The phrase "banned in Boston" has long been a liberal's irritant, a zealot's satisfaction, a publisher's pleasure and a reader's guide.
From Walt Whitman to Lillian Smith, a distinguished company of artists have rated a place on Boston's official or unofficial blacklist. But to an ever-growing extent, their works are today being joined by such efforts as "Murderous Gangster" comics, "girlie" magazines, and over-sexy pocket-sized books.
A liberalized obscenity statute, the abrupt about-face of the Watch and Ward Society, the realization that banned material all too often gained valuable publicity--these are some of the reasons which account for today's far less frequent censoring or prosecutions of major literary works.
But major literary works are no longer the prime concern. A market flooded with "cheap" literature is growing increasingly larger, and, quietly and efficiently, the Attorney General's office, local police forces and various civic and religious organizations are trying to do something about keeping it clean.
"Corrupting" comic books, lurid magazines, and inexpensive reprints of more costly editions today fall beneath the censorial hand, a hand that has so far restrained itself, but that could assume the viciousness of a mailed fist. It is an "unseen censorship" working behind the scenes and, in Boston as in other cities, making its way unimpeded.
Here, then, is the liberal's dilemma. That trashy literature is a problem, most will agree. How to deal effectively with that problem is another question. The liberal feels, on one hand, that any form of censorship is repugnant. Yet on the other hand, he cannot help but realize that much of the material on the market today is published with but one aim in view--the arousing of violent emotion through sensational methods, and a consequent boosting of sales.
The Good Old Days
"Obscenity" versus "Art" was an easy battle to fight until a tremendous volume of cheap popular literature complicated the issue, and the nation's publishers began evading their own moral responsibilities--book by book, magazine by magazine, lurid photo by lurid photo.
Incidents in the chequered career of books in Boston still provide vivid case histories, however, for anyone's censorship file.
For instance, there was the spring day in 1926 when H. L. Mencken strode onto Boston Common, and in the presence of 2,000 cheering students, his two attorneys, and the Boston vice-squad, accepted a marked half-dollar from the Rev. J. Frank Chase in payment for the "Hatrack" issue of Mencken's American Mercury. The police and Chase's Watch and Ward Society had placed the issue under the ban because the short story "Hatrack" concerned prostitution in a small town.
Mencken, in a subsequent trial, was cleared of all charges, and the subject was a source of glee to him ever after. Other booksellers have not been so fortunate.
In the Dunster House Bookshop case of 1930, for example, an agent of the Watch and Ward Society, posing as a customer, ordered and paid for a copy of the proscribed Lady Chatterly's Lover, by D. H. Lawrence. The proprietor was subsequently arrested and fined in a Cambridge District court; a higher court later refused to review the case, stating it was obvious the proprietor knew he was purveying "obscene" literature.
Although the society was badly shaken by the adverse publicity it received for its role in the Dunster case, it continued to use the same methods, and aimed at the same objectives.
But 1944 brought a stinging reprimand to the group from, of all persons, a Boston Municipal Court Justice. Watch and Ward men had again figured in book proceedings, by purchasing a copy of Erskine Caldwell's Tragic Ground. When the case was tried, however, Judge Elijah Adlow threw it out of court, commenting he was "sick of the whole situation."
"Our unique extra-legal suppression," he stated regretfully "continues to operate at various levels."
Time for a Change
Two amendments to the obscenity statute--Chapter 272, Section 28 of the General Laws of Massachusetts--appeared before the Watch and Ward moved on to another sphere of activity. The Society now concerns itself chiefly with crime in general, and with pornographic advertisements. Only six percent of its activities are devoted to literature.
Under these present statutes, the case of Lillian Smith's Strange Fruit might have had a different ending. In fact, the case, tried before the amendments went into effect, pointed up the sore need for such revision.
In 1945, Cambridge Police Chief Timothy J. O'Leary banned the book in this city. He followed the lead of the Boston Police, and the Boston Bookseller's Association, both of which joined in squashing sale of the book. The group asked the author to delete three lines of "sexual phraseology."
