In 1957, United States Customs agents confiscated 500 copies of Allen Ginsberg’s now famous poem coming in to the country from London, a result of book banning that made the book illegal to sell in 1950s America. Howl is famous for being the focus of the obscenity trial in 1957 that pinpointed the poem’s numerous sexual references as being unworthy of public consumption. The poem was eventually exonerated and is now considered a classic of the American Beat Generation. But the anniversary of Howl’s confiscation, not its publication or the day of its first public performance, casts an angry glow on America’s history of book banning, a history that is more recent than just the last century.
America has passed through the time of beat poets writing poetry on typewriters and has come in to modernity where children use computers on a daily basis. EReaders are gaining in popularity and the average citizen anywhere in the U.S. has a staggering freedom of access to information because of the internet. Books themselves are easier to come by than they have ever been with pdf files populating the web for free download.
In such an open-sourced world, it seems strange that book banning is still a problem for the freest country on Earth. In fact, instances of books being challenged or banned are up according to the Kids’ Right to Read project. This project, which is supported by the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the Association of American Publishers, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, investigates these instances and offers support to teachers, children, and parents who are opposed to books being challenged or banned. They are opposed to all forms of censorship, especially that of books.
According to their reporting, the cases they have looked into in 2013 have increased over 50 percent from the previous year. What is behind this huge increase? The Kids’ Right to Read Project does not know, nor apparently does anyone else. The reasons people and institutions have for trying to ban certain materials are numerous, ranging from parental protectiveness to political bias.
In many cases, however, it is often children themselves who are fighting back against censorship. When Stephen King’s book Different Seasons was pulled from a California high school library, a student brought the issue to the school board and got the book reinstated.
One story that has been circulating the internet for a few years and is still popular on social media today is that of an anonymous high school student running an illegal library out of a school locker. The story started out on Yahoo Answers when a user with the handle of “Katniss” posted a question about whether it was okay to run an illegal library out of her school locker. According to the questioner, whose identity hasn’t been established, her school principal is very strict and issued a long list of banned books that oppose Catholicism. The list includes titles like Animal Farm and the Koran and others that the user says are her favorites (although even she thinks banning Twilight is just a matter of good taste).
People on Yahoo and Tumblr where the story is still circulating with thousands of shares and reblogs are universally in favor of this person’s illegal library of illicit books. Many have encouraged “Katniss” to go to the media with her story, but in an update to her question she says that the media is not allowed on campus and that her parents would be mad if they knew what she is doing.
While this story is one that makes many want to pump their fists in celebration or use it as an example of hope for the next generation, any intelligent internet user knows that not everything on the internet should be accepted at face value. An annoyed librarian writing for the Library Journal expressed some serious reservations as to the veracity of this story, pointing out inconsistencies about the claim of kids not being allowed to read certain titles, just how many books can be stuffed inside the average high school locker (over 60 by the poster’s count), and “Katniss” biography which says she’s a writer. The reticence to get the media involved seems pretty evasive as well, making the librarian highly suspicious about the entire story.
Whether the story is true or not, though, it isn’t entirely unbelievable. Schools have attempted to ban books all the way through to the present day, meaning that “Katniss” story does not exactly strain credulity. The possibility of truth is definitely there. In fact, America’s history of banning books isn’t just limited to actual history, such as Howl’s anniversary of confiscation. It happens with startling frequency.
Just ask internationally famous author Neil Gaiman, whose book Neverwhere was banned from a New Mexico school for containing explicit content. A mother claimed that it was inappropriate for her 15-year-old daughter to be reading the book because of the content of exactly one page where two people engage in some crotch grabbing through clothes and are obviously intending to have sex later on. The couple is not the main focus of the book and there is no other explicit content in the entire novel. But the New Mexico mom, who did not read the book herself, thought it was enough to get the book banned.
Gaiman, the author of adult novels and kids’ books such as Coraline, which was made into a film, expressed his sadness that books get banned at all. He told the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund in an interview that banning books sends the wrong message to kids about reading. If adults, no matter how well-meaning they might be, take away books their kids are actually interested in or restrict them to boring and badly written books that have been cleared according to some Victorian Era standard, kids will see no good in reading and they will stop reading almost entirely. With literacy programs a big industry in the United States, Gaiman’s comments hit close to home for Americans, many of whom are worrying about the literacy of their children.
Children of any age probably won’t be reading Ginsberg’s Howl. It is a difficult poem to read and understand and, despite the titillating explicit content of the poem, it is not all that mind-blowing. Kids and adults have just as wide an access to smut online as they do to books and, with how big the pornography industry is, it’s more likely that a 13-year-old is watching a video of smut than reading it. But Howl has value in today’s book culture because it serves as a reminder of what is possible for the printed word to achieve.
In the 2010 movie Howl which dramatized the obscenity trial from 1957, the poem was elegantly and stunningly animated while James Franco in his best Ginsberg accent read the poem. The effect is a spectacular experience of the written word synthesized with modern film practice. No one watching the not-safe-for-work video on YouTube can help but be struck by the force the poem still carries years after the Beat Generation has ceded its primacy to other poets.
The poem has reached cult status for many. Out of an obscenity trial and the Customs Department’s best attempt to keep people from reading it, Howl has risen out of adversity to represent accomplishment and acute commentary on American culture. Much of what Ginsberg was talking about in the fifties when he wrote the poem is still applicable today, especially when he talks about “the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising,” areas of culture that still retain their primacy over American life to this day.
The anniversary of Howl being confiscated is not a well-known moment in history nor will it make the national news stand up and take notice with its headlines, but it is important for people who enjoy the freedom to read anything they want to remember that it happened. How much poorer would the world be without this famous poem wandering around people’s consciousness like the drugs most Beat Poets were taking back then? Getting high on poetry is a lot better than any chemically induced head trip out there. But book banning still happens in America today, making history more immediate than it has ever been, and Howl’s anniversary is a reminder of why it should not still be happening.
Opinion By Lydia Webb