How Booksellers Joined the Fight for Free Speech

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“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 [email protected].

Booksellers weren’t always defenders of free speech. In the first decades of the 20th century, we thought it was our job to protect the public from bad books.

In 1915, in response to a growing number of new books with sexual content, Boston booksellers joined an anti-vice group, the Watch and Ward Society, in creating a committee to review potentially problematic books. When committee members agreed that a book was unsuitable, they notified Massachusetts booksellers, who were given 48 hours to remove it or face possible prosecution.

ABFE Director Chris Finan

How did we get from the Boston Booksellers Committee to today, when hundreds of booksellers nationwide celebrate the freedom to read during Banned Books Week? This article is the first in an occasional series of pieces that look at just that question.

The story starts in 1923, when the 16-year-old daughter of a Manhattan judge borrowed a copy of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love from the circulating library of her local bookseller. Troubled by some of its passages, the girl took the book to her mother, who immediately turned it over to her husband, John Ford, a trial court judge.

Ford was outraged by the sexually explicit language of the novel and consulted John Sumner, the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. The society had been founded by Anthony Comstock in 1873, the same year he convinced Congress to pass an obscenity law that was so broad it made it possible to prosecute Margaret Sanger for distributing information about birth control in 1914.

Comstock policed the American marketplace until his death in 1915, but the world was changing. Sumner informed Ford that it was increasingly difficult to prosecute publishers and booksellers. The Comstock law had not defined “obscenity,” which gave the authorities the freedom to ban almost any book with sexual content. But the New York courts had recently declared that only “prurient” books — those that appealed to an excessive interest in sex — could be banned. In addition, the book could not be judged on the basis of isolated passages. It had to be considered as a whole.

Ford and Sumner were determined to nullify these legal decisions. They launched a Clean Books League, which included representatives of the Catholic and Episcopal churches, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the Colonial Dames of America, and the Daughters of 1812.

In 1923, a “clean books” bill was introduced in the New York legislature that eliminated the prurience requirement and explicitly barred experts from testifying about the artistic value of a book. “The question of whether a book is indecent is one to be decided by an ordinary average citizen, not by a coterie of literati,” Ford said. “After all, such books are now allowed to enter the home of myself and other ordinary, average citizens, and it is for us to decide whether the sale of such books should be allowed.”

Some publishers were quick to see the danger of the clean-books bill. Horace Liveright, the creator of the Modern Library, led the opposition. The Modern Library was a vehicle for publishing such new writers as Eugene O’Neill, Ernest Hemingway, and Theodore Dreiser, who all treated life, including sex, with greater realism than other authors. If the clean-books bill became law, publishers of the new fiction would be at risk. Liveright had already been prosecuted for publishing the Roman classic Satyricon.

But the National Association of Book Publishers refused to take a position. Publisher Henry Holt expressed the views of the majority of publishers when he condemned the growing sexual explicitness in literature. “It leads to more murders and suicides than all other causes put together,” he wrote in the New York Times.

Booksellers were also divided. At a time when the Boston Booksellers Committee was hard at work — it banned 14 books that year — it was almost heresy to oppose the bill. Arthur Proctor, a young bookseller from Detroit, was slapped down when he raised the issue at the American Booksellers Association convention in May 1923.

Proctor told his colleagues that young people wanted books that portrayed life honestly:

“They are demanding these books, and so I say that the duty, the responsibility of the bookseller toward his customers, towards the general public, is not just to sell books, not just to sell books that have a sweet ending, but it is their duty to get them the books in spite of the censorship of men such as Mr. John Sumner and various older people.”

Proctor’s remarks sparked outrage and were stricken from the record, Publishers Weekly reported.

Fortunately, the fate of the clean-books bill did not depend on a unified industry response. The 1922 elections had given the Democrats control of the New York State Senate on a platform that pledged to expand personal liberty. The leader of the Senate was the debonair James J. Walker, the future mayor of New York and a man who was already renowned for his love of a good time. “No woman was ever ruined by a book,” Walker told his fellow senators. The clean-books bill was defeated.

The fight over the New York clean-books bill was a turning point for the book industry. Two leading publishers, Alfred Harcourt and George Palmer Putnam, resigned committee positions in protest over the publishers association’s failure to oppose the clean-books bill. In response, the association hired Harlan Fiske Stone, a future Supreme Court justice, to formulate a new position on obscenity. When the clean-books bill was introduced again the following year, Stone testified against it on behalf of publishers.

Booksellers had also changed their minds. At their 1924 convention, they adopted a resolution condemning all censorship except “the censorship of intelligent public opinion.”

By the end of the year, opinion had shifted so strongly that the clean-books bill died in committee. H.L. Mencken, the acerbic journalist and editor of the American Mercury magazine, declared that free speech was triumphant:

“To be a censor today, a man must be not only an idiot; he must be also a man courageous enough in his imbecility to endure the low guffaws of his next-door neighbors.”

But Mencken spoke too soon. Support for censorship remained strong, and he would be among its next victims.

[NEXT: Banned in Boston]