ATG Book of the Week: Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature

by | Nov 10, 2014 | 0 comments

Censors at work downloadTitle: Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature
Author: Robert Darnton
978-0393242294,  $27.95
Imprint: New York: W. W. Norton, 2014

…With his uncanny ability to spark life in the past, Robert Darnton re-creates three historical worlds in which censorship shaped literary expression in distinctive ways.

In eighteenth-century France, censors, authors, and booksellers collaborated in making literature by navigating the intricate culture of royal privilege. Even as the king’s censors outlawed works by Voltaire, Rousseau, and other celebrated Enlightenment writers, the head censor himself incubated Diderot’s great Encyclopedie by hiding the banned project’s papers in his Paris townhouse. Relationships at court trumped principle in the Old Regime.

Shaken by the Sepoy uprising in 1857, the British Raj undertook a vast surveillance of every aspect of Indian life, including its literary output. Years later the outrage stirred by the British partition of Bengal led the Raj to put this knowledge to use. Seeking to suppress Indian publications that it deemed seditious, the British held hearings in which literary criticism led to prison sentences. Their efforts to meld imperial power and liberal principle fed a growing Indian opposition.

In Communist East Germany, censorship was a component of the party program to engineer society. Behind the unmarked office doors of Ninety Clara-Zetkin Street in East Berlin, censors developed annual plans for literature in negotiation with high party officials and prominent writers. A system so pervasive that it lodged inside the authors’ heads as self-censorship, it left visible scars in the nation’s literature.

By rooting censorship in the particulars of history, Darnton’s revealing study enables us to think more clearly about efforts to control expression past and present.

“There is no better guide to the inside story of censorship in the past or present than the internationally renowned historian Robert Darnton. He makes the most prosaic encounters come to life…Darnton brings all his skills and passions for books to this fascinating study of censorship in three different times and places and draws a number of conclusions that will be of interest to readers everywhere.” (Lynn Hunt, author of Inventing Human Rights)


“This is history at its most compelling, superbly researched and written with panache. Robert Darnton’s three case studies cast censorship in a new light.” (David Blackbourn, author of The Conquest of Nature)


“Darnton has written a lively, insightful account of the ‘human system’ of censorship. His comparative approach uncovers the specificity of censor-author relations while also revealing some of the broad similarities that emerge when those in power try to filter what persistent authors are determined to say.” (Michael Roth, president, Wesleyan University)


“A vivid, fascinating study of would-be controllers of literary output.” (Felipe Fernández-Armesto – Wall Street Journal)

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