'Strange Fruit' and a New Law
The Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union then decided to bring the case out into the open and fight it. By prearrangement, Bernard DeVoto, accompanied by his attorney and two Vice Squad detectives, purchased a copy of Strange Fruit in the Harvard Law Book Exchange. The proprietor of the Exchange was brought into a lower court where he was found guilty of selling "obscene" material and fined $200. Upon appeal, Superior Court justices upheld the lower body's decision, but only with some reluctance. Unfortunately, under the old law the higher court was permitted only to review the actual conduct of the previous trial, and not the book itself.
Under the laws of 1945 and 1948, this situation and several others are remedied. The amendment accomplished these things, among others:
1. Recognized difference between children and adults in considering civil suit. A dealer can be prosecuted if the purchaser of an obscene book is under 18 years old, but only after obscenity has been legally established by suit against the book. In the case of magazines and lewd pictures, however, age is irrelevant.
2. Only the Attorney General and District Attorneys can initiate proceedings to ban the sale of a book, a proviso which severely limits direct legal action by local authorities.
Furthermore, suit brought against a book is now tried in a court of equity. This means that in the event of an appeal, the higher court may review the facts of the case and not only the procedure at its trial.
The law and its amendments shift responsibility for "obscenity" from the bookseller to the book, thus serving to reduce the force of threats and warnings prior to a legal decision. It is also worthy of note that the law, by taking into account "audience" and "total artistic effect", encourages a more enlightened attitude on the part of the judges.
In contrast to the yearly hue and cry of previous times, only three cases have been publicly tried since the law went into effect. In the case of Forever Amber, the courts decided in 1948 it was hardly obscene, but rather "sporific." It was sold. In 1950 James M. Cains Serenade and Erskine Caldwell's God's Little Acre were tried. Judging the books as total works of art, the courts decided the former was not obscene, but the latter was, and should not be sold.
Question of Pulp
That the state's obscenity statutes are reasonably sane, judges, writers and the morally-minded will now agree. But each month, millions of copies of comic books, magazines, and pocket reprints and originals come into Boston and Cambridge. To check and try each one on charges of "obscenity" (if it were deemed so) would be absurd; even to read them all would be impossible. Yet all are available to six, as well as 80 year olds.
Faced with this problem, citizens, police, and various organizations are combatting it subtly or openly, as the case may be.
The censorship is primarily one of "cooperation," carried on between organizations whose motives, if not actions, are often praiseworthy, and booksellers and distributors who are usually glad to oblige. It is censorship by "Polite" warning, and "helpful" advice. It is highly effective.
Here in Cambridge, for example, such activity has been prevalent. Only on a few occasions has it become noisy, but even then it drew few protests.
One of the louder incidents occurred in the fall of 1951, when one Alfred Vellucci was campaigning for a post on the Cambridge Schools Committee. The strong point in his drive for election was his announced morals crusade, in which he distributed a pamplet called "Arouse Ye Citizens," signing it "Al Vellucci, Father of Six." With a larger brood to guard than most, he was intimately concerned with obscene literature, and asked that cheap and immoral books be banned from stands where children could pick them up.
Shortly after Vellucci's pamphlet appeared, several paper-back editions disappeared from Cambridge newstands. Among them were John O'Hara's A Rage to Live, and Torres' Women's Barracks, and Calder Willingham's Geraldine Bradshaw. In addition, a magazine called Art Photography was lifted, under the watchful eye of Cambridge police.
In turn, shortly after the new Schools Committee--with Vellucc a member--took office, Chief of Police Patrick F. Ready was accorded a vote of praise for his action in removing the books.
No charges were ever brought against these publications and no court order was ever issued for their suppression.
According to Ready, the operation in which a bookseller is "warned" works something like this: after a complaint from a group of private citizens has been received by the police, an officer, usually a plain clothes man, will visit the bookstores carrying the supposedly obscene piece. The officer will call the attention of the book-seller to the "lewd" parts in an attempt to discover his intent in selling the book.
