Banned Books: Teaching How Literary Reception Informs Interpretation

Banned Books weekGiven the recent political climate, I thought it would be appropriate to write this post on books that have spurred political debate and censorship through the course of American history. More specifically, I’m going to discuss reasons for teaching banned books and ways to incorporate the historical reception of those books into the literature classroom.

We all probably teach or have taught books that have been banned somewhere, for some reason, at some time. With or without knowing it, many of the titles we consider to be staples of American literature have been ridiculed for their content and removed from bookstores, libraries, and school reading lists. The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association (ALA) puts out a yearly report on the country’s documented book challenges, and notes that many more book are challenged but remain undocumented each year. In addition to those books we’ve all heard of as being banned at one time or another, such as To Kill a Mockingbird (for its racial slurs) and 1984 (for being “pro-communist”), other more surprising titles appear on the list regularly, such as all the books in the Harry Potter series and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which I discussed last spring in another post. The ALA is a great resource for tracking public book complaints and gauging where voices of unrest originate. Unfortunately, the ALA reports that 9 out of 10 book complaints in 2015 came from books with diverse content, meaning “content by or about people of color, LGBT people and/or people with disabilities.” Other top reasons for censorship are: offensive language, sexually explicit content, violence, homosexuality, witchcraft, and “encouragement of damaging lifestyles.” While political climates are always in flux, the literature classroom is consistently a great platform to explore what dimensions book reception and resistance bring to our understanding of what books can do.

Presenting banned books in the classroom is a sure way to pique interest, especially in students who are not otherwise invested in the material for any number of reasons. Beginning classroom conversations about book banning opens up a new pathway of to think about the power of books, and I’ve found with a little bit of convincing, students become invested not only in the controversy surrounding them, but in the books themselves.

In this post I’ll cover three very different books that have been, and continue to be, banned in many arenas. For each, I will provide an overview and key questions that developed in my class conversations when I taught them in a banned books class a few years ago. In addition to shaping the course around these three books, I used three overarching questions to track our thinking about banned books more generally: 

    1. What are the reasons for book banning?
    2. What beliefs are threatened by the banned books?
    3. How does a book’s reception change the way we read it?

the-jungleThe Jungle, by Upton Sinclair (1906)

Dedicated to “The Workingmen of America,” Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel is about the atrocities experienced by Lithuanian immigrant, Jurgis Rudkis, whose family suffers extreme poverty and exploitation in Chicago’s meatpacking industry in the early 20th century. Sinclair’s gruesome descriptions of unsanitary meatpacking factories and leaky sewage in the workers’ slum housing that surrounds the district eventually helped lead to the United States Food and Drugs Act of 1906, which is now known as the Food and Drug Administration. Sinclair is not a subtle or sparse writer. In fact, I prepare my students ahead of time for the excessive number of exclamation marks they’ll encounter when reading as well as the melodramatic lushness of the prose. When reading The Jungle, it is clear to see Sinclair’s passion for his socialist efforts in every lavish line he writes.

While Sinclair’s book did play a part in food reform, that was not the author’s intention. Sinclair was a self-proclaimed socialist who wants his book to change the conditions of workingmen; his interests weren’t necessarily in the factory product itself. Sinclair famously notes that in writing The Jungle “I aimed for the public’s heart and…hit it in the stomach.” When we discuss Sinclair’s book in class I ask students how they believe an author’s intention informs our understanding of the text. For strict New Criticists, authorial intention becomes inconsequential as soon as a text is published. Still, knowing Sinclair’s intentions and seeing the reception vary from his main objective raises questions about where the power of books come from: is it from the author who puts forth his ideas, or from readers and critics who interpret it? Sinclair’s novel places its political agenda as its primary concern, and as a class, we also had a lot of fun answering the question: Does politics have a place in art? If you incorporate debates in any of your classes, that’s one that’s sure to get students talking.

bluest-eyeThe Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison (1970)

This novel is about Pecola Breedlove, a black girl living in Ohio, who associates beauty with whiteness and develops an inferiority complex based upon her skin and eye color. Alongside Morrison’s captivating insight into the fragility of a young girl’s forming identity, the novel explores issues of racism, incest, and molestation.

Toni Morrison is no stranger to banned books. This 1970 novel is often appears on ALA’s banned books list alongside her novels Song of Solomon and Beloved. In 2011, Ohio schools leader Debe Terhar called The Bluest Eye “pornographic,” and many others before and since have opposed the novel based upon its language and content. As a native to Ohio, Morrison responded to her home-state’s rejection of her book as follows: “I resent it…I mean if it’s Texas or North Carolina as it has been in all sorts of states. But to be a girl from Ohio, writing about Ohio having been born in Lorain, Ohio. And actually relating as an Ohio person, to have the Ohio, what — Board of Education? — is ironic at the least.”

Since this novel is often times deemed pornographic, mainly because of an incestuous rape scene that appears late in the novel, the main question that stems from the public’s resistance of this book is: What is pornography? Together, we also discuss whether or not this particular scene is necessary for the overall effect of the novel, and we look closely at how Morrison has orchestrated the experience for us as readers and why she has done so in that particular way. Many students note the discomfort of this scene, and we also explore the power of that discomfort and the differences between openly discussing issues such as sexual abuse versus stifling or repressing them.

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1993)angels

Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play is about two couples, one gay and one straight, in New York at the height of the AIDS crisis during the Reagan era. Angels is a play that questions the parameters of religion, sexuality, and the government’s responsibility to care for all of its citizens in times of crisis. Reagan’s refusal to intervene during the AIDS crisis  sets the apocryphal tone of the play, and readers follow characters who are in denial of their homosexuality based upon religious beliefs (Mormonism, in particular) or high-powdered social status.

Productions of Angels have seen numerous cases of defiance, including a production with Charlotte Repertory Theater the was postponed due to opposition from a fundamentalist preacher. Such opposition did not stop HBO from making a wonderful adaptation of the play in 2003, featuring Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Mary Louise Parker, and others.

This play is so rich in its innovative stage direction (actors play many different roles, sometimes of the other gender) and dialogic conception, that there are many ways to address its presence as a banned text. In particular, my students, who were not alive in the 1980s, are most interested in how the conservative political climate shapes the ways that characters think and act in the play. The prime example of this is the character Roy M. Cohn, who is based on of the late high-powered American lawyer of the same name. The play’s version of Cohn engages in sex with men and is diagnosed with AIDS, but his identity and social position prevent him to admitting this to himself, or to the on person who is closest to him. Looking at how political policy shapes the characters’ everyday lived experiences provides a necessary framework for discussing how and why the political climate may shape the readers who challenge these books in the first place. Our major question when discussing Angels is then: How does political rhetoric shape how readers read? Additionally, we explore many questions of identity such as: What external triggers influence the performance of masculinity and femininity? How does one reconcile his/her faith in a religion which rejects his/her sexual identity? 

These are just a few examples of how banned books can provide gateways into larger discussions about the power structures of literary texts. It’s helpful for students to know that challenging books is ever-present in our culture. It may be worthwhile to discuss the risks of these practices and consider what could be lost — the voices, the conversations, the lived experiences — without these books in circulation.

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2 thoughts on “Banned Books: Teaching How Literary Reception Informs Interpretation

  1. I like to assign a text, and then in the class following, assign a negative review contemporary to the text. This is an especially useful process for students, I’ve noticed, when the text is one that is a “classic,” like Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” but it also works with controversial texts like “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Sometimes it’s difficult to see why these texts were radical when they were published, but the reviews help to contextualize them.

    Liked by 1 person

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