America’s First Banned Book Is for Sale for $35,000
Thomas Morton's political satire "New Canaan" made him an outcast and a celebrity
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
If you have a spare 35 grand or so, you now have a shot at a rare copy of the first book banned in America. Christie’s Auction House in New York recently announced that it will be auctioning a copy of New Canaan by Thomas Morton, a 1637 political satire that caused outrage among New England Puritans for its attacks on Puritan beliefs. As a result, the book was banned in America, and Morton became a celebrity overseas.
New Canaan was Thomas Morton’s revenge against Puritan colonists who had banished him from America. After attempting to start a free community in New England, Morton was arrested and sent back to England for inviting the native Alongquin people to a pagan maypole celebration in his new community. In response to his banishment, he wrote New Canaan, which satirized and reprimanded the colonist Puritans while elevating the morality of the noble Algonquin people. With the help of Ben Jonson and other literary figures of the time, Morton wrote and published his manifesto, which denounced Puritans and called for a diverse, free community called New Canaan to be settled in the New World. New Canaan made Morton a political celebrity, and was immediately banned in Puritan colonies.
If you love the idea of getting your hands on a book that invoked the wrath of the Puritans, you might wonder what it takes to keep a volume like this in good condition. According to John Overholt, curator of the The Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson/Early Books & Manuscripts at Harvard, “The number one rule for taking care of rare books is that they want to live in the same space you do, not an attic, basement, or garage.” No matter how well a rare book might fit in your attic along with all your other haunted paraphernalia (dusty travel trunks, mannequins wearing moth-eaten ball gowns, strings of skeleton keys that don’t open any known locks), please remember that these books will do better in clean, temperature-controlled rooms. Luckily Mr. Overholt also states, “The good news is that when this book was printed, paper was made from rag fibers, not wood pulp like modern paper is. It’s usually very strong and soft—brittle, crumbly paper is more common in books from the 19th and 20th centuries.” This book’s material is a bit more forgiving than the Puritans were.
Ironically, the Puritans’ censorious attitude probably made this New Canaan sale a much bigger deal than it otherwise would have been. Mr. Overholt explains, “If there’s a campaign to destroy copies of a particular book or prevent it from being sold, that’s likely to mean it’s rare today, and often the things that made something forbidden in the time it was published make it especially interesting today.” While it’s not always true that every banned book is worth more, it’s certainly likely that taboo books will be more interesting to collectors. In the case of New Canaan, only two other copies of the book have been available at auction in the last 30 years, and this 1637 first-edition is valued at a cool $35,000–45,000. For reference, that’s about the cost of a decent-sized home in Cleveland, a tiny home in Sacramento, a month’s rent in New York, or roughly 700 tickets to Electric Literature’s Masquerade of the Red Death.
If you don’t happen to have that kind of money lying around, you can find the full text of the book on Project Gutenburg, or a digitized version on the Smithsonian Library website. If you’d like to see a copy of the book in person, visit the British Library’s English Short Title Catalogue for a list of libraries in Britain and North America with copies of New Canaan.