Although the banning of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" (discussed in the review of the book "Obscene in the Extreme") was short-lived and did little to discourage the success of the book, it reflected a troubling tradition that's still going strong.
"Oh, that was in 1939 -- ancient times," I hear some say, but it makes little difference.
Even in 2008, books still represent threats to one group or another, so much so that they strike back with threats of their own.
The recent decisions by two publishers to cancel publication of Sherry Jones' novel, "The Jewel of Medina," is yet another discouraging case in point.
Ballantine Books paid Jones $100,000 for her fictional account of Aisha, Muhammad's child bride, and a sequel. "The Jewel of Medina" was to have been published Aug. 12, but after it was harshly criticized as "soft-core pornography" and insulting to Muslims in May, Ballantine's parent, Random House, decided to bail out.
The critic is Denise Spellberg, professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas and author of a nonfiction book about Aisha. Doubleday, another Random House imprint, plans to publish her book about Thomas Jefferson and the Koran.
Spellberg warned the publisher that this "pornography" was a "national security issue" and that the book should be killed. She shared her concerns with the editor of a popular Muslim Web site who spread the word among that community.
Random House agreed, fearing, it said, for "the safety and security of the Random House building and employees." (Note that it put the building first.)
It cited "cautionary advice" that the book "could incite acts of violence by a small radical segment." No actual threats were listed, however.
Jones, a Seattle-based journalist, was released from her contract (but kept the money) and sold the book to a Serbian publisher. Last week, it reneged after printing 1,000 copies when a Belgrade Muslim cleric complained.
"The Jewel of Medina" is still in play, though. The Danish publisher Trykkeselskabet has agreed to print it.
Yet, when America's biggest publishing house bails out because of perceived or possible threats on a novel as innocuous as "The Jewel of Medina" sounds, it surrenders to a paranoia that trumps the First Amendment.
It should be added that Random House's owner is Bertlesmann, a huge German media outfit, and Germany has had its issues with its Muslim minority.
Salman Rushdie's controversial book, "The Satanic Verses," appeared 20 years ago and soon his long ordeal with Iranian clerics began, a 10-year period of hiding for him and the death of one translator and injuring of another.
Rushdie last week condemned the cancellation by Random House, his publisher as well. "This is censorship by fear, and it sets a very bad precedent," he told them.
1939, 2008. Not much has changed.