Family Shakespeare

Bowdler, Thomas. The Family Shakespeare, in Eight Volumes; in Which Nothing Is Added to the Original Text; but Those Words and Expressions Are Omitted Which Cannot With Propriety Be Read Aloud in a Family. -- 3rd ed. Vol. 1. (London, Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1823.)

Working with his wife, son, daughters, and nephews, Thomas Bowdler came from a long line of censors who brandished the red pen in the early nineteenth century. The expurgated book on display, The Family Shakespeare, exemplifies the larger effort by the Bowdler family to "clean up"-- or bowdlerize -- the classics. Although Bowdler still credits Shakespeare as the author of The Family Shakespeare, the subtitle reveals that "nothing is added to the original text; but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family."

At what point is a work so substantially altered that it is no longer a classic? Who should define "propriety"?


Joyce, James. Ulysses. (Paris: Shakespeare & Co, 1922.)

From the Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History.

James Joyce's Ulysses has been banned, bowdlerized, bootlegged, and burned. Objections to this stream-of-consciousness novel have included that the book contains "dirty language" and "promote[s] lust." In 1933, its first publication in the United States came hand in hand with an obscenity trial. This legal battle substantially altered the judicial system in censorship cases. The law was expanded to include a consideration of the whole work, rather than just controversial passages. As such, the court upheld the artistic merit of Ulysses and found the "obscene" parts germane to the story.

Hemingway was asked to remove the words "damn," "bitch," and "balls" from The Sun Also Rises. He complied, somewhat, altering some of the words. Nevertheless, despite Hemingway's efforts to appease the publishers, the end result scandalized even his mother, who called her son's work "one of the filthiest books of the year."

The book was banned in Boston, and booksellers agreed to neither sell nor advertise the book.

Leaves of Grass

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. (Brooklyn, New York: [Printed by Rome Brothers,] 1855.)

From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass created an uproar from the moment it was first published in 1855 and all through its subsequent nine editions. This classic work of poetry was deemed "obscene," "too sensual," and "shocking" because of its frank portrayal of sexuality and its obvious homoerotic overtones. In 1865, Whitman lost his job as a clerk with the Department of the Interior, when his supervisor found the annotated copy, on display, among Whitman's possessions at work. In 1870, Yale University President Noah Porter compared Whitman's offense in writing Leaves of Grass to that of "walking naked through the streets." With the single known exception of the Library Company of Philadelphia, libraries refused to buy the book, and the poem was legally banned in Boston in the 1880s and informally banned elsewhere. Most booksellers agreed to neither publicize nor recommend Leaves of Grass to customers, and in 1881, the Boston District Attorney threatened Whitman's publisher with criminal prosecution, at the urging of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, causing a proposed new edition to be withdrawn from publication.

In this whirlwind of condemnation, a few voices spoke up in favor of the poem. From the very outset, Ralph Waldo Emerson recognized the work's genius, calling Leaves "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed."