Past Tense: Banned Books at Harvard

“…The mercenary process of producing and distributing obscene literature is immoral and noxious, is an offense against civilized society, is ...
By Rebecca M. Panovka

“…The mercenary process of producing and distributing obscene literature is immoral and noxious, is an offense against civilized society, is a thing to be punished, prohibited, and prevented."

The year was 1911, and Harvard President Charles W. Eliot ’53 was addressing the 33rd annual meeting of the Watch and Ward Society.

Eliot’s unabashed defense of book banning is a far cry from Harvard’s current attitude: A century later, the same titles Watch and Ward pushed off shelves grace the syllabi of Harvard courses. As the nation celebrated Banned Books Week from September 30 to October 6, the Harvard Bookstore introduced a new line of 10 banned novels, now classics, printed on its very own book-making robot, the Paige M. Gutenborg machine.

Jamie Dondero, manager of the bookstore’s print-on-demand department, spearheaded the project. “It brings an awareness to us that, though we may not see it here, books and creative thought and art is being censored in our country and worldwide,” he said.

Harvard, however, hasn’t always been a haven for artistic and literary freedom.


The Watch and Ward Society, founded in 1879, served as the driving force behind Boston’s puritanical censorship policies, and made “Banned in Boston” a national byword. Among the society’s founders were Reverend William Lawrence ’71 and Reverend Philips Brooks ’55. Godfrey Lowell Cabot ’82, served as treasurer from 1915 to 1940. The Society’s list of contributers includes influential University surnames like DeWolfe, Leverett, Peabody, Lowell, and Wigglesworth.

Many Harvard undergraduates bemoaned the restrictive policies. “No one would object to Venetia Vardon having loved twice except the Boston censors, who have banned the book,” read a 1927 review of “Young Men in Love” in The Crimson. “I am afraid that Swift, Fielding, Defoe and many of our other great English novelists would have made a scant living in this state.”

James A. Delacey, then-manager of the Dunster House bookshop, was arrested for selling an illicit copy of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” to a Watch and Ward member in 1930. When his sentence was remitted, he received over 200 congratulatory notes, according to a Crimson article from the time. “A splendid victory over the smut hounds,” an article read. Another applauded Delacey on his “escape from the clutches of moral snorters.”

In 1964, when the Massachusetts Attorney General banned “Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure,” its sales broke records in Harvard bookstores, according to The Crimson. The Attorney General’s office threatened to prosecute bookstores in Harvard Square for continuing to offer the book after a court-ordered halt on sales.


The Boston bans made pornographic literature and art valuable on the black market, and vigilante Watch and Ward members were wont to take censorship into their own hands. Unguarded erotica was quick to disappear from Harvard’s open stacks, so the university moved its endangered material into two “X cages.” Pornographic literature including “The Joy of Sex” and back issues of “Playboy” was safeguarded alongside rare books in the Widener cage; art books with titles like “Fully Exposed: The Male Nude in Photography” and “The Grotesque in Photography” were kept with rare art in the stacks beneath Littauer.

In 1946, an enterprising Crimson reporter decided to investigate whether the books were actually available to students. To access Harvard’s copy of “Memoirs of Hecate County,” a bestselling novel banned in Massachusetts for its explicit depictions of sex, he found that students were required to submit to interviews with Foster M. Palmer, assistant librarian in charge of the Reference Section. “Sufficient reason must be given for the desire to read the book before an appointment can be had to see it,” the article explains.

Some students found alternative means into the forbidden collection. A 1958 Crimson article reports that librarians sometimes found books knocked to the X cage’s floor by students who had reached sticks or poles from a lower level through a narrow opening in the floor of the cage.

Amanda Bowen, Head of Collections at the Fine Arts Library, is careful to note that the cage did not exist to protect the morals of prurient bookworms. The libraries were concerned about thieves and censors, not curious students. “It wasn’t a get-your-rocks-off kind of thing,” she says.


Today, getting into a fabled “X cage” requires neither break-in nor interview. Upon request, FM went on an informal tour of a cage located in the bowels of Littauer. Anticlimactically, it bears close resemblance to the open stacks in Widener—the only discernible difference is a locked gate—and there’s nothing racy to be found.

As loosened mores and internet access have made pornographic art and literature more accessible, Harvard has responded to decreased demand by emptying both X cages of their lewd material. Obscene literature moved to the depository in Southborough in the nineties, and pornographic art has migrated into open stacks over the past decade.

The room is now crammed floor-to-ceiling with rare manuscripts, photographs, and antique scrolls. Bowen gestures at the shelves. “We used to put naked pictures here, but it’s the same stuff you see on the Internet every day,” she says. “Erotica is not exotic anymore.”

In The Meantime