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."

I do not wish to give the opinion. that the Watch and Ward Society are the only crusaders involved. As I have said, they have been responsible for eleven suppressions in the past two years. The complaints which withdrew the other fifty-seven books from circulation were made by zealots, the police, and, in one case, the librarian of the Athenaeum. Under the absurdly strict terms of the existing law no publisher other than Horace Liveright has felt justified in exposing his book and himself to a test case. A book could not be defended as a whole, and the fine and punishment — for this is a criminal law and gives one a criminal record — were hardly such as one would wish to incur even as a martyr. That is the reason why books like The World of William Clierold, by H. G. Wells, The American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser, Dark Laughter, by Sherwood Anderson, Elmer Gantry, by Sinclair Lewis, As It Was, by H. T., The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway, and The Wayward Man, by St. John Irvine, — to mention a few which will not profit by any salacious publicity, — were suppressed in the city of Boston, and, if authorities wished, could have been suppressed anywhere within the Commonwealth, without trial. And that is why the publishers of All Quiet on the Western Front felt compelled to expurgate the English translation of their splendid novel. The book was printed in Massachusetts; its plates, should any unfavorable action have been taken, were open to confiscation. Printed copies might have been forbidden the mails.

All Quiet on the Western Front was published last June. Prior to publication, it had been adopted by one of the book clubs, at whose suggestion certain expurgations were made. In few instances verbal refinements were substituted for the 'jargon of the latrine,' but the only notable mutilation was the cutting out of a three-page hospital episode. Those who have read the German or English version find this scene one of the most tender aond appealing in the book, an opinion that was borne out in the recent Senatorial debate. Certainly the publishers have no hesitation in saying that their action has been more condemned than condoned, people being inclined t agree with Christopher Morley when he wrote, 'Here is a book that tells what modern war is really like, and the only things in it that we boggle at are the things that made even war seem momentarily human and tender.' Yet, in the face of the Massachusetts law, such prudery was considered expedient.

And what about the sixty-eight books which were actually suppressed? Why did they give cause for complaint, and whom did they offend? While it is not easy to inquire into the reasoning of those who take a morbid interest in other people's morals, we have here certain tangible evidence to guide us. 'It is desirable,' says E. M. Forster, the novelist, 'that people should not be corrupted, but there is no reason why they should not be shocked.' I submit that most of the suspected sixty-eight were banned because the ideas which they expressed on matters of sex and religion were shocking, not because the ideas or the language was such as to stimulate the reader's physical appetite. We know that a gentleman of high position objected to Elmer Gantry — presumably because it profaned his beliefs; we know that the Watch and Ward Society objected to eleven books, mostly novels — pre-sumably because of an anti-Victorian approach to matters of sex; we know a single clerical zealot objected to some thirty books and would have gone onto more had he not been stopped by his bishop; we know that the district attorney's office objected to nearly a score of novels sent them in angry remonstrance by a bookseller. The bookseller had been notified that they were taking action against some half-dozen titles. 'Why, if you ban those,' he said, 'I can send you twenty more, no better and no worse.' He did, and they did. I submit that these judgments are as erratic as any which were lodged by the postal or customs authorities. I submit that they are not such as we should be likely to receive had the books been fairly tried before a Massachusetts jury and judge and under the terms of a just law.


We have seen how in England and in the United States our book censorship laws have been derived from statutes originally framed as a protection against deliberate pornography. We have seen how these laws were extended in scope until they were able to be applied against books innocent as well as guilty, classics as well as the Memoirs of Fanny Hill. We have seen what erratic judgments are to be expected in bureaucratic censorship, as under the crusading fervor of paternalistic societies. In view of such evidence it is easy to cry out against censorship generally. I believe, and indeed my whole paper is in support of the theory, that there must be legal controls on books, and I believe that the law courts are a logical place for their examination and that our judges, if not our juries, are qualified to decide upon the ques-tion of whether or not they are obscene. I believe very earnestly that the law should be so worded as to take the whole book into account. Such a law is enforced in New York; such a reform is urgently needed in Massachusetts if our reading is to be untroubled by self-appointed censors. The Watch and Ward Society have intimated that they judge a book in this way, and, furthermore, that they might endorse such a rewording of the present statute as would make this the legal practice as well.

If the statute is so worded as to ensure the judgment of the whole book rather than the judgment of an isolated passage, publishers will feel justified in defending, as they do in New York and elsewhere, books which have been the subject of complaint. If the complaint is borne out by the decision of the jury and judge, the publisher may be considered to have received fair warning against such continued practice, and if the book is given a clean bill of health no more will be thought about it. Surely such an arrangement is infinitely superior to the present situation in Boston when at the insistence of private, and at times irresponsible, citizens books are banned in the city, without trial, yet sold like notorious hot cakes throughout the rest of the state. The hypocrisy of the present situation, the injury which it does to literature, the notoriety which it too often bestows on cheap books which would never otherwise have been brought to readers' attention, the contempt for law which it encourages among Massachusetts citizens, and the light of absurdity in which we find ourselves before the rest of the world these are the results of an obsolete statute and of a virtual but unofficial censorship in Massachusetts.

The vital clause in that Act runs as follows: 'If upon complaint there is any reason to believe that any obscene books, etc., are kept in any house or other place, for the purpose of sale or distribution, and upon proof that one or more such articles has been sold or distributed in connexion with such a place, justices may, upon being satisfied that such articles are of such a character and description that the publication of them would be a misdemeanour and proper to be prosecuted as such, order by special warrant that such articles shall be seized, and after summoning the occupier of the house, the same or other justices may, if they are satisfied that the articles seized are of the character stated in the warrant and have been kept for the purpose aforesaid, order them to be destroyed.' — Author

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