The next approach, according to Ready, is to ask the dealer, "Have you got any children?" The reply is often "Yes." "Would you like to have them reading this stuff?" "Nine out of ten dealers." Ready said, "don't know when a book contains lewd sections. They answer "No" to the last question and take the book off the shelves."
"Of course," he continued, "we don't claim to be real experts on this stuff, but we know some thing is obscene or indecent when we see it. And this applies to movies as well as to literature."
Detectives, often policewomen, are also often used to screen most films, plays and art exhibitions. In the spring of 1951, Exstrasy an Austrian film, thus came under a Cambridge ban for its suggestive symbolism, and because Hedy Lamarr appeared nude. Last spring, a Brattle production of Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms was "cleaned up" enough to avoid being forbidden, after the ladies found it shocking.
"Warnings" have also recently been issued on a state-wide level, notably in the March case of Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer's alleged expose, "U.S.A. Confidentiial."
The friendly "advice" given by State Commissioner of Public Safety Daniel I. Murphy at that time, however, dealt not with obscenity but the fact that U.S.A. Confidential might be later sued for libel. State Police visited every book store, and most sellers immediately took it off the stands. It is still unavailable in Harvard Square.
Rumors at that time indicated that the State Police, the Governor, or any one of numerous state officials treated unfavorably in "U.S.A." might have brought up the police action, but none ever admitted to it. Lawyers, in addition, suggested that the state police might have been operating somewhate extra-legally in their action. Logically, the attorney general's office would have to request legal action on the book before suppression could be ordered.
"U.S.A.", is at the present writing, still under suit, in a New York Federal Court, for damages worth millions of dollars. It is, nevertheless, still on sale in many states. Its authors, Lait and Mortimer, incidentally, called Boston "...the place where publishers pay to have books banned, but little else ever happens."
For every case that causes local or state attention, countless instances of "warnings" and "polite recommendations" go unnoticed. Under the law, the Attorney General and his District Attorneys are the only men granted the power to initiate action against an obscene publication. But police chiefs, Parent-Teachers Associations, and countless well meaning civic and religious groups combine, in the name of their children, to see to it that obscene literature is taken out of sight.
Perhaps the most active authorized group in the Commonwealth is the Massachusetts Advisory Committee on Juvenile Reading. Set up in 1949 by Attorney General Francis E. Kelly, the Committee serves as a screening group. It is composed of 29 men and women representing groups like the Massachusetts PTA, the League of Catholic Women, the Jewish Community Council, the Knights of Columbus, the Holy Name Society, the American Legion, the Amvets, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and several other civic, religious, and educational groups.
In a statement of intent, the group has said it is "...organized for the sole purpose of assisting parents, teachers, and librarians in the better selection of reading for juveniles..." It claims it will "...confines its attention solely to matter made available for juvenile reading," and it does.
At monthly meetings, the Committee tries to determine what books are "prejudicial to the morals" of juveniles. The 29 members do not read every publication that is shipped into the Commonwealth; they receive complaints from individuals of local groups about certain books.
The groups most often registering complaints are the PTA, the Knights of Columbus, the American Legion, and, in fact, most of those organizations represented on the Committee's board.
If the report is unfavorable, the Committee notifies the Attorney General, who sends a form letter to book sellers, advising them that the book is "unsuitable for persons under 18."
One member of the Committee said in matters of "cooperation" of this sort, where only a warning letter is sent out, the group "..relies mostly on public spirited citizens and police chiefs..."
In the less than three years of its existence, the Committee has advised that over 250 pocket books, comic books, and lurid magazines be withdrawn from the shelves, or at least withheld from persons under 18 years of ago. At first, members concentrated chiefly on pocket editions--the 25 cent variety. Lately, however, it has moved into the sphere of the comic books and has banned such magazines as "Wink" and "Whisper."
