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8 Titilating Books Banned in the 1800s

In an era when Rihanna’s “S&M” and Ke$ha’s “Blow” are radio staples, it’s hard to imagine what someone from a more innocent time like the 19th century would think of our culture. What was deemed scandalous in the 1800s seems downright quaint now. These eight book titles, for example, were either banned or decried for lewd content in their time; today, though, they wouldn’t cause anyone to bat an eyelash.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo

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Immediately after Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame was first released in 1834, the Catholic Church placed the book on its Index Librorum Prohitorum (Index of Prohibited Books), not for Hugo’s anticlerical statements, but because the church censors pronounced it to be “sensual, libidinous or lascivious.” When Les Misérables followed in 1862, the church placed it on the Index, too, and for the same reasons.

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert

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Another French novel, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, caused its author to be charged with obscenity by public prosecutors when it was first serialized in the Revue de Paris in 1856. The book’s protagonist, a doctor’s wife bored by her provincial life, commits adultery. Flaubert was acquitted in 1857, and when Madame Bovary was published in book form shortly thereafter, it quickly became a bestseller.

Andersen’s Fairy Tales

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Most children—and adults who were once children—know the tamer Disney versions of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, like The Little Mermaid and Thumbelina. But the original stories from the Danish author were quite violent. In 1835, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia banned the sale of Andersen’s Fairy Tales for fear that they would frighten children who read them. The ban was removed in 1849, but it was reinstated in the Soviet Union because the glorification of royalty like princes and princesses went against Soviet ideals.

The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

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As with Andersen’s Fairy Tales, today we mostly know watered-down versions of the Grimm fairy tales, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, etc. But the brothers Grimm were much ghastlier storytellers than Andersen. Ever since The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm was first published in Germany in 1812, parents and teachers have questioned the stories’ literary merit and whether their gory details and bitter endings are appropriate for children.

Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman

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Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass made an immediate impression on the reading public when it was published in 1855. Its open sexuality and homoeroticism aroused such comments as “obscene,” “too sensual,” and “shocking” from critics. The scandal surrounding the book was so severe that Whitman lost his job as a clerk with the Department of the Interior when his supervisor found the annotated copy of Leaves among Whitman’s possessions at work. Libraries refused to buy the book, booksellers would not recommend it to customers, and the poem was banned in many places throughout the country. Only a few supporters, notably Ralph Waldo Emerson, recognized the work’s merit as “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”

Ghosts, by Henrik Ibsen

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Having already published A Doll’s House, a criticism of traditional nineteenth-century marriage roles, Henrik Ibsen was no stranger to controversy when he released his play Ghosts in 1881. But Ghosts was Ibsen’s most sensational play of all and caused an immediate scandal for its treatment of such topics as incest and venereal disease. One English critic, for example, called it “a dirty deed done in public.”

William Shakespeare

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Though the works of William Shakespeare had been adored by audiences since the sixteenth century, an English physician named Thomas Bowlder decided in 1818 that the plays were just not appropriate for parlor reading. So he published his own expurgated version of Shakespeare’s work, The Family Shakespeare, removing “those words and expressions that cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family” and that would “raise a blush to the cheeks of modesty.” I guess phrases like, “Hold up, you sluts, / Your aprons mountant” had to go.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

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Most people know that Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn has been and remains a controversial work because of the racial terms in the text. But Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were attacked by critics upon publication not for being racist, but for containing “bad examples of ingenious youths.” Twain responded to public libraries in Brooklyn, Denver, and Concord, Massachusetts, that banned his books with characteristic wry humor: "I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively, and it always distressed me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old."

The definition of obscenity grows out of an era’s zeitgeist, which makes for interesting (and amusing) comparisons between what was considered lewd and inappropriate in the 1800s as opposed to now. In another two hundred years, which of our public controversies will have gone down in history as quaint and misguided?

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