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The Book as a Cultural Icon: 19th Century

In the United States and England, the 19th century marked a period of socially acceptable censorship. According to Foerstel (2006, xvi),

"a social consensus on censorship was emerging that would be far more repressive than overt state or church power. By the 1830s, this new ideology was proclaiming the necessity for propriety, prudence, and sexual restraint. During the remainder of the nineteenth century, private virtue became public virtue, and American and British editors, publishers, writers, and librarians felt obligated to examine every book for crude language or unduly explicit or realistic portrayals of life."


Expurgation is a form of censorship involving the removal of elements of a work such as altering text or deleting passages that the expurger finds offensive. Expurgation of sexual content is sometimes called bowdlerization after Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825). Sometimes expurgated editions are called fig-leaf editions.

In 1818, Bowdler published expurgated versions of Shakespeare's works. Titled The Family Shakspeare, he advertised the work as appropriate for women and children. Examples include changing Lady Macbeth's cry from "Out, damned spot!" to "Heavens!" and substituting Ophelia's death from suicide with an accidental drowning.

The image below shows an advertisement for The Family Shakspeare.


Bowdler also created his own editions of The Canterbury Tales, Gulliver's Travels and other popular works.

Book Burning in the 19th Century

During the 19th century, the reasons for book burning began to change. No longer were a majority of burning due to religious or state-sponsored censorship. Instead, the focus was on making very specific institutional, political, or social statements.

In an 1842 attempt to change writing systems for the blind, officials at the school for the blind in Paris burned all books written in the braille code invented by Louis Braille. P. Armand Dufau, the school's director also confiscated the tools used to create braille books. The students along with Louis Braille rebelled against Dufau by continuing to use the code in secret. Eventually the school began using braille again.

Uncle Tom's Cabin

tomUncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe provides a wonderful example of a book published for its time. The American public was primed for a conversation about slavery. However it took a novel for the discussion to begin. The novel enraged American southerns and was strongly criticized by defenders of slavery. At the same time, it was praised by abolitionists. It also rallied Northern anger and sympathy among people who hadn't previously been involved with the abolitionist movement.

American author Stowe was an active abolitionist wrote the novel in response to the 1850 second Fugitive Slave Act. Inspired by the slave narrative The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself published in 1949, she also used the book American Slavery As It Is by Theodore Dwight Weld as well as conducting her own interviews. Her nonfiction book A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853) provides additional background information and insights into the book.

Uncle Tom's Cabin is one of the best examples of how a book can have a direct impact on society. As the best-selling novel of the 19th century, it was widely read. In the first year after it was published, 300,000 copies were sold in the United States and one million copies in Great Britain. After 1853 no additional editions were printed until 1862.

Many scholars including Will Kaufman has indicated that this anti-slavery, sentimental novel "helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War." An apocryphal anecdote surrounding the book is that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe at the start of the war, Lincoln said "So this is the little lady who started this great war." It's likely that this story was embellished by literary scholars to "affirm the role of literature as an agent of social change." (Vollaro, 2009)

The book was widely adapted as a comic, play, and film. Tom Shows became popular unauthorized melodramas for the state in the United States and Europe. These stage performances were a popular part of popular culture in the north into the early 20th century.

Uncle Tom's Cabin heavily influenced later protest literature including "anti-Tom" literature that presented a pro-slavery view.

During the Civil Rights Movement into the 1970s, Uncle Tom's Cabin was associated with negative stereotypes regarding people of color overshadowing it's role in changing attitudes about slavery in America. However recently, the historical significance of the book has been revisited.

try itTry It!
Browse Uncle Tom's Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852). Be sure to read the Preface. Also read a 1852 version with Introductory Remarks.

Skim Uncle Tom's Cabin Reviewed written in 1852 and A Letter On Uncle Tom's Cabin written in 1852. Each document provides a different perspective on the book.

Read the Author's Introduction to the New Edition and Biographical Account of Uncle Tom's Cabin from 1878. Also, read the Introductory to the 1900 version.

Skim The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself looking for comparisons with Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Skim A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe to gain insights into the text and her thoughts about slavery.

Read Hochman, Barbara (2004). Uncle Tom's Cabin in the national era: an essay in generic norms and the contexts of reading. Book History, 7, 143-169. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Think about the short and long term impact of the book.

Native American Protest Literature

ramonaLike Harriet Beecher Stowe, Helen Hunt Jackson was an activist. Jackson's cause was associated with the American Indian population. In 1881 she published the nonfiction book A Century of Dishonor describing the negative impact of the 1871 Indian Appropriations Act. Dismissed as sentimental, the book did influence Congress to enact a remedy for the Ponca people in 1881.

