The Peripatetic Reviewer
THE winter of 1930 I found myself projected into a bitter political fight over book censorship. A citizens’ committee had been formed to revise the Massachusetts statute, an old blue law, under which a novel like An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser was censored because it “contained language judged to be obscene. The fact that the story was a moral one and that the miserable hero paid and paid for his sins was never made clear to the jury, whose scrutiny was confined to a few isolated paragraphs. The citizens’ committee wanted the law to be reworded so that the whole book would be judged. I attended the’ meetings as the representative of my boss, Ellery Sedgwick, and surprisingly was elected chairman. As I suppose is usual with reform groups, we had no funds and were split right down the middle by an illconcealed antipathy between the fearless extremists and those who wanted us to do nothing to offend the district attorney and the police. I was the compromise candidate. We raised money, hired a secretary, and went to work to correct a situation which had made Boston a laughingstock.
Although only two books, An American Tragedy and Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, had been brought to trial, a list of sixty-six others had been unofficially banned, thanks in large part to a retired minister who served as an unpaid consultant (and censor) to a branch library. His sense of outrage had a very low boiling point, and when he encountered passages in contemporary fiction which affronted him he first served warning to his local librarian and then to the nearest police officer. In no time flat a reverberating protest would be relayed by the Boston police to the Boston booksellers, and the offending novel was either returned to the publisher or sold under the counter. The mere threat of legal action was enough to ban a book, and this is the reason why novels like The World of William Clissold by H. G. Wells, Dark Laughter by Sherwood Anderson, Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis, The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, and The Wayward Man by St. John Ervine were then suppressed in the city of Boston.
When the list of books so threatened reached sixty-eight, the phrase “banned in Boston" became a national joke, and it was with the purpose of relieving the situation that our committee was formed. Naturally the minister zealot opposed our intervention, and in this he was joined by the Watch and Ward Society, which had long been concerned with keeping pornography out of the hands of the young, and by the Church.
Our new bill was recommended by the Committee on Legal Affairs but was voted down when it went to the floor of the legislature. After this first defeat, the stalwarts in my committee went to work in earnest; they were Herbert Burgess, the bookseller, Henry Burnham, the lawyer, and Lawrence O’Toole, who exerted a good deal of influence in his quiet way. Standing for us in the legislature were Gaspar Bacon, then speaker of the House, and in the Senate, Henry A. Shattuck. We drew a sounder bill on our second try, and then we went out to persuade the Commonwealth and its representatives.
From mid-September, when our bill was filed, to mid-February, when it came up for vote, I spoke forty-two times at Rotaries, Chambers of Commerce, P.T.A.’s, and wherever I could find a soapbox. I was sometimes referred to as “the man on dirty books,” and on the program I was usually preceded or followed by the Commissioner of Health, who was campaigning in behalf of clean milk. I listened to him so often that I knew his speech by heart just as I suspect he knew mine.
I also lobbied in the traditional way by taking react ionary members of the general court to lunch at the Barker House. There after a good meal we would sit while I dilated on the integrity of American publishers and authors. I remember one particularly stubborn session in mid-January. My guest was the woman member from Gloucester, and it did not appear that I had been making much headway. “ You can say what you please, Mr. Weeks, but I still think there are authors who write dirt for dirt’s sake. Why only this Christmas,” she went on, “I gave my sister a book which had been highly recommended, and you know what happened? She told me she was so disgusted that she had thrown it in the furnace.”
“What in the world was its title?” I asked.
“John Brown’s Body,” she said, “by that man Benét.” And she made a face.
I never did win her over, and of course to this day there are prudes like her in every community, readers of limited vision who cannot understand that there is a cause and effect in literature and that the violence in some of our contemporary fiction is the inescapable result of the violence to which the world has been exposed since 1914. Protest is one of the strongest weapons a novelist possesses, and you cannot fight fire with marshmallows.
When our new law was passed, Massachusetts became one of the nineteen states which had adopted a more liberal attitude toward censorship, and this tolerance was given federal reinforcement by Judge Woolsey’s trenchant decision on Ulysses. We have come a long way since those days when Jurgen was thought to be a naughty book.
