The Complicated History of Book Bans in the United States

American censorship spans a timeline that has intermingled with some of the most critical legislation in our country’s history.

Book Culture Bookstr Trivia On Writing

In order to understand how the book ban issue has evolved into what it is today, we’re looking back on the long, and troubling, history of book bans in the United States.

The First Book Ban

The story of America’s first banned book might be a mystery, unless you happen to be an enthusiast for Puritan history. It goes back to the early 1650s, when Thomas Morton wrote and published The New English Canaan, which took ceaseless jabs at the Puritan establishment. Lacking a Goodreads page to write a scathing review, the Puritans condemned Moore’s book as dangerous drivel and burned any copies they could get their hands on.

It should come as little shock that book censorship found its origins in mob-centric approaches. The key difference, however, came in the government’s backing of such reactions. The Constitution of the United States, established over a century later, effectively restricted the government’s ability to censor work it deemed inappropriate.

Naturally, it took less than a century for legislators to work around that limitation.

The Comstock Act: Bans Get “Legalized”

The framework for book banning as we know it today can be traced back to the Comstock Act of 1873, which allowed the censorship of “immoral material.” At the time, this could mean anything from sexual content to contraceptive information to books that challenged authority.

An excerpt of the District of Columbia’s law reads as follows:

“Be it enacted…. That whoever, within the District of Columbia or any of the Territories of the United States… shall sell… or shall offer to sell, or to lend, or to [give away] an obscene book, pamphlet, paper, writing, advertisement, circular, print, picture, [or] other article of an immoral nature, or any drug or medicine, or any article whatever, for the prevention of conception, or for causing unlawful abortion, or shall advertise the same for sale, or shall write or print, or cause to be written or printed, [any] of the articles in this section…can be purchased or [obtained], shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction thereof in any court of the United States…”

From the 42nd Congress

Here, the religious origins of book bans were displayed in full color. Censorship was no longer a simple matter of anti-government text; now, everything from abortion to pornography, and anything else that could be judged “immoral,” was under threat. And that same umbrella justification would stretch to everything from Ulysses to Captain Underpants in the centuries to come.

Book Bans in the 19th and 20th Century

'The Sunday Express' report condemning Hall's book

Countless books were already making the “most wanted list” by the turn of the century. A few of their titles, authors, dates of arrest, and crimes:

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, 1880 — explicit language

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1885 — coarse and racist language

The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, 1895 — contradicting Christian beliefs

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, 1929  — sexual content

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, 1929 — Lesbian content

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, 1939 — sexual content, foul language, communist undertones

Bans only grew more popular within extremist ideologies as the century progressed. They were utilized by Joseph McCarthy during the era of the Red Scare to decry communist literature and comic books— comic books!— for the same basic reasons as previously outlawed titles. Book burnings were not uncommon, especially for those titles deemed “dangerous.” As hotbed topics like ideological freedom and women’s reproductive rights gained in controversy, so too were books like The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985) targeted for illuminating futures where such freedoms were denied. Many of those same books are still being attacked today.

Book Bans Today

Nowadays, you’ll find the names of LGBTQ and BIPOC authors filling the places Steinbeck and Hemingway once inhabited on the “most wanted” lists. Modern censorship has shifted ever-so-slightly from suppressing sexual content and alleged communist literature to suppressing marginalized voices, and the banned titles reflect that change.

A few of the modern-day outlaws, and their crimes, and links to buy their crimes:

All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson — LGBTQ content

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison — depiction of sexual abuse

Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe — LGBTQ content

Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison — LGBTQ content

Looking for Alaska by John Green — sexual content, foul language

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky — depiction of sexual abuse, drug use, sexual content

Book Bans from the School Districts


While it’s been some time since the original Comstock laws had any legal effect, school boards nationwide maintain the ability to withdraw titles deemed “inappropriate” for young audiences. Book censors find their greatest influence on school boards as a result. It is the asserted goal of these censors-cum-board members to protect the children in their districts; protect from what, exactly, has been harder to ascertain. How can trends of homophobic bans, for instance, account for Maus being banned in a Tennessee school district in 2022?

As was the case 150-plus years ago, the driving reason for banning a book is the book’s potential to make the reader uncomfortable. And given that the inherent purpose of compelling literature— to discomfort the reader into a new way of thinking— has not changed in those 150-plus years, the conflict continues.

Countermovements: the ALA, the CBLDF, and Banned Books Week

Over the years, backlash to censorship and corresponding legislation has made just as strong, if not stronger, a racket as the bans themselves. The American Library Association (ALA) has worked to standardize an understanding of the reasons behind book bans— the top three found to be sexual content, offensive language, and the content being “unsuitable” to any age group— and combat the censorship that comes from these reasons. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) works towards similar goals concerning comic books, graphic novels, and manga. Once a year, the two groups and affiliate organizations come together for “Banned Books Week,” a celebration of historically banned books usually spanning the last full week of September.

Then and Now

From the first pamphlet banned in Colonial America to The Handmaid’s Tale, book bans show the dangerous slope from restricting First Amendment rights to encroaching on other human rights and freedoms— many of the same rights and freedoms, by no coincidence, being threatened by contemporary legislation.

For more content about book bans, click here.