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."