Fanning the Flames: The "Golden Age" of American Book Burning

By Boston, Rob | The Humanist, July-August 2008 | Go to article overview

Fanning the Flames: The "Golden Age" of American Book Burning


Boston, Rob, The Humanist


ON NOVEMBER 15, 2001, fundamentalist pastor Doug Taylor gathered his followers in a public park in Lewiston, Maine, for an old-fashioned book burning. The target of Taylor's wrath was J.K. Rowling's phenomenally successful series of Harry Potter books.

There was one problem, however: the local fire department had informed Taylor that there was no way he was going to build a bonfire on public space. Ever resourceful, the minister brandished a large pair of scissors and mutilated the book before a crowd of onlookers.

"Some of you young people should take a look at where you're going," Taylor admonished a group of children who were present. "Hell is a very bad place."

Hell, as conceived by fundamentalist Christians, sounds like a very bad place indeed. But the existence of a fiery pit filled with sadistic demons has always been debatable. The intellectual prison offered by Taylor and his ilk, however, is not. It is alive and well, and many people have chosen to enter it and slam the door behind them. Talk about a living hell!

There was a time when religious pressure groups tried to take a lot of others with them to that unhappy place. We look at the antics of Taylor and rightly feel great dismay--a man wanted to burn books in America in the twenty-first century?--but at least he didn't have the government on his side. There was a time, not so long ago, when he just might have.

Although it's not widely discussed today, the United States has a long, embarrassing history of religiously based censorship. Some books now considered classics were simply unavailable for decades due to pressure from religious communities or actions by self-appointed and legally dubious municipal boards that sought to suppress "vice"

The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, for example, never wielded any official power. It might as well have, because the organization that became infamous under Anthony Comstock had the power to suppress whatever it didn't like.

Comstock's successor, John Sumner, got especially worked up over books dealing with sex and religion (surprise!). When Sinclair Lewis published Elmer Gantry in 1926, Sumner ordered Boston District Attorney William J. Foley to ban it. A year before, Sumner had engineered the suppression of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. The city of Boston, seen by today's fundamentalist Christians as a hotbed of East Coast, freethinking liberalism, was so puritanical at the time that Sumner's actions barely raised an eyebrow.

Different denominations held sway in various regions of the country. In the South, fundamentalist Protestants were powerful, and books that mentioned the dreaded "e-word" (evolution) were verboten in public schools. In northern states, especially in New England and parts of the upper Midwest, the hierarchy of the Catholic church busily acted as censors.

In 1955 church-state activist Paul Blanshard penned The Right to Read: The Battle Against Censorship. The book is rich with examples of religiously based censorship. In St. Cloud, Minnesota, for example, officials banned William Faulkner's The Wild Palms, W. Somerset Maugham's Cakes and Ale and other works. In Youngstown, Ohio a crusading police chief sent a letter to booksellers in town that included a list of 400 books they were instructed to stop selling, including John Steinbeck's Cannery Row and Ernest Hemingway's Across the River and into the Trees.

Perhaps unique among denominations, the Catholic church actually published a list of forbidden books, which it updated regularly. …

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