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."

There are several departments of the United States Government which take an interest in censorship. There is the Post Office Department, the Copyright Office, and the Customs Bureau, which is a subdivision of the Treasury Department. But it is the vigilance of the Post Office and the Customs which needs seriously concern us here.

Up till 1873 there had been vigorous objections to granting to the Post Office the power of excluding matter from the mails, but in that year Anthony Comstock secured the Postal Censorship Law. Thenceforth, obscene matter was to be excluded from the mails together with lotteries, explosives, and innumerable frauds of the Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford character. The Law is administered by Federal postmasters who need not appeal to the verdict of a jury. They act simply on their own discretion, and it is extremely difficult to secure review of what is done. Naturally, such censorship has had an eccentric career. At various times and in various places a number of magazines, among them the Little Review, Life, the New Masses, Physical Culture, Hearst's Magazine, and the American Mercury, have been barred from the mails.

One postmaster barred a copy of Ovid's Metamorphoses intended for a professor of Johns Hopkins. Another, more recently, interrupted, the passage of a publisher's catalogue which listed an edition of the Decameron. Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata was excluded by the New York post office in 1890. Swedenborg's Amos' Conugalis, published in 1768, was excluded by the Philadelphia post office in 1909; and in 1911 postal authorities excluded from the mails the official vice report of the city of Chicago. In 1922 an edition of the Decameron was confiscated by the Cincinnati post office, and for having it in his possession a bookseller was later fined one thousand dollars by the district judge. Surely it is apparent that policing of this sort, when it is entrusted — as it must be — to men of moderate, or less than moderate, literary discrimination, is little short of absurd.

The censorship of the Customs Bureau is, it seems to me, less eccentric in its evolution and much more in keeping with the changes which have occurred in some of our states. In 1842 Congress passed the first law giving customs clerks the right of censorship. Like Lord Campbell's Act, this law was originally aimed at pornographic literature and pictures. Its first terms were mild: —

Section 28: — That the importation of all indecent and obscene prints, paintings, lithographs, engravings and transparencies is hereby prohibited.

The tariff laws of 1890 and 1894 amended this to read: —

That all persons are prohibited from importing into the United States from any foreign country any obscene book, pamphlet, paper, writing, advertisement, circular, print, picture, drawing, or other representation, figure or image, etc., etc., etc.

But it was not until 1909 or thereabouts that people realized that the law could be construed in ways which would bar out various pieces of art and literature not previously excluded. In 1909 an attempt was made under this section to prevent the Field Museum from importing Chinese pictures and manuscripts, very important to them, on the ground that they were obscene. Not to multiply examples ad nauseam, let us come down directly to the conference between the Customs Bureau and the postal authorities which was held in the autumn of 1928, and of which brief mention has already been made. As you will remember, a black list the size of a considerable library emerged from this meeting. Further works were added to it in April 1929. As one reads over the horrid roll one is struck, first, by the curious discrimination which seems to have been made against the Spanish tongue. Mademoiselle de Maupin, by Gautier, is allowed by the censors to enter the country in its original print and in English translation, but in Spanish it is forbidden. The same is true for the Mémoires of Brantôme. Pietro Aretino the sixteenth-century Italian, is admitted when he speaks his original tongue or is translated into English, but in Spanish dress he is forbidden. On the other hand, The Arabian Nights in its literal English translations by Payne and Burton is perfectly passable, but when it has been translated into French by Mardrus it is a book no American citizen can touch. Finally, such books as the novels of Balzac, the Confessions of Rousseau, and the works of Voltaire and Rabelais have been declared ineligible to enter the country under this provision in the Tariff Act.

Two recent episodes add their humor to the situation. In February 1929,18 copies of Voltaire's Candide destined for use in a Harvard classroom were confiscated by a customs official on their entry into Boston. A protest was entered and the decision referred back, presumably, to a higher expert in Washington. But it was not till August that the books were released. The classroom, of course, by that time was empty. In April 1929, a copy of Rabelais being imported by the book collector A. Edward Newton of Philadelphia was confiscated by a New York customs inspector 'acting under Section 305-A of the Tariff Act.' In his letter of protest to the Customs Mr. Newton wrote in part as follows: —

The action of your representative is positively glorious! Rabelais is one of the world's classics: it is no more obscene than are Shakespeare and the English Bible. In order that you may not be the laughingstock of the world, I beg that the volume be sent to me immediately; but for no other reason, for one can secure a copy at any well-ordered bookshop or library in the United States.

I am not a youth seeking to gloat, surreptitiously, over a smutty book, but a student of mature years, the possessor of an important library, and the author of The Amenities of Book Collecting, A Magnificent Farce, Doctor Johnson — A Play, The Greatest Book in the World (a study of the Bible), This Book-Collecting Game. Moreover, I have a copy of the first edition of Rabelais, which is worth several thousand dollars.

If you keep or destroy my Rabelais, it will be in my power to make you and your department ridiculous the world over. This would afford me much greater pleasure than the possession of the book.

But Mr. Newton's Rabelais has not yet been returned. Deputy Commissioner J. D. Nevius is the man who reads and passes on suspected literature. Remember his name. 'What a name to fill the speaking trump of future fame!'

It is such absurdities as these, practised alike by the designated censors of the Customs Bureau and the Post Office, that have led Senator Bronson Cutting of New Mexico to propose an amendment to this section of the Tariff Act.

In a debate that furnishes some ex-cellent reading to the Congressional Record, Senator Cutting declared his opposition to that section of the present tariff 1aw which I have quoted and he protested just as vigorously against the wording of the new Tariff discussion, which, in addition to its charge against 'obscene literature,' goes to the further extreme of forbidding the importation of 'any book, pamphlet, paper, writing, advertisement, circular, print, picture or drawing containing any matter advocating or urging treason, insurrection or forcible resistance to any law of the United States.' If we may judge by the first vote, there is strong sentiment on his side.

The Postal Censorship Law, as I have said, was originated by Anthony Comstock, the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. It was one of his weapons in a long and notorious crusade against what he considered to be indecent literature. The censorship of the Customs Bureau, on the other hand, was originated for the purpose of suppressing pornographic pictures and writing, and only through long usage has it come to be applied to all manner of books, many of them classics read and respected the world over. There is ample evidence to show that such bureaucratic censorship is erratic, ill-considered, and unjust; and there is ample evidence to show that censors once placed in authority will rigorously prosecute their charge, if only to justify their appointment.

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