Local View: Banned books of 1922 reveal century of cancel culture

From the column: "We think of cancel culture as something more modern, but it was, in fact, very prevalent in the birth year of Betty White."

Dave Whamond / Cagle Cartoons

Many iconic celebrities died in 2021, including Cicely Tyson, John Madden, Anne Rice, Michael K. Williams, Cloris Leachman, Ed Asner, Samuel E. Wright, Jessica Walter, Prince Philip, Hank Aaron, Stephen Sondheim, and Betty White. The oldest of these famous people was Betty White who was only 17 days short of her 100th birthday when she died on Dec. 31. It is amazing to reflect on such a long and storied life and to contemplate the world she was born into compared to today.

What was it like when Betty White was born in 1922? To get a sense of the spirit of those times, I reviewed the most popular literature of that year and discovered that literary modernism was the prevailing form of writing.

Literary modernism was greatly influenced by industrialization and The Great War (now known as World War I). Most authors consciously broke with traditional writing and tried to reflect new ways of thinking in the world by the use of non-linear narratives and character monologs that focused more on the free-flowing daily experiences and emotions of the individual. It was an attempt to understand the unsettling massive technological and social changes of the early part of the 20th century.

In particular, 1922 saw some stellar modernist literature, including “One of Ours” by Willa Cather (which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923), “Ulysses” by James Joyce, “The Beautiful and the Damned” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Babbitt” by Sinclair Lewis, “Jacob’s Room” by Virginia Woolf, “The Wasteland” by T.S. Eliot, “The Velveteen Rabbit” by Margery Williams, “England My England” by D.H. Lawrence, “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse, “The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle” by Hugh Lofting, “The Secret Adversary” by Agatha Christie, and the play “Baal” by Bertolt Brecht.

While 1922 was definitely a hall-of-fame year for literature, it was also a year of literary controversy, with most of the books listed above being banned at one time or another by school districts; local, state, or national governments; religious groups; and individual libraries. We think of cancel culture as something more modern, but it was, in fact, very prevalent in the birth year of Betty White.


Take James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” for example. First published in book form on Groundhog Day in 1922 (the author’s 40th birthday), it lays out one ordinary day in the lives of Leopold Bloom, his wife Molly, and Stephen Dedalus, who all lived in Dublin, Ireland. Because of scenes of sexual fantasy, “Ulysses” was labeled obscene and banned by the U.S. government and the government of the United Kingdom for more than 10 years. These two governments actually confiscated and burned 1,000 copies of the book.

Minnesotans are well represented on the list of 1922 literature that fell victim to cancel culture. F. Scott Fitzgerald, born in St. Paul in 1896, had his book “Beautiful and the Damned” banned by a number of entities because they found the lifestyle of his main character, Anthony Patch, unacceptable due to immoral drinking and nightlife. Conversely, Sinclair Lewis, born in Sauk Centre, in 1885, had his book “Babbitt” banned because it poked fun at “good, solid, middle-class values” and was “pro-communist,” according to conservative groups.

Calls for banning or revising books, films, television shows, and art exhibits, because some audience members object to some of the material or the cast, are examples of cancel culture.

Betty White herself was no stranger to cancel-culture pressures. During her early days on television in 1954, as host and producer of her own variety show, she featured Arthur Duncan, a very talented Black tap dancer and singer. In 2018, on a PBS documentary, Duncan stated, “I credit Betty White for really getting me started in show business, in television.” After Duncan’s first appearance on “The Betty White Show,” there were threats that southern television stations would no longer carry the show if it continued to feature a Black person. In response to this racist pressure to kick Duncan off her show, White responded, “I’m sorry, but he stays. … Live with it!”

While Betty White is admired and loved for her talent, personality, and longevity, her refusal to go along with an immoral request from cancel culture makes her a very courageous person we all should emulate and remember.

Dave Berger of Plymouth, Minnesota, is a retired sociology professor who taught for 37 years. He is also a freelance writer and regular contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page.

Dave Berger.jpg
Dave Berger

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