The Practice of Censorship

"Censorship wherever it exists is as much a problem for the police as for the critics. And, like the poor, it is always with us."

Living, as I do, in what Alexander Woollcott impatiently termed 'that nasty and silly city of Boston' and deriving my livelihood from publishing, I am naturally sensitive on the subject of book censorship. In itself censorship is an impatient theme, and when it calls for a law so unjust and an enforcement so unhappy as that in operation in Suffolk County (which contains the city of Boston) one is apt to follow Mr. Woollcott's example and lose one's temper. For two years I have served on committees which have endeavored to reform the Massachusetts laws 'relating to obscene literature.' In the course of this service I have come into dose contact with the actual practice of censorship and have gained, perhaps, more than a parochial perspective of the whole vexed question.

In a little over two years sixty-eight books have been suppressed in Boston. Only two of this number — The American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser, and Oil, by Upton Sinclair — were brought to trial. The other sixty-six were thought to be subject to the present Massachusetts statute, and so, according to the strict letter of the law, they may have been. Complaints, however, were lodged against them only in Suffolk County, where, in most cases, they were promptly withdrawn from sale; but, since officials throughout the other districts of the Commonwealth did not feel called on to take any action, we have the anomalous situa-tion of books being banned in Boston yet being sold openly in Cambridge, only three miles away.

But Boston is not alone in her trouble. In the fall of 1928 the officials of the United States Customs Bureau and the postal authorities held a conference, as a result of which 789 books were blacklisted from importation into this country. Of these books, 879 were written in the Spanish language, 281 were in French, 5 were in Italian, 10 were in German, and the remaining 114 were in English. I shall take up the list in greater detail, later.

We should also remember that at the request of the Home Secretary English publishers last winter withdrew two recent novels, Sleeveless Errand and The Well of Loneliness, both of which, as the sequel showed, were pure enough for circulation in the United States. In Ireland a new censorship law is being invoked which, if it is passed, will remove from circulation those books which 'tend to inculcate principles contrary to public morality,' and, as though to exemplify their object, private citizens and public associations — armed with revolvers — have been seizing and burning such radical journals as the London Observer and the London Sunday Times. Blasco Ibaftez, the Spanish novelist, — author of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, — died recently in exile for having dared to criticize the authorities in Spain. The Soviet Government on coming into power condemned Russian classics — Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and others — which but a few decades earlier had been suppressed by the Tsarist Government for being too revolutionary. And what do you think would happen to a citizen of Rome who undertook to write a biography of Mussolini in the modern manner?

Such evidence could be gathered from almost any civilized age and country; it is, I am sure, sufficiently strong to demonstrate that censorship wherever it exists is as much a problem for the police as for the critics. And, like the poor, it is always with us. In times of stress — such as the late war — it is practised with a rigorous hand and accepted with little complaint. In times of peace, policing is relaxed, and then, as in the present day, we have pause in which to revive our confidence in free speech. Despite the exigencies of war, however, it is our duty as citizens to see that our laws relating to obscene — and other — literature are as just and discriminating as wisdom can provide.

Frankly, I am only distantly interested in the Continental censors, but the censorship laws of England and the United States — which bear, it seems to me, a marked resemblance to each other, and which lately have begun to strike so close to home — interest me enormously. I should like to consider them separately with the hope of deriving, first, an explanation of their vagaries, and then, perhaps, a solution to the problem that has come to trouble so many of us.


In England the proceedings against books are taken under Lord Campbell's Act 'for more effectually preventing the sale of obscene books, pictures, prints and other articles.' Introduced in 1857, this Act was regarded as a mere police measure. Little Dorrit was published in that year and The Tale Two Cities two years later. This was not an age in which outspokenness on delicate matters was either encouraged or allowed. Desmond MacCarthy tells us that the Act aroused little interest among literary men; Disraeli, Macaulay, and Bulwer-Lytton, the leading men of letters in politics, were silent. The Athenaeum took no notice of it. Its prime object was the suppression of a trade in obscene books and pictures which flourished at that time, particularly in Hollywell Street, London. When Lord Campbell introduced the bill — now an Act — into the House of Lords, he said that 'the measure was intended to apply exclusively to works written for the single purpose of corrupting the morals of youth and of a nature calculated to shock the common feelings of decency in any well-regulated mind.' Debate ensued. But at a later meeting the noble lord said that

since he last addressed them he had received information of a most appalling nature with regard to the sale of these publications; but ... for decency's sake he would not dwell upon them. But he held in his hand a volume which would give their lordships a notion of what was going forward. It was by Dumas the Younger and was called The Lady of the Camellias.

La Dame aux Camélias was too much for the House and they passed the bill.

Under this Act the first step is a complaint made before a magistrate at an obscene book is being sold. The magistrate, if he is of opinion that the book is obscene and is being sold and that the 'publication of the book is a misdemeanor and proper to be prosecuted as such,' makes an order for the seizure of the book. The vendors, or publishers, are summoned to appear and show cause why the article should not be destroyed. After hearing the parties, the magistrate makes his order, which is subject to appeal to the Quarter Sessions. It is clear from the wording that it is not sufficient to prove that a book is obscene in order to justify its destruction. The phrase I have quoted above is a clear direction to the magistrate not to condemn a book because he is shocked by it himself, but to ask himself what conclusion a jury ought to reach after hearing all that could be urged in the publisher's defense. In the end, however, he must come back to his own personal reactions to the book in his endeavor to answer the question, 'Is it likely to corrupt?' Fortunately English justices are notably conscientious.

Though this Act had its origin in an age far less outspoken than our own, thanks to the sapience of English law it has never proved as burdensome as the censorship laws in the United States, which came, as it were, from the same family tree. In the past year Lord Campbell's Act was, as I have said, successful in suppressing two recent English novels. Two is a paltry number when compared to the Massachusetts black list of 68 or the Customs library of 739, and I might point out in further extenuation that one at least of these two dealt with a homosexual theme. Finally, let me emphasize the fact that by the law the censorship is in the hands of a jurist supposedly — and often actually — of high intelligence. The magistrate in the recent case which I have mentioned was Sir Chartres Biron, who is, I understand, an extremely well-read man and a writer as well as a lawyer of note.

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