Ulysses was considered objectionable for many reasons, but of particular affront was a passage in which a character fluffs his hog while watching fireworks. The passage in question is an elaborate masturbation joke comparing fireworks to yankin' the ol' meat rope, and it's so incredibly obtuse that it's hard to see how anyone thought it would cause the downfall of Western civilization.
It was deemed obscene, though, and at the time, it was illegal to distribute obscene material through the mail. The United States Postal Service had orders to burn all copies of Ulysses they saw, which made it pretty difficult to get a copy of the book, since it wasn't published in the U.S.
This was eventually challenged in court, and after a lengthy series of cases, Ulysses was allowed to be published. The ruling in the case of United States v. One Book Called Ulysses led to new ways to classify obscenity, which would greatly influence later cases that went to the Supreme Court and helped to overturn obscenity laws. Masturbation jokes change the world, kids. Don't ever stop making them.
Related: 4 Stupid Moral Panics Caused By Everyday Objects
The Grapes Of Wrath Was Considered Communist Propaganda
The Grapes Of Wrath, if you've always been too ashamed to ask, is a book written by John Steinbeck in 1939 about a poor family from Oklahoma who move to California to try to escape the crushing poverty of the Dust Bowl. Despite being so relentlessly depressing that it makes Cormac McCarthy's The Road seem like Paddington 3: Revelations, The Grapes Of Wrath was a full-on sensation. It won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and it was a major factor in Steinbeck winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. It wasn't just a bunch of smarty-pants critics who liked the book, though. Less than a year after publication, Grapes had sold over 430,000 copies. To put that into perspective, it took Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone two years to sell 300,000.
Grapes also immediately caused a gigantic shitstorm. Plenty of moralizing busybodies took umbrage with the novel's use of realistic colloquial language -- which is to say that the characters talk like actual people and occasionally swear. The novel also famously ends with a woman who's just delivered a stillborn baby nursing a man so he doesn't starve to death. (Yeah, it's a laugh a minute.) That scene was viewed as being so pornographic that congressman Lyle Boren made a speech before Congress condemning the book, saying it "exposes nothing but the total depravity, vulgarity, and degraded mentality of the author." In fine American tradition, he seemed to have more of a problem with naughty words and boobs than, you know, realistic depictions of people dying horrifically. He would have loved the MPAA.
But it wasn't the vulgarity that caused the biggest problems. No, it was the fact that Grapes was anti-laissez-faire, anti-xenophobia, anti-corporatism, pro-union, pro-worker's-rights, and pro-collectivism. What do we call someone who suggests that poor people don't deserve to starve to death in 1939? That's right, a filthy COMMUNIST!
Criticism of the book came from everywhere, but the charge was led by the Associated Farmers of California, a corporate farm of the sort that was depicted in the book as destroying food during famine (which they totally did). They used their considerable wealth and influence to lead a smear campaign against Steinbeck, calling the book communist propaganda. Which was weird, since Stalin banned the book because it showed the poorest Americans having cars.
The Associated Farmers of California got the book banned in Kern County, where much of the plot takes place, got it banned from several school curriculums and libraries, and hosted public burnings of the book. That last move kind of backfired, since this was 1939 and some other guys had very much already made book burning their "thing."
Believe me, this is only a cursory look at the insanity that The Grapes Of Wrath caused. I didn't even mention J. Edgar Hoover's involvement, or that the Associated Farmers of California took out ads in newspapers demanding a boycott of the film adaptation. But this story has a happy ending. To combat pressure from business interests to ban books, the American Library Association created the Library Bill of Rights to protect The Grapes Of Wrath. It's a text they still use today as a bulwark against censorship, because it's not like the urge to silence voices ever goes away. We just keep changing who and what our fragile minds need to be shielded from.
William Kuechenberg is a screenwriter seeking representation. You can check out his work on Script Revolution or view his mind-diarrhea on Twitter.
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