The Committee is "trying to work quietly." Members feel too much publicity will nullify its work. And "....it's done a lot of work," said a member of the Committee, "for which its gotten little credit."
Committee members also feel that they have "educated" distributors to the point at which many refuse to display such publications without ever needing the friendly stimulus of a letter from the Attorney general.
Such reprint titles as James T. Farrel's "A World I Never Made" and Mickey Spillane's "I, the Jury" disappeared from drug-stores and book counters in the Harvard Square area, after the Advisory Committee recommendations.
Somewhat typical of other civic and religious groups who are seriously concerned with the problem of "dirty books" is the Holy Name Society of the Boston Archdiocese. A Catholic men's organization, the Society for the past few years has been conducting a quiet, but highly effective war on comics, magazines, and cheap books that it finds objectionable.
According to Edward V. Hickey, a Quincy businessman who heads the Society, some 350 publications have been removed from stands in and around Boston by "purely voluntary" methods. Again, the bookseller is merely "requested", presumably in a man-to-man talk, to remove the material from sale; according to Hickey, "we made no threats of boycott or prosecution."
The Holy Name Society, which Hickey said is often aided in its efforts by other organizations, bases its action on reports from the National Organization for Decent Literature. It is on the watch, only for obscenity, Hickey said, and is not concerned with material which might prove objectionable on racial or religious grounds.
"Not for juveniles" has never been this group's catch phrase, however. It aims, frankly at any and all indecent literature, no matter what the possible audience.
"It's the same problem in selling bum goods of any kind," Hickey said, "and we ask sellers to look at it that way."
Since its formation, the Advisory Committee--the more publicized of the two groups--has withstood vigorous, albeit sporadic, attacks from opponents both to the right and to the left.
Those of the conservative element feel the advisory group is far too wishy-washy; as is implied in three bills still pending in the Massachusetts House, they want censorship with a punch to it.
Squatters on the other side of the fence are inclined to think the Committee's functioning vague and inconsistent. Writers, critics, publishers and various literati most frequently fall in this camp. They question the value of banning a 25 cent reprint edition of a work, while allowing the two or three dollar hard cover edition to go scot free, for instance. On the other tack, when one publisher's book came under the prohibitory advice of the Committee, he claimed that the entire group was set up on the "perilous presumption" that 29 individuals can act as censors.
On the whole, the Advisory committee has done a good job, as intelligent a job as could be expected from a group of its nature. The group has tried to keep a sober, balanced perspective on the problems of censorship, and by its very existence, perhaps prevents other more vicious forms of censorship from being set up. Various members, in fact, have recently been called upon to lobby against House bills which attempted to deal with the exact situation the group handles.
No one can question the motives of the Holy Name's work, either, in carrying on its anti-filth campaign. The enterprise is commendable; the effect so far has been limited to minor volumes of an obscene nature.
Massachusetts moral forces are hardly alone in their realization that low-priced publications are a problem. A House Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials is at present holding hearings in Washington on that very subject. The atmosphere, as could have been expected, is seething. The following are excerpts from publication of testimony:
Margaret Culkin Banning, author and Vassar graduate says: some 1100 magazines now being sold have no other purpose but that of "pictorial prostitution."
Rep. E. C. Gathings (D. Ark.), chairman of the committee: Pocket-sized books have become "artful appeals to sensuality, immortality, filth, perversion, and degeneracy."
Ralph Daigh, editorial director of Fewcett publications: "We have satisfied a great hunger for reading...adding materially to education." (He also asserted the public likes to read about sex, anyway, and that works published by his concern were no more indecent than various episodes in Plato and Shakespeare.)
The committee estimates the number of pocket-sized paper covers put on the market in the last two years at nearly 500,000,000 copies. Magazines are listed at 1231 different titles; comic books at some 450 to 500, and estimates of their total circulation for the past two years runs into the near-billions.
Solutions of Sorts
That enforcement of existing obscenity laws is impracticable against such publications in the Boston area, except in isolated cases, has already been demonstrated.
