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  • Susan Stoderl

Book Ban Week | A Classic Still Banned in Some Places, Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms.


WWI background, Hemingway and Book Cover
Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms

Since 1929, the authorities have heavily censored and/or banned A Farewell to Arms, the story of WWI on the Italian front. Across the U.S., it was banned for offensive language and explicit sexual content, as well as for taking a pacifist tone. Like the English war poets, it spoke the truth of what war is—blood, dirt, filth, fear, and demoralization. In Italy, the fascists banned it for its negative view of the forced retreat from Caporetto of 1917 in negative terms. Ireland banned it for its sexual content in 1939. Beginning in 1933, the Nazis condemned and burned it because it was considered immoral and did not present the Nazi’s view of true manhood and the virtuous family.


In 1917, Ernest Hemingway was a volunteer with the Red Cross as an ambulance driver. His ambulance came under fire and he was wounded. Even so, he still tried to save another injured soldier and spent six months recovering from his wounds in Italy. The Austro-Hungarian and Italian soldiers were at a standoff for two and one-half years before the Battle of Caporetto. Many of the Italian soldiers, exhausted, and overcome by poisonous gas and superior weapons, turned and ran. Italian casualties at Caporetto totaled almost 700,000—40,000 killed or wounded, 280,000 captured by the enemy, and another 350,000 deserted.


My grandfather was in WWI in France and suffered PTSD for the rest of his life. The family stories of his time in France echo what I read in A Farewell to Arms as a teenager. He was a God-fearing and moral man, but his actions in France were like those described by Hemingway. The dead were encased in canvas bags. His job was stacking the bodies in a non-refrigerated Paris morgue, day in and day out. He had been mustard gassed so that was probably the reason for his duty in the morgue. So yes, he drank and cursed, and went out with women even though he was engaged to my grandmother to escape what no one should have to witness.


Men and women who are fighting for their lives every minute of every day—cold, wet, and often hungry, do not talk and act like they are in a prim rural Sunday School. They are facing death every minute of every day and witnessing atrocity after atrocity.

For those who wish to censor and ban books, such as Hemingway’s Farewell of Arms, I would ask them to walk a mile in his shoes, in Italy or France, sometime between 1914 and 1919. It is easy to condemn and ban from the safety of a sanctimonious chair.


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