In 1884, Jackson published the novel Ramona (shown on right) portraying the racial discrimination of a mixed race Scots-Native American orphan. Selling 15,000 copies in the ten months before Jackson's death in 1885, it was named one of the two most important ethical novels of the 19th century. With over 300 printings, the novel was a long-term success selling over a half million copies by the mid 20th century and spurring an outdoor play and four film adaptations. The novel also had contributed to popular culture with numerous landmarks and buildings named Ramona.

The book The Annotated Ramona by Antoinette May argued that the novel contributed to the passage of the Dawes Act of 1887 addressing Indian land rights.

After her death, a new edition of A Century of Dishonor in 1888 included concerns about the Mission Indians of California.

try itTry It!
View the short D.W. Griffith (1910) movie based on the novel, Ramona.

Political Cartoon Collections

Political cartoons are often used to convey thoughts about literature and can impact public opinion. The cartoon below left titled Bane and Antidote published September 7, 1899 issue of the Chicago Daily News explores the topic of "poison literature". Notice the reference to what was perceived as cheap, low quality literature often read by boys.

The cartoon below right reflects the thoughts of the cartoonist upon hearing about the death of Mark Twain. It was published on April 22, 1910 by Luther Daniels Bradley.

poison literatureMagic Rive

The image above left titled Bane and Antidote and above right titled The Magic River can be found in a biography of cartoonist Luther Daniels Bradley.

mormonReligious Movements and the Book

During the first half of the 19th century, many religious movements were introduced. Among them was the Latter Day Saint movement collectively known as Mormonism.

The Book of Mormon (title page shown on left) was published in 1830 by Joseph Smith. Although the local New York newspaper the Palmyra Reflector called the book "the greatest piece of superstition that has come to our knowledge" and many locals chose to boycott the book. However author Joseph Smith rallied his supporters and converted a growing congregation to his church.

Today, the LDS church has translated the book into 83 languages and published more than 150 million copies.

Political Movements and the Book

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels was one of the world's most influential political books. Though written by Marx and Engels, the work published in 1848 was commissioned by the Communist League who wished to create an iconic publication that would reflect their political agenda. The book lays out how and why the capitalist society would be replaced by socialism, then communism.

A revolutionary wave pushed through Europe in 1848. Although the book's authors were arrested and associated with the revolution, it's unclear whether the book provoked the revolutionary atmosphere or was simply one aspect of the movement. Regardless of the immediate impact, the book continues to be relevant today.

Religious and Scientific Controversy

During the 19th century, the natural sciences grew in popularity with both scientific scholars and hobbyists.

DarwinThe Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin caused controversy in both the religious and scientific community when it was published in 1859. Concerned about the uproar his work might cause, Darwin waited to publish his work until another scientist also published in the area of evolutionary biology. Although much of the reception was negative and hostile, the book was an international success.

The Origin of the Species was hotly debated on scientific, political, and theological grounds. Because the book was written for the general reader rather than scientific scholars, it was widely read. The mainstream interest also prompted many published reviews.

By the late 19th century, widespread agreement in the scientific community could be found for evolution, however the idea of natural selection remained controversial. During Darwin's lifetime the book went through six editions.

The British cartoon on the right reflects the type of reception received by Darwin's book throughout the 19th century. The fact that this cartoon was published in the 1870s shows the ongoing impact of the book.

After its initial publication, the book was quickly censored by many including being banned by Darwin's alma mater, Trinity College in Cambridge. It continued to be banned in countries like Yugoslavia and Greece in the 1930s.

American Society

finnThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain was published in 1884 in England and 1885 in the United States. Several libraries banned the book in 1885 as sacrilegious, immoral, and just plain crude. The book was criticized on many fronts including its lack of respect for religion and adult authority, the portrayal of Huck's friend Jim, and the coarse vernacular used by Huck. Mark Twain wasn't displeased by the criticism stating

"Apparently, the Concord library has condemned Huck as 'trash and only suitable for the slums.' This will sell us another twenty-five thousand copies for sure!"

The image on the right shows the 1884 cover.

The books continued to be banned and censored throughout the 20th and into the 21st century.

Years after the book was published, novelist Ernest Hemingway stated

"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ ... All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

In 1957, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) identified the book as racist based on the vocabulary used in the text and the demeaning way people of color were represented. However educators stressed that the book was intended as a work of satire and reflected the vernacular of the time.

