The 10 Most-Banned Classic Novels

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A List of Some of the Most Controversial and Challenged Works

Want to read a banned book? You'll have plenty of excellent novels to choose from. There have been many attempts throughout history to suppress or otherwise censor works of literature, even works that have gone on to become classics. Authors such as George Orwell, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and Toni Morrison have all seen their works banned at one time or another.


The list of banned books is massive, and the reasons for their exclusion varies, but books with sexual content, drug use, or violent imagery are banned most frequently, regardless of their literary value. Here are the top 10 most-banned classic works of fiction in the 20th century, according to the American Library Association, and a little bit about why each was considered controversial.


"The Great Gatsby," F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Gatsby,“ Fitzgerald's Jazz Age classic is one of the most-banned books of all time. The tale of playboy Jay Gatsby and the target of his affection, Daisy Buchanan, was "challenged" as recently as 1987, by Baptist College in Charleston, S.C. because of "language and sexual references in the book."


"The Catcher in the Rye," by J.D. Salinger

The stream-of-consciousness story of Holden Caulfield's coming of age has long been a controversial text for young readers. An Oklahoma teacher was fired for assigning “Catcher” to an 11th grade English class in 1960, and numerous school boards have banned it for its language (Holden goes on a lengthy rant about the "F" word at one point) and sexual content.


"The Grapes of Wrath," by John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that tells the story of the migrant Joad family has been burned and banned for its language since its release in 1939. It was even banned for a time by Kern County, California (where the Joads end up) because Kern County residents said it was "obscene" and libelous.


"To Kill a Mockingbird," by Harper Lee

This 1961 Pulitzer-Prize winning story of racism in the Deep South, told through the eyes of a young girl named Scout, has been banned mainly for its use of language, including the "N" word. A school district in Indiana challenged "To Kill a Mockingbird" in 1981, because it claimed the book represented "institutionalized racism under the guise of good literature," according to the ALA.


"The Color Purple," by Alice Walker

The novel's graphic portrayals of rape, racism, violence against women, and sex have seen it banned by school boards and libraries since its release in 1982. Another winner of the Pulitzer Prize, "The Color Purple" was one of more than a dozen books challenged in Virginia in 2002 by a group calling themselves Parents Against Bad Books in Schools.


"Ulysses," by James Joyce

The stream-of-consciousness epic novel, considered Joyce's masterpiece, was initially banned for what critics viewed as its pornographic nature. In 1922, postal officials in New York seized and burned 500 copies of the novel. The matter ended up in court, where a judge ruled that Ulysses should be available, not just on the basis of free speech, but because he deemed it "a book of originality and sincerity of treatment, and that it has not the effect of promoting lust."


"Beloved," by Toni Morrison

The novel, which tells the story of a formerly enslaved woman named Sethe, has been challenged for its scenes of violence and sexual material. Toni Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for this book which continues to be challenged and banned. Most recently, a parent challenged the book's inclusion on a high school English reading list, claiming that the sexual violence depicted in the book was "too extreme for teenagers." As a result, the Virginia Department of Education created a policy requiring the review of sensitive content in reading materials. 


"The Lord of the Flies," by William Golding

This tale of schoolboys stranded on a desert island is often banned for its "vulgar" language and violence by its characters. It was challenged at a North Carolina high school in 1981 because it was considered "demoralizing inasmuch as it implies that man is little more than an animal."


"1984," by George Orwell

The dystopian future in Orwell's 1949 novel was written to depict what he saw as serious threats from the then-budding Soviet Union. Nevertheless, it was challenged in a Florida school district in 1981 for being "pro-Communist" and having "explicit sexual matter."


"Lolita," by Vladmir Nabokov

It's little wonder that Nabokov's 1955 novel about middle-aged Humbert Humbert's sexual relationship with adolescent Dolores, whom he calls Lolita, has raised some eyebrows. It's been banned as "obscene" in several countries, including France, England, and Argentina, from its release until 1959, and in New Zealand until 1960.


For more classic books that were banned by schools, libraries, and other authorities, check out the lists at the American Library Association's website.