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Ralph Ellison & Other Banned Authors

On September 16, 2013, a handful of North Carolina school board members attempted to ban Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man.’ Read about their protests and explore other banned authors throughout history.

Published in 1952, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man was immediately lauded as a masterpiece of American Literature. An ambitious but humorous novel, it tackles weighty issues, such as black identity in a predominantly white society, the conflict of self-perception, and the rejection of ideology. The following year, Invisible Man earned Ellison the National Book Award, and, since then, the Library of Congress has classified the novel as one of the “books that shaped America.”

On September 16, 2013, just a week before the start of the annual Banned Books Week campaign, which celebrates the right to read, five North Carolina school board members voted to ban Invisible Man from Randolph County school libraries due to objectionable language and sexually explicit material, with one board member also stating that he “didn’t find any literary value” in the novel. After a national and international outcry, the board members relented and restored the book on library shelves. In honor of both Ellison’s masterful novel and Banned Books Week, here are five authors whose works have been frequently challenged or banned.

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was and still is one of America’s most famous humorists. Born in Missouri in 1835, Twain wrote comical and often irreverent fiction and essays that challenged conventional notions of morality and social order. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which chronicles the journey of a young boy and a slave down the Mississippi River, has often been called the Great American Novel. In fact, Ernest Hemingway once said that “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” That’s not to say that everyone approved of it, though. Schools and libraries have attempted to ban the book since its publication due to its depictions of race and slavery, and scholars disagree on whether the novel rails against racism or is racist in itself. The dreaded N-word appears 219 times throughout the book, and that fact alone has kept it out of many students’ hands.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

The fact that Fahrenheit 451 has been banned and censored undoubtedly shows that irony is not something that everyone can understand. The dystopian novel, published by fantasy writer Ray Bradbury in 1953, revolves around Guy Montag, a “fireman” whose job requires him to burn the property of people who read banned books. Throughout the novel, Montag comes to understand the consequences of state-based censorship. In 2006, parents of a tenth grade student in Texas demanded that the novel be banned from their daughter’s class due to offensive language, violence, a scene involving the burning of the Bible, and its overall portrayal of Christians. How about that for irony?

Toni Morrison, Beloved

Let’s be clear: Toni Morrison, originally Chloe Wofford from Lorain, Ohio, is one of the best writers in the world. Morrison has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize. Last year, she even received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. One would think that school boards, teachers, and parents would want students to be exposed to such a brilliant mind, but this is not always the case. Beloved, Morrison’s most well-known novel, has been frequently challenged and banned since it first appeared in 1988. The novel, which follows the lives of former slaves who have escaped in the antebellum South, is both beautiful and haunting. However, Beloved gives those with book-banning inclinations the fuel they crave: infanticide, bestiality, racism, sex, violence, and profanity.

J. D. Salinger,

The Catcher in the Rye

Famous recluse J. D. Salinger wrote The Catcher in the Rye in 1951. Between 1961 and 1982, it became the most censored and banned novel in the United States. Told through the subjective eyes of its 16-year-old narrator, Holden Caulfield, the novel focuses on the themes of identity, angst, and rebellion (hence its popularity with teenagers). Calls for banning the novel usually revolve around Caulfield’s vulgar language, but a host of other complaints are typical: the encouragement of rebellion, the undermining of family values, blasphemy, the promotion of promiscuity…we could keep going, but you get the idea. Although it is frequently cited as one of the best books of the 20th century, Salinger’s only novel will certainly face opposition for the foreseeable future.

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death

With one of the more memorable full titles around, Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical novel Slaughterhouse-Five is consistently regarded as one of the best novels of the last 100 years (Modern Library currently ranks it at number 18 out of 100). Part semi-autobiographical World War II novel, part sci-fi romp through time and space, Slaughterhouse-Five defies conventional literary norms and explores issues such as fate, free will, and the illogical nature of humans, all while being a hilarious, heartbreaking, and gruesome look at human experience. The novel has been frequently challenged by courts and schools due to profanity, sex, and its blasphemous tone. In 1972, just three years after its publication, a circuit judge banned Vonnegut’s novel, calling it “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar, and anti-Christian.” Slaughterhouse-Five continues to be a wildly popular and influential pillar of American fiction.