Skip to main content
Experimental College

Banned in Boston: Forbidden Books in the Cradle of Liberty

Sex, drugs, race, alcohol, homosexuality – what do these topics all have in common?

They have been divisive cultural issues, even here in Boston. These were also some of the themes and subjects in books that were perceived as taboo – banned in the city throughout the twentieth century. Owen Finnegan, a senior majoring in English with a minor in Education, wants us to understand why. He explores Boston’s fraught history of censorship and enforced morality with the first-year students in his Explorations seminar, Banned in Boston: Forbidden Books in the Cradle of Liberty.

Student holding sign about banned booksOwen Finnegan prepares to meet his first-year students during Orientation week.

Owen describes "an interesting paradox in Massachusetts and Boston where nowadays we think of the city as a liberal stronghold, but the history of the city is rooted in puritanical ideals" – as much as the city has changed, we can’t neglect that its past is still present in some ways.
 
In this class, students directly engage with banned texts to work out how and why they were forbidden. They have read various books, stories, and poems, such as Naked Lunch by William Burroughs, Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith, and excerpts from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, to name a few. 

In addition, Owen has planned field trips to get students into the city. He explains, "even though we go to school just a few miles from Boston, Tufts can feel distant and disconnected from it. I wanted this class to be a way for students to learn about Boston's history and form a stronger connection with the city."
 
For their first field trip last week, the class visited the Park Street Church, where Owen recounted when journalist and writer H.L. Mencken was arrested and brought to jail in Pemberton Square. He explains, "we followed the same path that Mencken would have been led down, and then we discussed our class reading on the Boston Common." Going to these sites helps to make the ideas discussed in class feel immediate and concrete – not to mention it’s fun to take a trip into Boston!
 
As an Explorations leader, Owen is not just a teacher, but a peer advisor and mentor to the first-year students in his class. He spent much of Orientation week helping them get adjusted to college life, taking them around campus, and helping them choose classes. When asked about his dual role as teacher and peer advisor, Owen explained that it’s not just about him giving advice to his students, although he does "love...being able to answer all the questions that first-years have." However, they help him, too. "Seeing how excited they are for their first year of college has made me more excited for my final year," which Owen describes as a major asset of the Explorations program.
 
This class proves that addressing difficult or forbidden topics doesn’t have to be scary – it can actually bring people together!

About the Author:
Zoe Leaf is a senior from New York City studying Child Study & Human Development and Food Systems & Nutrition. On campus, aside from working at the Ex College, she does research at the Child Health Equity lab, is a Co-Chair of the DREAM mentorship program, and is a leader with Peer Health Exchange and with FOCUS. When she's not running around campus, she can be found reading novels, watching Mad Men, and taking care of her many plants.