To the Editor:
As Chairman of the Committee on Censorship of the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, I want to bring the following information to the attention of the Harvard community. As you know, Lillian Smith's novel "Strange Fruit" has been banned in Boston. In giving this book a leading review, the New York Times concluded:
"It should be required reading in every deanery, every parsonage, and every Legislature, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line." Consequently the suppression of the book in Boston, the one-time center of Abolitionist principles, appears utterly incongruous. The book is the opposite of sensational. It is a sober sociological study by a woman who has lived nearly all her life in the deep South, and who brings to the examination of race relationships no exaggerated or violent denunciation, but qualities of deep understanding and tragic pity.
The circumstances of the banning here fall into a pattern which needs vigilantly to be examined and exposed. The Watch and Ward Society lurks in the background, though the responsibility for the suppression has been taken by Richard Fuller, president of the Boston Board of Retail Book Merchants. Since Thomas Sullivan, the Police Commissioner, has explicitly stated. "I do not ban the book--I-have no right to do so," this would seem to put the action squarely upon the shoulders of Mr. Fuller. An earlier member of the Fuller family, Margaret Fuller, would not have acted with such timidty. She would have insisted on a fight on the principles involved.
The alleged reason for suppression is, of course, obscenity. But the one passage in the bok where an objectionable word is used is when Nonnie Anderson, the Negro girl who is going to have a baby, reflects on the cruelty of her situation. Tracy Deen, the white man who loved her but who is deserting her under the force of social pressures, tries to compel her to marry Big Henry, a Negro whom she loathes. At that point all the brutalities she has ever known well up in her mind, and she recalls the ugly sexual advances this same Henry made upon her when she was a child. The objectionable word comes into her mind with a revulsion of horror, and its effect is the reverse of obscene.
The book is a reformers book, in a sense akin to "Uncle Tom's Cabin," though it is far more temperate, and based on a deeper knowledge of actual social and economic conditions. It is throughly shameful for such a book to be banned in Boston at the very time when we need to examine every phase of our American race problems with something of Lillian Smith's care and wisdom. To those who believe that the fight against Fascism must begin at home, here is an opportunity to rally enlightened public opinion in order to prevent the recurrence of such an unjustifiable violation of the freedom of the press. F. O. Matthiessen, Professor of History and Literature.