloved by Toni Morrison and The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Yet they have little information reported on the internet about their reception abroad. Since the lack of censorship abroad certainly does not reflect their literary value or controversial nature, I wonder if the silence on female authors instead demonstrates a) how less well-known American female authors are around the world, b) other countries' neutrality towards themes that the United States sees as controversial – To Kill a Mockingbird, Beloved, and The Color Purple, for example, are perhaps most known for grappling with the unique American experience of racism and the legacy of slavery, which not all countries may see as relevant, c) the information-gatherers' inattention to the reception of female authors' work abroad, or d) just a coincidence.
What are other famously banned books? What do you think about the reception of female authors abroad? What about the writer's relationship to politics - is it true that authors accidentally bring controversy upon themselves, or do some intentionally write to provoke?