“Free Speech” is a monthly column by Chris Finan, director of the American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE), that shares his personal thoughts and opinions on a broad range of free expression issues; the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the American Booksellers Association. Finan welcomes comments and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The tide was turning in the battle for free speech in Boston.
The 1929 prosecution of Mary Ware Dennett for writing a sex education book had backfired. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which had stood by as novels were banned by municipal officials, overcame its squeamishness about sex and defended Dennett, helping overturn her conviction on obscenity charges. In the future, ACLU would be a strong defender of literary freedom.
But it would require one more spectacular prosecution to convince the Massachusetts legislature that the state obscenity law must be changed, and it was the Watch and Ward Society, the guardian of Boston’s morals, that chose the victim.
In October 1929, John Sumner, who succeeded Anthony Comstock as head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, learned that the Dunster House Bookshop in Cambridge had sold five copies of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which had been privately printed in Europe shortly before Lawrence’s death. Sumner notified the Watch and Ward Society, which promptly set out to entrap the bookstore owner, James A. DeLacey.
This wasn’t easy. DeLacey, a former Yale librarian, personally disliked explicit sexuality in books and had privately condemned Ernest Hemingway for his vulgarity. At first, he refused to accept an order for the book from an agent of the Watch and Ward Society who was posing as a customer. When the man insisted, DeLacey finally agreed that he would purchase a copy for him if one was offered to him, since the book was not available from a publisher.
Not long afterwards, someone who said he was a Harvard student showed up at the store with a copy of the book to sell. The student was probably another Watch and Ward Society agent, for only two hours later the man who had requested Lady Chatterley’s Lover telephoned the store to see if DeLacey had found a copy.
After DeLacey sold the book, he was arrested, convicted, fined and sentenced to four months in jail.
The Dunster House prosecution appalled many people in Massachusetts. DeLacey and his store were beloved in Cambridge, and even the prosecutor and the judge in the case joined in the denunciation of the methods of the Watch and Ward Society.
Boston’s censors were unable to distinguish between pornography and art, and many citizens were beginning to ask whether the censors weren’t acting out their own sexual frustrations. “To read the list of books ‘Banned in Boston’ is to be shocked, not by the content of the books, but by the festering disease of the minds that find evil in them. Such minds have all the stigmata of the sexual invalid,” Bernard DeVoto, a member of the Harvard faculty, wrote.
One state legislator introduced a bill requiring all censors to “submit to the state Department of Public Health satisfactory evidence of normal sexual experience.” The bill was a joke, but there was a growing conviction among legislators that the definition of obscenity should be narrowed.
In 1930, the Massachusetts legislature finally approved amendments to the obscenity law that ended the prosecution of literary works in the state. Unfortunately, the change came too late to help James DeLacey. Although he didn’t serve any time in prison, he never recovered. The store closed. His wife divorced him. And, according to some, DeLacey died an alcoholic.
The fight against book banning in Boston was an important turning point in the battle for free speech, but it did not end book censorship in the United States. The federal government was still censoring books that were sent in the mail or imported from abroad. The Customs Bureau banned more than 700 foreign titles, including James Joyce’s Ulysses.
In the fall of 1929, Senator Bronson Cutting of New Mexico challenged federal censorship of books in an extraordinary four-day debate on the floor of the Senate.
NEXT: The Great Senate Censorship Debate
This is the latest in a series of articles about the history of the fight for free speech. The articles are excerpted from Chris Finan’s 2007 book, From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of Free Speech in America (Beacon Press).