Getting at the problem in a different way, Dwight S. Strong, executive director of the revamped Watch and Ward society, has gone on record as feeling that publishers should indeed set and maintain their own standards of decency, providing these are decent enough.
In fact, Strong's outspoken criticism of a Massachusetts censorship bill at a fairly recent House hearing, inspired the sponsoring legislator to ask curiously, "You are from the Watch and Ward, aren't you?"
Several comic book publishers have in past years adopted the socalled "Comic Book Code," which provides that their juvenile publications will not overemphasize sex, crime, exhibit racial or religious prejudice, or portray American institutions in a harmful manner. They are, needless to say, the few among the many.
Unfortunately, when considered as a total program concerning not only comics, but illustrated magazines and cheap reprints, the attempt to instill into publishers a sense of their own responsibility seems perhaps to be a naive hope.
The liberal has another answer; a "positive" attitude toward the problem must be created. Here, for example are the comments of Emory Stevens Bucke, editor of Zion's Herald, a Methodist publication.
"Certainly we have a problem," says Bucke.
Question of Alternatives
"But by condeming censorship, are we going to get anywhere," Bucke continued. "The whole question is one of alternatives; we have to create a climate of opinion that can handle such material in stride, and go on to something better."
Evidently, some method for damming up this flood of cheap literature must be established--a method which can avoid the dangers implicit in covert censorship.
Massachusetts already has a system--an effective but ill-defined system. And beyond the evils inherent in any censorial set-up, the one in the Commonwealth presents the further evil of uncertain boundaries. The limits of the system are almost impossible to define partially because the system is largely a secret one, and partially because a host of small pressure groups and private individuals wander around the field.
Despite its benevolent and highly public-spirited intentions, the Massachusetts Advisory Committee is an especially good example of a potentially serious threat to the free dissemination of artistic works. When the Committee declares a book "unfit" for juvenile consumption and notifies booksellers of this fact, it in effect bans the book from any public sale. If a dealer is warned of the obscenity of a specific publication, he will not in most cases make a distinction between an adult and a youth: he will simply lift the book and return it to the distributor, taking no chances.
Sometimes, however, the dealer will choose to make a distinction. He will keep the book on his shelves with the intention of peddling it to adults only.
But in such cases, the dealer is very likely to get his fingers burned. Mrs. John L. Pitko, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the advisory group, and an executive in the Massachusetts Parent-Teacher Association, cites one such example.
"On one occasion," she relates, "I happened to see prominently displayed in the window of a large Boston book shop a pocket book which the Advisory Committee had ruled 'unfit.' Now if that book was put in such an eye-catching spot as the window display, it was probably being sold indiscriminately to juveniles made the assumption on the basis of the attention-getting position of the book. "I notified the Attorney General," she continued, "and the next time I passed by the shop, that book wasn't in the window."
In citing this instance of civic virtue and duty, Mrs. Pitko highlights the gravity of the dangers of unseen censorship system.
Essential to such a system of censorship is a feeling of cooperation. Most booksellers, according to Thomas M. Moroney, manager of the Old Corner Bookshop in Boston, are "...not interested in making cases out of these books. I'll admit frankly that I and my publishers are interested chiefly in making money. We don't want to get wound up in these things..."
Sellers and distributors want the nickel or so profit they can pick up on 25-cent reprints. The crusading spirit, the desire to quelch this net of understated but forceful censorship, does not draw its strength from this group. These men are all too willing to cooperate, and one can hardly blame them. Profit and not principle is their bread and butter.
But the "I don't give a hoot" attitude which the guardians of virtue identify as "voluntary cooperation" is a source of grave danger. It is present-day censorship's trump card.
The attitude of one distributor is vitally significant. Earle D. Mullare of the Greater Boston Distributors, one of the biggest New England outlets, said, "Compared to the number of books and magazines we handle and sell, it's relatively unimportant if they ban some of them All they have to do is tell us they don't like a book. We'll give them 100 percent voluntary cooperation.