10 Banned Literary Classics You Might Not Know

Here are 10 literary classics that were banned or censored at some point in history.

Jun 5, 2024By Alex "Cosmo" Lutz, BA English Literature

banned literary classics


Books have been banned for a variety of different reasons—from a misunderstanding of progressive themes by conservative systems to a variety of other prejudices. We are typically familiar with the more popular list of banned classic novels in the English language like James Joyce’s Ulysses or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Read on to learn more about 10 of the lesser-known literary classics of modern literature that faced censorship issues.


1. Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence

literary classics dh lawrence photo
DH Lawrence. Source: Telegraph


Though it was written in 1937, D.H. Lawrence’s most popular work, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was famously put on trial for obscenity in 1960. However, almost ten years earlier, his novel Sons and Lovers was also criticized for being obscene in the pre-World War I era.


Now, many consider Sons and Lovers to be Lawrence’s early masterpiece and his strongest work, but at the time of its publication Sons and Lovers was banned in the United States under an 1873 law called the Comstock Act. This law made it illegal to send or sell published material deemed immoral through the mail. The Comstock law was often used to ban works of fiction that are now considered modern classics.


Several of D.H. Lawrence’s works, including Women in Love have also made their way onto the banned lists for reasons related to sexual explicitness. This novel centers around the relationships of two couples and the homosexual tension between both men. 

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Lawrence’s novels are considered important for many other reasons, including their depictions of everyday, working-class life. Stories from this point of view were considered radical compared to works by other authors who wrote about the elite class in England.


2. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

cats cradle kurt vonnegut book jacket
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut book jacket, 2020. Source: Penguin Random House


Cat’s Cradle is a satirical, dark comedy written by Kurt Vonnegut in 1963. It uses an unconventional narrative structure to explore existential themes and a fear of technology experienced by the protagonist, John, as he researches the work of one of the fathers of the atomic bomb.


Cat’s Cradle has not been as widely banned or read as Vonnegut’s most popular work Slaughterhouse-Five, but it has still faced a variety of censorship issues. Ironically, many critics and scholars have praised Cat’s Cradle for the same things that got it banned in the first place. These reasons include satirical content, unfavorable commentary on both politics and religion, and the use of mature sexual content and explicit language.


The original idea for the novel Cat’s Cradle was written as a part of the author’s Master’s Thesis during his studies at the University of Chicago, but it was rejected in the late 1940s. After this, the author took a job at General Electric. While at work, Vonnegut met H.G. Wells who helped inspire the ice-nine motif that Vonnegut used in Cat’s Cradle.


Vonnegut is famous for writing in a very ironic style and for his heavy use of satirical techniques, like pastiche and a very dark, morbid humor. Many of his works have been banned and censored all over the world. He is also the winner of the National Book Award and his works continue to be studied and taught in schools as well as at higher academic levels.


3. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

mrs dalloway virginia woolf book jacket
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, 2021. Source: Penguin Random House


Today Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf is often a staple book in classrooms around the world. However, since this modern novel was first published in 1923 it has been subject to much censorship. Mrs. Dalloway, which was written in the stream-of-consciousness style, takes the point of view of a middle-aged, upper-middle-class woman named Clarissa Dalloway. The story follows her train of thought as she goes around London, England preparing for a party. The novel is an early portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder, then known as shell-shock, that was experienced by a generation recovering from World War I.


Woolf’s novel was banned for homosexual overtones, specifically the part of the story when the protagonist Clarissa expresses desire for another woman. Clarissa kisses the woman in a seemingly platonic context, but her sexual desire is revealed to the audience through her first-person thoughts which act as a narrative device.


There is no doubt that the author’s societal position as a woman writing about explicit themes during the 1920s made the novel even more controversial.  The author’s social status perhaps contributed to bans and censorship surrounding her work. Today, Mrs. Dalloway is considered an influential LGBTQ+ novel and a literary masterpiece.


4. Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

naked lunch william s burroughs
Naked Lunch by Wiliams S. Burroughs, 1959. Source: Grove Press


William S. Burroughs is considered one of the pioneers of the Beat Generation, along with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Collectively their works have inspired many icons of popular culture like Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Norman Mailer. Naked Lunch by Burroughs is another novel that was banned due to violations of the American Comstock law, which prohibited sending pornographic material through the post.


It was banned in both Boston and Los Angeles at the time of its initial publication in 1959 for being both obscene and pornographic. In 1962, the German translation of the text left large sections of text in English, in an attempt to censor some of the more explicit portions of the novel. Naked Lunch deals with post-absurdist themes. It was heavily influenced by the works of Franz Kafka. The novel portrays twisted, often grotesque depictions of hallucinations that stem from the vivid remembrances of the author’s own experience with heroin addiction.


5. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

one flew over cuckoos nest ken kesey book jacket
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, book cover, 2005. Source: Penguin Random House


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was Ken Kesey’s first novel and it was both critically and financially successful. The novel follows the story of Randle McMurphy, a criminal who has received state-mandated treatment in a psychiatric ward for criminal activity, as he causes chaos in the institution and tries to help other patients run away.


The novel discusses themes of insanity, institutionalism, and violence. From 1974 until 2000, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was banned from schools and barred from educational institutions. One teacher at a high school in Idaho was even famously fired for assigning it. In 1975, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was adapted into an award-winning film by Milos Foreman, starring Jack Nicholson. The Time magazine included the book on its list of 100 Best English Language Novels.