The book continues to ignite debate today. According to the American Library Association, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was the fifth most-frequently-challenged book in the United States in the 1990s.

Obscenity Laws

During the late 18th and 19th centuries, a series of acts censored books considered to be "obscene".

United Kingdom Obscenity Laws

In 1787 George II enacted the Proclamation for the Discouragement of Vice commanded prosecution of immortal or profane practices. The Vagrancy Act of 1824 made the sale of obscene books illegal, but publishing these books was simply a common law misdemeanor.

In the United Kingdom, the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 authorized the seizure and destruction of obscene books.

The Hicklin Test decided in Regina v. Hicklin focused on the term "obscene" in the Obscene Publications Act of 1857. The court held that all books intended to "deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences" regardless of literary merit would be censored.

United States Obscenity Laws

comstockAlthough twenty-four states had already enacted obscenity laws, a federal law didn't exist until the last quarter of the 19th century. According to Paul Abramson (2002), the widespread availability of pornography during the American Civil War led to the rise of an antipornography movement. Inexpensive novels with sexual themes were popular with soldiers throughout the Civil War.

Enacted in 1873, the Comstock Act was a United States federal law. It was named after the anti-obscenity crusader Anthony Comstock (1844-1915) (shown on right). Amending the Post Office Act, the law made it illegal to send obscene materials through the mail. Although court decisions like Roth v. United States (1957) set limits on what could be considered obscene, federal anti-obscenity laws are still in place today.

Comstock wished to remove any book he found to be "obscene, lewd, or lascivious". He even prohibited some anatomy textbooks from being sent to medical students through the postal service.

Morality Groups and Vice Societies

Beginning in the late 1880s, morality groups emerged to monitor compliance with laws associated with what was perceived as "immoral conduct". These self-appointed censor groups lobbied for new laws and pressed the courts to bring offenders to justice.

These vice societies viewed books as an enemy responsible for a wide range of societal problems. They blamed books for a wide assortment of social ills. For instance, they saw obscene books as the reason for the rising divorce rate and urban blight.

According to Boyer (2002), "the vice-society movement was initially welcomed as a natural and valued expression of the late-nineteenth-century philanthropic impulse." These groups were embraced by those who sought to "clean up" the urban areas, reform prisons, and provide relief for the poor.

The best known example was Anthony Comstock and the Young Men's Christian Association who formed the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. At first they were perceived as doing good works including reducing "mail fraud, crooked gambling schemes, and dishonest advertisements" (Boyer, 2002). Rather than suppressing all works they found inappropriate, they selected specific works as targets. They hoped that these books would be seen as representing all that was bad in the literary world. Early targets included Homo Sapiens by Stanislaw Przybyszewski and The Genius by Theodore Dreiser. In general, the societies stayed away from censoring books from well-known publishing houses who might launch strong opposition to their work instead focusing on books that mainstream American would view as vulgar or in poor taste. As a result, the banned books didn't cause immediate alarm.

The image below is the symbol for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Notice that the image advocates book burning.


Eventually, people began to feel that Comstock was allowed to exert legalized vigilantism stepping beyond the boundaries of the law. However with the focus on morality during and after World War I, little changed.

Known as one of the most important works in Modernist literature, Ulysses by James Joyce was published in book form in Paris in 1922. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice sought to keep the book out of the United States by having the magazine version banned. The United States Postal Service burned copied of the novel throughout the 1920s. In 1933, John M. Woolsey lifted the ban on Ulysses by James Joyce.

To learn more about censorship during this period, browse Boyer, Paul S. (2002). Purity in Print: Book Censorship in America from the Gilded Age to the Computer Age. University of Wisconsin Press. Preview Available:

Book Banning in Imperial Germany

Censorship formally ended in the German states in 1848. The Imperial Press Law of 1874 abolished government licensing of the press and prepublication censorship. Instead, the state focused on post publication control over books. The Imperial Criminal Code of May 1871 made it illegal to incite others through printed work. By using this code, the government through the courts had total control over book distribution.

As such, imperial Germany supported state-sponsored censorship of literature between 1871 and 1918. The governing elite frequently censored works that threatened established political, social, religious, and moral norms in the name of public peace, order, and security (Stark, 2012). Stark notes that

"The empire was controlled by a narrow, premodern, antiliberal, reactionary elite of agrarian-military aristocrats and arch conservative industrialists who protected their domination by coercing opponents, manipulating political life and public opinion, and successfully blocking all progressive elements." (Stark, 2012, xvi)


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