New Exhibit: Banned, Erased, and Dangerous Texts

From compiling lists of forbidden works to burning books, censorship has manifested in many forms over the years. Books have often been the target of censorship, usually by religious and political institutions threatened by ideas that challenge how we view the world.

Inspired by the recent School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures symposium, a new exhibit in the Maryland Room in Hornbake Library highlights artists, authors, and texts that have been banned, erased, and branded dangerous throughout history.

In more recent history, repressive regimes like Franco’s Spain and Nazi Germany in the 1930s were notorious for censorship. Authors and artists who expressed ideas contrary to the government were banned and their books outright destroyed.  In Germany and Spain, this included works by Ernest Hemmingway, George Orwell, Franz Kafka, Bertolt Brecht, and others labeled degenerative or subversive.

Even seemingly innocent texts can be subject to censorship. The Story of Ferdinand, written by UMD alumni Munro Leaf in 1936, was officially banned in both Germany and Spain.  This much-loved children’s tale of a gentle bull who loves to smell flowers rather than fight was considered to be propaganda.

Although it censored works prior, the Catholic Church fist published its official list of forbidden books, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, in the 16th century.  In many cases, readers kept their forbidden books, leading to interesting cases of user- driven censorship.

For example, early books can be found with controversial passages blacked out and images removed or altered. On display is a fascinating 1529 edition of Virgil’s Aeneid. Inside, illustrations of Venus are burned or blacked out on several pages. Possibly censored by an outraged or offended reader, although little context is available. It is nonetheless an intriguing mystery in the rare book collection.

Even when the content of a book was not considered controversial, if it was written by a Protestant author, it usually turned up on the early Catholic Church’s list of forbidden works. For example, Conrad Gessner’s Historia Animalium, an encyclopedia of animals published in 1563, doesn’t necessarily contain controversial or heretical ideas. However, Gessner was Protestant in the 16th century and his works ended up on the list of texts forbidden by the Church.

In some such cases, readers would scratch out the offending author’s name on the title page to make the book more acceptable for loyal Catholics. However, scratching out the occasional heretical name or objectionable passage or image is not something easily done with the 1551 edition of In Primum Librum Mose Enarrationes by Martin Luther, on display next to Historia Animalium. All works by Protestant theologians like Luther and John Calvin at the time were blacklisted by the Church.

The Church continued to publish its list of forbidden texts for centuries. Another encyclopedic work found in the exhibit is Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie. First published in Paris in 1751, this landmark work challenged religious sovereignty, incorporating Enlightenment ideals of individuality and reason throughout the text. Within a year, it was banned by the Church. No longer able to find a publisher in Paris, pages were smuggled to Geneva, where the books continued to be distributed to an eager audience, even within Paris.

Smuggling was a common occurrence if readers were to enjoy their banned books, and a necessity in a time when books were published with the permission of the government.

Such was the case for the Eikon Basilike, a purported autobiography of King Charles I of England, published shortly after he was beheaded by Parliament during the English Civil War in 1651. The Eikon Basilike was essentially political propaganda intended to rouse support for the royalist case, relying heavily on portraying Charles as a martyr. The infamous frontispiece is full of symbolism that was not lost on readers, as well as those unable to read.

Unacceptable to the new government, these books often had false imprints on the title page as a way to hide where the book was actually published. After all, publishers didn’t want to advertise their involvement in printing or selling an illegal book.

On display are two miniature editions of the Eikon Basilike, which made the books easy to smuggle and conceal. After the monarchy was restored and the ideals the book expressed were in the good graces of the government, oversize editions of the Eikon Basilike began appearing in the homes of readers wanting to show off their loyalty to the crown.

Books can also gain a dangerous reputation through gossip and rumor, like Oscar Wilde and Yellow Book, a British literary periodical first published in 1894. In Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, a banned book in its own right, “the yellow book” is a corrupting influence on the main character. Rumors, that later proved false, also spread that Wilde was carrying a copy of Yellow Book when he was arrested in 1895.

On the other hand, authors of controversial or risqué works can avoid censorship through the assistance of a rebellious publisher. For example, Book of Repulsive Women by Djuna Barnes. The poems and illustrations would likely cause a censor to raise an eye and were indeed considered repulsive by some readers. Yet New York small press publisher Guido Bruno, who published the chapbook in 1915, was known for battling obscenity laws and promoting works by underrepresented artists.

Visit Hornbake Library to view these banned, erased, and dangerous texts. Explore our literature and rare book collections and discover more!

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