Doctor against the galoots
A man who writes from a sense of outrage and who can make his wrath so compelling that you are lifted and swept along as you read is a rarity at any time. In The Last tngry Man (Scribner’s, $4.50) Gerald Green is telling the story of a doctor against the world: a Jewish doctor, Samuel A hetman, son of a Rumanian immigrant, self-educated and self-sustaining in his Brooklyn slum. Sam in his late sixties is a hard fighter matched against overwhelming odds, and the feeling of suspense and inevitability in his battle is well conveyed.
Woodrow Thrasher, vice president in charge of television in a big advertising agency, is in danger of losing their largest account when a comedy program fails to hold its rating; and in desperation he reaches out for a new show, a program featuring average Americans. Thanks to a lurid news story involving the rescue and treatment of a beaten-up Negress, Dr. Samuel Abelman becomes his first feature. Thrasher is working against time; he has to pump out, assimilate, and highlight the doctor s life in a series of visits which lead to reminiscence.
Dr. Abelman’s home on Haven Place was his office, and in the filth and noise of that savage street he was on perpetual call for whatever malady or crime might leave on his doorstep. He was also under continual assault from the Negro hoodlums who roamed the area under the leadership of Josh the Dill. They slashed the tires on his old Buick, bent his sign out of recognition, and the victims they left for his care were not pretty. For his sanctuary against all this Dr. Sam has created a garden full of bloom within the high brick walls of his back yard. Here he potters or sits reading Thoreau in the cool shade, and here his unscarred spirit emerges from the lined and tormented practitioner.
The novel evolves on two levels: on the first are the buoyant and resourceful episodes in which we see Sam struggle for his education, his strength, and his freedom in medicine. Contrasted with these vignettes from the past is the ruthless, angry battle which he is waging day by day in Haven Place, a losing fight in which the doctor’s integrity shines like steel amidst the tinsel of the television arrangements. The power of this book springs partly from the unpoliced violence of the Brooklyn slum, partly from the compassion of the angry doctor who, in his rough, tender way, is no respecter of race, and partly from the courage with which he meets his tough assignment. The book is dedicated to a doctor whom Mr. Green must have known well and from whom unquestionably he drew.
The FBI on land and sea
The FBI Story (Random House, $4.95) is a history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation by Don Whitehead of the Washington bureau of the New York Herald Tribune, and with the cooperation and approval of J. Edgar Hoover. It makes fascinating episodic reading, and it is only natural that the chapters dealing with Mr. Hoover’s term of office consistently appear in a favorable light. One cannot be critical of the hand that supplies the material. Where it is impossible to dodge the implication that someone blundered, as in the attack on Pearl Harbor, Mr. Whitehead is at pains to prove that the FBI was not at fault.
The early part of the book is great good fun, describing the Bureau’s origin in Teddy Roosevelt’s war against public land thieves. Inexperience and political interference led to some peculiar doings, while the lack of federal law on certain matters produced extraordinary improvisations. A German agent blew up the Vanceboro bridge during the First World War, was caught without difficulty, and then was prosecuted, in the absence of a federal statute against sabotage, “for transporting dynamite on an interstate passenger train.
The absurdities of the war were followed by ihe scandals of the Harding Administration, during w hich Gaston B. Means, later jugged for swindling in connection with the Lindbergh kidnaping, and several other dubious characters became powers in the Bureau. The reputation of the FBI was at rock bottom when a bright young lawyer named J. Edgar Hoover was put in charge with orders to clean up the mess. He did, and the rest of Mr. Whitehead’s book is devoted to the stringent methods by which this was accomplished, to lively accounts of famous cases, to an exposition of Mr. Hoover’s attitude toward Communists, and to long, careful explanations of the Bureau’s nonpartisan, purely investigative function in ihe recent loyalty invest igat ions.
This book is a clear and exciting demonstration of how much better protected the country is internally today than it used to be. What it does nor make clear is who picks the men for the highet echelons and what inner circle puts first things first when evidence is required.