Bell Jar

Plath, Sylvia [Victoria Lucas]. The Bell Jar. London: Heinemann, 1963.

From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

Many authors have been suppressed more because of their minority status than their actual words. Censors have sought to guard the cultural narratives of the mainstream from alternative and fringe views. They have exercised their red pens to keep classes, genders, and races within the boundaries of social expectations. This pressure to conform has resulted in various artistic responses. At one end of the spectrum, we find subterfuge, at the other, open rebellion.

For nineteenth-century women writers, unable to publish because of their gender, the power of censorship and social censure forced them to resort to male pennames. The female writer, branded "half-Man" or "petticoat-author," used the pseudonym to gain respectability and a serious audience. Hidden under the shield of masculine authority, women could express unorthodox points of view. They could stay safely within their class and even assert the privilege of upper-class women whose names were only to appear in public three times in their lives: in announcing their birth, marriage, and death. Under these circumstances, is using a pseudonym a form of censorship?

The refusal to conform and the insistence on speaking personal truths plainly have rung out as calls to arms. The autobiography that challenges our comfort zone and our vision of society stands at the forefront of rebellious literature. This case contains the stories of Malcolm X and Maya Angelou, personal narratives equally forceful for their assertion that the African-American experience cannot be ignored, silenced, or easily labeled. Should the censor be able to edit the telling of one's own life?

Adam Bede

Evans, Mary Ann [George Eliot]. Adam Bede. New York: Harper, 1859.

Gift of Rev. William Wyllie.

Sylvia Plath wrote this semi-autobiographical novel about mental illness shortly before committing suicide. Her decision to publish under a pseudonym may have stemmed from a wish to distinguish herself from her husband, the British poet Ted Hughes, especially as several reviewers of her earlier works had identified her as "Mrs. Ted Hughes." The book itself was also censored after publication. In the late 1970s, The Bell Jar was suppressed for not only its profanity and sexuality but for its overt rejection of the woman's role as wife and mother. For these reasons, the book was deemed unsuitable for high school students in Indiana. The Bell Jar ultimately was removed from a high school "Women in Literature" course, and the teacher was not rehired.

Seeing her works attacked as the "vile outpourings of a lewd woman's mind," Mary Anne Evans continued to write under the pseudonym George Eliot throughout her career. Silhouette of Mary Ann: A Novel about George Eliot underscores both names and, notably, is written by another female author using a penname.

Autobiography of Malcolm X

X, Malcolm. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove, 1966.

Purchased with the Robert and Virginia Tunstall Trust Fund.

Both by African-Americans, each of these personal narratives portray a life filled with hardship and segregation. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou describes her refusal to speak for six years after identifying the man who raped her when she was seven years old, a man who was subsequently killed. To parents of schoolchildren in Maine, Washington, and California, the rape and other graphic scenes have caused them to condemn the book as a "lurid tale of sexual perversion" that "encourages premarital sex."

Likewise, The Autobiography of Malcolm X has provoked harsh criticism. In the book, Malcolm X, embittered by a callous welfare system that broke up his family, aggressively attacks white society for its collusion in restricting the accomplishments of African Americans. It offers the Black Muslim cause as a counterpoint to this suppression. This inflammatory message is threatening to many people even three decades after the death of Malcolm X. The book continues to be kept out of classrooms and libraries, particularly in predominantly white communities, and has been labeled "filthy," "racist," and "criminal." As recently as 1994, school libraries restricted the availability of the book on the grounds that it was thought to be a "how-to" manual for crime. In order to check out a copy from the library, middle school students had to bring a note from their parents.

Rubyfruit Jungle

Brown, Rita Brown. Rubyfruit Jungle. New York: Bantam, 1988.

From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

Discussions of sexuality of any kind are often taboo, but particularly notable is the censorship of works treating sexual minorities. The first novel to openly portray a lesbian relationship, Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, was found in violation of the British Customs Obscene Publications Act of 1857 and called "depraved." In the words of its critics, the book exhibited "unnatural tendencies." Following its publication in 1928 in England, many copies were burned or otherwise destroyed in both the U.K. and America. In fact, in the U.S., the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice successfully rallied to ban publication, and the book ultimately remained banned in both countries for several decades.

Almost half a decade later, in 1973, Rita Mae Brown wrote what was to become another seminal lesbian novel: Rubyfruit Jungle. This coming-of-age, coming-out story of a scrappy young woman who gets expelled from Barnard for seducing her classmates initially was published only in paperback. Not until the 15th anniversary edition could Brown inscribe the book on display, "Fifteen years later, a hard cover!"

Literacy act

Act to Amend the Act Concerning Slaves, Free Negroes, and Mulattoes. 7 April 1831. Acts Passed at a General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Richmond, 1831.

The very fight for the format of her book speaks to the complicated treatment of authors confronting provocative subjects. Brown, a prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction, continues to be identified by reviewers as a "gay writer." She objects to this kind of classification that consigns her works to the "lesbian section" of bookstores, seeing it as a form of censorship. As much as Rubyfruit Jungle deserves its proper hard covers, so Brown's other works should not be pigeonholed and labeled based on a few of her books' themes. In both instances, the decisions of others limit the size of her audience.


Knowledge is power, and slaveholders knew it. As such, they fought to enforce their property rights not just of slave bodies but of slave minds by passing laws to prevent citizens from teaching slaves to read. The Virginia law on display here illustrates the legal manifestation of the slaveholders' fear that literacy might introduce new ideas and whisper to slaves about the possibilities of economic, political, and social freedom.