HRC’s ‘Banned, Burned’ Exhibit Explores Literary Censorship

The Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

These beloved titles didn’t end up on library shelves or class reading lists without first defeating the Goliath of literary oppression: censorship.

The Harry Ransom Center’s newest exhibition, Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored, focuses on similarly persecuted but lesser-known titles that were published between the World Wars, in the 1920s and ’30s.

The exhibit, which features works like The Children’s Hour and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, comes almost exclusively from the collection of Morris Ernst, a civil liberties attorney of the time period. Ernst famously defended James Joyce’s Ulysses in a 1933 censorship trial.

Organized by censoring institution, Banned doesn’t attempt to demonstrate rights and wrongs when it comes to censorship, curator Danielle Sigler says.

“It’s about knowing how and why it happened,” Sigler says. “And that complicates the idea of censorship.”

The main reason for book-banning during this era: sexuality. Not for anything racy or graphic, like the images that can be seen on book covers today, but for sexual deviance, including lesbianism and adultery.

The most fascinating part of the exhibit, by far, is the satirical responses of the authors. Even banned-book novices can enjoy flipping through the digital pages of Censored: Mother Goose Rhymes, where parts of sentences were blacked out to make the innocent nursery rhymes seem wholly inappropriate.

Using threatening letters, edited passages, voice recordings, and digital screens, Banned illustrates how widespread the censorship hysteria was in the ’20s and ’30s and prompts museum-goers to ask: is the battle over?

“The question is, can something like this happen today? And yes it can,” Sigler says. “But this exhibit shows that books cannot be killed by a fire.”

Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored will be on display at the Ransom Center today through Jan. 22, 2012.

Photo courtesy Harry Ransom Center.


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