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Book censorship is focus of library exhibit

Andrea Lynn , Humanities Editor
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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — What do Madonna and the Bible have in common? What about the French poet Charles Baudelaire and the boxing legend Muhammad Ali?

They all have been victims of censorship.

As a new exhibit at the University of Illinois Rare Book and Special Collections (RBSC) Library demonstrates, nothing is immune from the censors’ bans, whiteouts, ink blots and razor blades.

All of the items in the exhibit, titled "An Epigraph for Condemned Books Around the World," are drawn from the collections of the RBSC Library. Items span 400 years of censorship history. The exhibit, in Room 346 of the University Library, 1408 W. Gregory Drive, Urbana, is free and open to the public. It runs through Feb. 7.

The exhibit begins with Baudelaire’s literary nightmare over "Les Fleurs du Mal" (The Flowers of Evil), a book of his poetry published in 1857; 1,300 copies were printed and sold for 3 francs apiece. Within nine days of publication, France’s daily newspaper, Le Figaro, was attacking four of the poems in "Les Fleurs" for emphasizing lesbianism and realism; the article also called for the French Minister of Justice to intervene.

The French government soon thereafter seized copies of the book, citing the 1819 "lois de Serre," which established penalties ranging from fines to imprisonment for publishing material that the court deemed "an outrage to public and religious morality, or to good morals." A provision of the law allowed for suppressing and destroying the writing in question. The laws were applied not to the literary work as a whole, but to offending passages or words.

Ultimately, the court rejected all counts purporting offenses against religion and most counts on offenses against public morality for the 13 poems originally incriminated.

Six poems, however, were judged to be indecent. The court ordered that they be deleted from future copies. Baudelaire was fined 300 francs, which later was reduced to 50 francs after a high profile member of French royalty interceded for him.

Nearly 100 years later, the court’s judgment against Baudelaire was vacated and the poet was vindicated. At that point, the six banned poems could then be included in new editions of "Les Fleurs du Mal." The exhibit includes an early edition of the contested book and various later editions, including copies signed by Baudelaire.

The Rare Book and Special Collections Library collects banned material within a broad context, said Barbara Jones, the head of the RBSC Library and curator of the exhibit. In her research she specializes on the First Amendment.

Among other things, the RBSC Library owns a large number of materials about Theodore Dreiser, the American novelist who took a great deal of heat for his references in "An America Tragedy" to pregnancy out of wedlock and to what then was considered explicit descriptions of sexual activity. Dreiser materials belong to the RBSC Library’s Hugh C. Atkinson Collection of Theodore Dreiser.

But the library’s "core" collection on censorship is the Ewing Baskette Collection.

Baskette, a native of Clarksville, Tenn., studied law and library science at Vanderbilt and Columbia universities. His last position was at the Illinois State Library in Springfield.

The bibliophile focused his book collecting on the topic of civil liberties after reading about the Scopes "monkey" trial in Tennessee. The Library purchased his collection after his death in 1958.

The Baskette Collection on Freedom of Expression contains original materials from radical movements, clipping files, court cases from famous civil liberties trials and books on controversial topics. It is one of the most heavily used resources in the Rare Book and Special Collections Library.

Other items in the current exhibit include:

  • Editions of several books and passages that the Roman Catholic Church forbade its followers to read. The Church began publishing lists of banned books in 1564, and updated them regularly until the mid-20th century.
  • Editions of books censored by Soviets, including Volume 5 of the "Great Soviet Encyclopedia," published in 1949. The volume had just been mailed to subscribers when the Soviet censors were ordered to remove references to Lavrentii Beria, Stalin’s former head of the Soviet secret police who had fallen out of favor.

    "The publisher sent notices to librarians all over the world, asking them to remove pages referring to Beria," Jones said, "and they were told to substitute pages about the Bering Sea."

    Librarians at Illinois recall that razor blades were sent along with the directive and new pages from Moscow. Their decision was to "tip in" the substitute pages, and to leave in the pages dealing with Beria.
  • Copy of Madonna’s controversial coffee-table book, "Sex," published in 1992, and a large collection of items relating to various efforts to ban or remove the book from bookstores and libraries.
  • Copy of the "Stam Geneva Bible," which probably was translated by the English community in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1560. It also is called the "breeches Bible" because of its famous translation of Genesis 3:7, which has Adam and Eve sewing fig leaves together to make trousers, called breeches. England’s crown and church prohibited the publication of this Bible.

    "The brand of Protestantism represented in the Geneva Bible was not to James I’s liking," Jones said. Meanwhile, Archbishop Abbot would not accept it because it omitted the Apocrypha – the 14 books of the Septuagint – which Puritans did not use. Because of these considerable roadblocks, the Geneva Bible had to be smuggled into England.

"The Holy Bible is probably the most censored text of all time," Jones said. "A clandestine printing business grew up around the Bible soon after the Protestant Revolution."

The RBSC Library owns hundreds of Bibles, Jones said, which is a great advantage for scholars who need to compare copies to see what changes were made by which printers "in accordance with governmental dictates of the times."

Heather B. Zinger, a UI senior, designed the exhibit.