Kesey’s biography was as filled with controversy as his works, and this may have contributed to the novel’s controversial reputation. The author battled with both law and drugs, finding himself in prison several times. As such, the author only published a very limited number of novels during his lifetime. His other notable work Sometimes A Great Notion is incredibly difficult to read. The book is an homage to his home state and it depicts a history of the Oregon logging trade. Kesey considered it his masterpiece


6. Master and the Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

master margarita mikhail bulgakov book jacket
Master and the Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov book cover, 2010. Source: Penguin Random House


Mikhail Bulgakov wrote Master and the Margarita during the height of Soviet oppression between the years of 1928 and 1940. It was published in heavily censored versions in the Moscow Review by the author’s wife after his death. The work was not published as a book until 1967 when it was released in Paris.


Mikhail Bulgakov was regarded as a literary prodigy and a genius of his time. He grew up in Soviet-era Russia and initially practiced medicine during World War I as a licensed physician. However, he also demonstrated an interest in literature and began publishing short stories and essays in his early twenties. He later wrote plays as well as novels, and he was heavily influenced by renowned Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, as well as Charles Dickens, among others.


Bulgakov was famous during his lifetime and he knew Joseph Stalin personally. Stalin was an admirer of some of Bulgakov’s work and reportedly saw the play The Days of the Turbins many times. But Stalin also personally banned many of Bulgakov’s other works, including a biographical play Bulgakov wrote in 1939 about Stalin, called Batum. Even after The Master and the Margarita was published in its full version, it wasn’t readily available to the general public until the 1970s.


7. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

bluest eye toni morrison book jacket
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison book cover, 1999. Source: Penguin Random House


The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison is her first novel published in 1970. It tells the story of a young, African-American girl from the author’s hometown of Loraine, Ohio who comes of age in 1941 following the Great Depression. The novel was banned on multiple fronts and continues to be challenged by schools and school boards, particularly in the USA. It is frequently banned for one particular depiction of a graphic and incestuous rape scene, experienced by the protagonist. Many parents, teachers, and school board members feel that these themes should be reserved for adult audiences, and not taught in schools.


Toni Morrison’s most famous novels, Beloved and Song of Solomon won both the Pulitzer Prize and The National Book Award, respectively. Like The Bluest Eye, they have both undergone widespread censorship issues related to the content and depictions of racism, mature themes, strong language, and sexual content.


8. Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker

blood guts high school kathy acker
Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker cover art (2017). Source: Penguin Random House


Kathy Acker was a post-modern writer from New York City who often experimented with themes of sexuality, childhood trauma, and identity. She was a leading figure in the feminist and punk movements of the 1970s and 1980s and many of her views were considered controversial and even radical, both at the time and in the present day.


Blood and Guts in High School is Kathy Acker’s semi-autobiographical novel, though it never received widespread popularity. This is likely due to its sexually explicit nature. It took over six years for it to be published by the Grove Press in 1984.


At the time of its publication, it was banned in both West Germany and South Africa. It was also banned in Turkey in 2012. Blood and Guts in High School remains Acker’s most famous work and is considered both avant-garde and metafictional.


9. Querelle de Brest by Jean Genet and Jean Cocteau

literary classics jean genet querelle book jacket
Querelle Jean Genet book jacket, 1994. Source: Open Library


Jean Genet was a French novelist and playwright who knew Kathy Acker and was even fictionalized, though negatively, by her in Blood and Guts in High School. He lived the majority of his life as a vagabond and petty thief. Genet’s novel Querelle de Brest, which he co-wrote with artist Jean Cocteau, was originally published anonymously in French in 1947. This was likely because of the explicit nature of the content which centers around a bisexual, drug-dealing protagonist who is also a serial killer that targets seamen.


The novel includes illustrations by Coteau who drew around 30 sexually explicit images. The novel was banned in France in 1952 for public indecency. The text was translated into English in 1974.


Jean Genet’s work is often associated with the Beat Generation and he is considered one of the European Beats. Querelle de Brest received renewed interest and popularity after German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who was part of the New German Cinema movement, made a film adaption of the novel in 1982 entitled simply Querelle.


10. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

tropic cancer henry miller book jacket
Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller book jacket, 2015. Source: Penguin Random House


Henry Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer is a semi-autobiographical portrait of the author’s own experience living as an expatriate in Paris, France in the early 1930s. The novel interweaves moments of intense philosophical thought, descriptions of the European lifestyle, and moments of epiphany. There are also numerous sexually explicit scenes and scenarios.


Tropic of Cancer was initially published by Obelisk Press in 1934, but it wasn’t until the bigger Grove Atlantic Press acquired the rights to the novel in the 1960s that it was subject to obscenity trials in America for depictions of pornography. In 1964, Miller’s novel was finally deemed non-obscene in a US Supreme Court ruling and Tropic of Cancer paved the way for literary free speech.


literary classics henry miller portrait
Henry Miller, 1946. Source: Archive.org


Though the book has also been banned in Canada, Scotland, Australia, and Finland, critics now consider it Henry Miller’s magnum opus. The book had a major influence on writers such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, George Orwell, and Norman Mailer. The novel also regularly appears on longer lists of the most influential novels of the 20th century.

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By Alex "Cosmo" LutzBA English LiteratureCosmo is a writer and filmmaker from Ontario, Canada. After completing his BA in English Literature from Western University Canada, he spent nearly 8 years traveling the world, living out of a backpack, before deciding to return to Canada to complete his certificate in advanced Filmmaking from Fanshawe College. He currently works on-set as a Camera Assistant, and continues to travel, living out of a van and produces short films.