Adultery, crime, and the “professedly obscene”: The beginnings of book bans in the United States

Book bans and challenges have been on the rise in libraries and schools across the United States: according to the American Library Association, who have tracked book censorship since 1982, over 1,600 titles have been affected in 2022 alone. These challenges, whether for political, legal, religious, or moral motivations, illuminate a variety of the nation’s current cultural anxieties, are not the first instances of books being banned in America. The American Antiquarian Society holds a panoply of materials that have been repressed, hidden, and censored, including a facsimile of the book which lit the flame of North America’s relationship with the concept of literary obscenity and government sanctioned censorship. In 1651, William Pynchon’s 1650 writing The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption was publicly burned in Boston via court order for its perceived criticism of the Puritans, who dominated local governance; Boston’s common executioner personally carried out the order. The book was so efficiently destroyed that only four copies are known to be extant, and are held at the Congregational Library in Boston, the British Museum, the New York Public Library, and the Connecticut Historical Society. 

Title page of a reproduction copy of The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, including details of Pynchon’s main argument, directly opposing Calvinist theory of the time.

Over 200 years later, after an aggressive morality campaign led by Civil War veteran and founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Anthony Comstock, the Comstock Laws of 1873 were passed in Congress which would effectively outlaw the distribution, sale, and possession of “obscene” materials, especially those solicited and sent through the U.S. Postal Service. U.S. obscenity laws were largely overturned through a series of Supreme Court decisions in the late 1950s, backed up by the First Amendment, which ended a nearly 90 year crusade on novels, valentines, song sheets, textbooks, contraception, newspapers, and erotica. Materials were confiscated and destroyed en masse during this time, significantly impacting the history of material culture in the United States.  

Evidence of the volume and variety of materials seized during this time can be found in an 1874 report of the Committee for the Suppression of Vice, which urges readers to destroy its words after reading, as it contains information on contraband seized in “the work of Mr. Comstock,” and such materials were “a fruitful source of demoralization and crime.” Listed alongside “indecent playing cards,” “rubber goods,” and abortifacients are not only books (134,000 lbs. worth, both bound and unbound), but materials and information used in their production, including names of “persons likely upon receipt of circulars, etc., to send orders.” AAS’s copy was personally given to the Society by Comstock in 1893.  

Full list of goods and their amounts seized and destroyed by Comstock roughly between 1872
and 1874.

Many of what are now to be considered classic works of Western fiction were affected by Comstock Laws, including John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, Daniel DeFoe’s Roxana and Moll Flanders, Candide by Voltaire, and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. 

The novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, also known simply as Fanny Hill, is considered to be one of the most prosecuted and banned books in United States history due to its overt representation of pornographic sex. It has been explicitly banned by the US government twice, once in 1821 and once in 1963 (both times for “obscenity”), before being legally cleared for publishing again in 1966. This 1820 copy lacks portions of the text, most of the plates, and is significantly worn. 

The only plate in the AAS 1820 copy.

Considered an essential text of Western canon, Voltaire’s literary satire Candide has been historically censored from the reading public in France, Switzerland, the United States, and by the Catholic Church since it was first published in 1759 for containing religious blasphemy and political sedition. Both the U.S. Customs and Post Offices have influenced circulation of Candide, from seizing inbound copies from France for obscenity to demanding the work be omitted from the shelves of major book retailers. 

Front matter from Candide, published in New York in 1864, marketed as “the spiciest, wittiest, and most exciting book in the French language.”

Throughout the 19th century, the Portsmouth Athenaeum, a membership library located in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, regularly published advertisements in local newspapers with lists of books missing from their collections alongside a plea for their prompt return. Beginning in March of 1873 (just as Comstock Laws were being passed), Moll Flanders — rife with allusions to sex outside of wedlock, adultery, prostitution, and crime — populated that list for the first time. Its loss from the Athenaeum’s collections may have happened through honest mistake, political cowardice, or perhaps a patron looking to squirrel away a title that would prove harder and harder to come by, as Moll was banned from shipment in the US post, drastically affecting available supply.  

Title page of a well-worn copy of Moll Flanders, and advertisement listing missing books from the Portsmouth Athenaeum, published in the Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics, March 15, 1873.

Described as “professedly obscene” and “objectionable” since its first publication in 1855, it wasn’t until the 1881 edition of Whitman’s magnum opus Leaves of Grass that its production was halted due to legal concerns. Under pressure by Comstock himself, Boston’s District Attorney advised Whitman’s publisher James R. Osgood that the book could not continue to be legally published without significant alterations to the text. Initially open to changes, Whitman later refused to revise his work due to the sheer volume of objections and was forced to find a new publisher. Due to the publicity this action caused— which increased further after the subsequent arrest of activist Ezra Heywood of Princeton, MA, for mailing excerpts of Leaves of Grass alongside other contraband—its popularity rose and under a different publisher the new edition’s first printing sold out in a single day. Heywood went on to publish a rebuke of both his treatment by Comstock’s goons and more broadly of federally backed, morality-based censorship titled “The Impolicy of Repression” in the Boston Commonwealth. Heywood was pardoned by President Harrison in 1878 after a successful, highly publicized petition and protest movement.  

See the full article here. 

For more information on the banned books discussed here, and others, check out the resources below. An exhibit featuring some of these works will be on display in the reading room at the American Antiquarian Society from November to December 2022.


American Library Association. (2022, September 16). American Library Association Releases Preliminary Data on 2022 Book Bans. News and Press Center. 

Crown, D. (2015, November 15). The Price of Suffering: William Pynchon and The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption. The Public Domain Review. 

Joseph P. Hammond, “Stevens, Oliver (b. 1825)” (Criticism) – The Walt Whitman Archive. (n.d.). Retrieved October 26, 2022, from 

Ockerbloom. (n.d.). Banned Books Online. 

Sohn, A. (2021, July 20). How Anthony Comstock, Enemy to Women of the Gilded Age, Attempted to Ban Contraception. Literary Hub. 

Stern, S. (n.d.). Fanny Hill. Retrieved October 26, 2022, from 

Published by

Gretta Cox-Gorton

Gretta Cox-Gorton is a Library Assistant at the American Antiquarian Society.

2 thoughts on “Adultery, crime, and the “professedly obscene”: The beginnings of book bans in the United States”

  1. Gretta, I hope that this item will find a place in your exhibition:

    Also, Helen Horowitz’s book and fellowship project: Rereading Sex (2002) explores sexual representations and the campaign to censor them that led to the landmark Comstock Law of 1873, which barred obscene materials, contraceptive information and devices, and abortion advertisements from the U.S. mails.

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