Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature by Robert Darnton, W.W. Norton & Company, 304 pages
Each year a group of American civic-minded organizations celebrates the freedom to read with Banned Books Week that publicizes the top 10 books whose presence in schools or in libraries is challenged by fretful citizens. In 2013, the books included Captain Underpants; Fifty
Shades of Grey; and Bless Me, Ultima (by New Mexico’s Rudolfo Anaya). The fact that as part of the annual commemoration, governmentfunded public libraries display the books under assault is a sure enough indicator that censorship on a large scale is not much of a threat in the United States.
But Robert Darnton, the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and director of the University Library, Harvard, thinks we may be letting down our guard too soon. “In the early days of the Internet, cyberspace seemed to be free and open,” he writes in the introduction to Censors
at Work: How States Shaped Literature. “Now it is being fought over, divided up, and closed off behind protective barriers. Free spirits might imagine that electronic communications could take place without running into obstacles, but that would be naïve.”
To understand what is happening now, as well as what could happen, Darnton decided to study the history of censorship to see if there might be some useful guideposts. Specifically, he looks at three instances from the past.
The first is in Bourbon France, when authors were imprisoned and books by writers such as Voltaire and Rousseau were regularly banned. Next he turns to British India, where a colonial power sought to restrict seditious texts but found itself in conflict with its own beliefs in free speech. The final case study that Darnton offers, the most fascinating in the book, is that of Communist East Germany.
In each instance, Darnton uncovered histories far more complicated than one might expect. Beginning with France, he found that it was not merely a case of censors (evil and anti-democratic) repressing the rights of authors (daring and democratic). Rather, the system of censorship, which did work to keep certain ideas from gaining currency, also had a supportive side to it. Those works the government found meritorious gained a royal endorsement for their excellence.
“Censorship was not simply a matter of purging heresies,” he explains. “It was positive — a royal endorsement of the book and official invitation to read it.”
Darnton relates the case of James Long, an Anglo-Irish missionary working in Bengal who was tried and jailed for publishing an English translation of a play that sympathetically portrayed the horrible conditions faced by workers on indigo plantations and criticized the British overlords who kept workers in slavelike employment. It was, by Darnton’s admission, the most dramatic case of censorship in British rule over India.
The incident illustrates the central dilemma for the British Raj, as the English rule was called. To put away people for writing was contrary to the British-taught beliefs in freedom of speech, so the rulers turned to a system of surveillance and elaborate manipulation of courts to repress dangerous ideas. “Liberal imperialism was the greatest contradiction of them all,” Darnton notes. “So the agents of the Raj summoned up as much ceremony as they could, in order to prevent themselves from seeing it.”
While Darnton’s tales of censorship in Bourbon France and British India make for good reading, it is the section on Communist Germany that is worth the price of the book. East Germany was notorious for the extent of its censorship of books and its attempt to control all aspects of literature and culture. The fall of the Berlin Wall not only opened the country to the West but brought an end to the totalitarianism under which its citizens lived.
A mere seven months later, Darnton obtained an appointment to interview the two leading censors who, as the author writes, “sat at their desks with nothing to do, trying to make sense of it all and to explain their experience to a naïve outsider, when I showed up in their office at 90 Clara-Zetkin-Strasse.”
Again, as the author discovered in Bourbon France, the German tale turned out to be complicated. The functionaries charged with censorship did not see their work as repressing writing but rather an attempt to subjugate the art form to the service of socialism. Darnton details at considerable length the negotiations and fights among authors, editors, and the gatekeepers not dissimilar to those between writers and their editors elsewhere.
Without question, however, there were things those charged with censoring could not brook. The censors, out of power when Darnton interviewed them, told how they chased down words such as ecology, as pollution was only a problem in capitalist nations, and Stalinism, as mistakes are never made in communist systems. Yet at the same time they also permitted much in print that the rulers would have undoubtedly not wanted. However, the little literary cracks in the wall of repression were hardly a threat when the East German regime was at the height of its power.
At the end of his work, Darnton draws an important conclusion from his research, one that is particularly relevant when one considers the extent of censorship in places like Iraq, North Korea, and China. It matters greatly to the future what the citizens of those nations can and cannot learn.
Some believe that censors are by nature stupid, he says, because they seem incapable of ferreting out meaning between the lines. “The studies in this book prove the opposite. Not only did censors perceive nuances of hidden meaning, but they also understood the way published texts reverberated in the public.
“To dismiss censorship as crude repression by ignorant bureaucrats is to get it wrong. Although it varies enormously, it usually was a complex process that required talent and training and that extended deep into the social order.”