Friday, October 08, 2010

Book Review: "Banned in Boston"

Neil Miller's Banned in Boston: The Watch and Ward Society's Crusade against Books, Burlesque, and the Social Evil (Beacon Press, 2010) tells the story of the New England Watch and Ward Society (begun 1878 as the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice, an offshoot of Anthony Comstock's New York organization; renamed 1891).

The book doesn't get off to a very auspicious start, noting as it does on p. 3 that Boston's Park Street Church (built 1809/10) was "designed by Christopher Wren" (died 1723) ... the church's architect, Peter Banner, may have been inspired by Wren's design for St. Bride's Church in London, but unless Wren was as talented at communicating from beyond the grave as he was at architecture, he can hardly be called the church's designer. Aside from this howler, though, I very much enjoyed this volume.

By way of introduction, Miller tracks the many changes wrought in Boston during the second half of the 19th century (decline in the traditional Boston industries, expansion into new neighborhoods, population growth as immigration reshaped the city's demographics, and political shifts). To combat "indecency in books, pictures, and performances," as well as gambling, prostitution and drug use, men of the major traditional Boston families populated the membership rolls and filled the coffers of the Ward and Ward Society. One early advocate, Harvard professor George Peabody, compared the group's activities to the city's storm and sewer drains, "quietly, unobtrusively working underground, guarding us from the pestiferous evil which at any time may come up into our faces, into our homes, into our children's lives" (p. 9). It was, as Cleveland Amory put it, "the old guard on guard" (p. 11).

By fighting for restrictive laws banning printed matter which contained "obscene, indecent, or impure language, or manifestly tending to the corruption of youth," and then (quietly, for the most part) going after publications which they felt met those criteria (an 1881 edition of Whitman's Leaves of Grass, for example, or a whole variety of French publications and plays), the Society helped make "Banned in Boston" a well-known phrase (and even a lucrative one, as Miller notes, for booksellers in other cities).

Miller recounts Watch and Ward-inspired bookstore raids (in which owners were arrested for selling the likes of Rabelais' works and The Decameron), and the understanding eventually reached between the Society and the city's booksellers, which involved the creation of the Boston Booksellers Commitee (three booksellers, three Society directors), who met and decided on the "acceptability" of new books before they could be sold. From 1915 through the late 1920s this quiet agreement held, and books deemed "actionable" (among them works by John Dos Passos and Aldous Huxley) simply didn't appear on the shelves of Boston's stores or receive notice in its newspapers.

But it wasn't just books the Ward and Ward sought to control - Miller writes of their (mostly successful) efforts to combat various other vices as well, from prostitution to political corruption.

And then the regime began to crumble; with the death of longtime agent J. Frank Chase came the end of the "gentlemen's agreement" on book censorship, as Boston law enforcement authorities (with the backing of the Catholic Church) began taking a more active role in book-banning (with seventy books banned in the year leading up to January 1928, including works by Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner). Authors, publishers, and even some Watch and Ward members thought things might be getting a little out of hand, although the authors tended to find it to their advantage, as Upton Sinclair pointed out ("I would rather be banned in Boston than read anywhere else because when you are banned in Boston, you are read everywhere else").

One of the final straws proved to be a major overreach by the Watch and Ward, as its agents entrapped a Cambridge bookseller into selling a copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover. The bookseller was convicted, but the Society's methods were decried by defense and prosecution attorneys, plus the judge. The heavily negative press coverage of the case led to a severe drop in financial support for the Watch and Ward, and the departure of several leading members. Between the bad press and the Depression, the society was in deep trouble. But its leaders carried on, continuing the quiet suppression of books and working with magazine distributors to keep objectionable periodicals off the racks (in 1930 54 of 122 magazine issues submitted to the Watch and Ward were withdrawn from sale).

Beginning in the 1930s the Watch and Ward began to focus on burlesque shows, to varying degrees of success, and then began a renewed campaign against a wider range of vices under the leadership of Louis Croteau in the early 1940s. With Croteau's death in 1948 the torch of censorship burned itself out, and Miller's final chapter tracks the Society through its last decades, as it continued its campaigns against gambling and official corruption but left the censorship to others (including the official city censor, the last of whom was the very-appropriately-named Richard Sinnott).

Miller concludes his book with the important caveat that while not all censorship in Boston originated with Watch and Ward, "it is extremely difficult to defend an organization that spent its early years trying to ban Whitman, Balzac, Boccaccio, and Rabelais ..." (p. 178). The group, he concludes, made "banned in Boston" into a "national joke," "created a stultifying intellectual climate in Boston," and by its own sometimes overzealous tactics did much to diminish its claims to moral authority. Much of what they sought to eradicate was, Miller maintains, "a rearguard action against historical forces ... inevitably a quixotic venture" (p. 182).

A fast-paced, highly readable account of a forgotten (and not-much-lamented) chapter in Boston's history.