- The Washington Times - Friday, October 22, 2010

By Neil Miller
Beacon Press, $26.95, 209 pages

‘Banned in Boston” is a national catchphrase symbolizing narrowness and intolerance, but probably few know its history. During the 1870s, the wealthier and educated classes of Boston, then considered the most cultured city in the country, began setting up charitable institutions bent on social reform.

In 1878, the Watch and Ward Society (then called the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice) was established. Its leaders, many of whom were members of the clergy, began addressing the moral needs of the city. Purity was at stake. Anthony Comstock, the public face of Boston’s vice crusaders, targeted reading material as the main focus of an anti-pornography crusade. Books banned in Boston included Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Decameron,” Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy” and later the works by Eugene O’Neill, Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson.

The Watch and Ward Society’s influence over the courts was powerful. Hundreds of books and magazines were shelved, and vendors were arrested; authors never had the opportunity to be heard in court. No one, including the press, dared to criticize the censor.

All of that changed in 1926, when the famous journalist and editor H.L. Mencken challenged the society by openly selling a copy of the banned April issue of his magazine, the American Mercury, directly to its secretary, the Rev. J. Franklin Chase, before a huge crowd in the Boston Common. Mencken was arrested, thereby forcing the secretary to meet the editor in an open court. It was the most significant effort against censorship throughout the nation; others would follow, making Mencken’s name forever identified with freedom of speech.

The colorful episode also had dealt the Watch and Ward Society a major blow. Many Bostonians were indignant over the bad publicity the case had given the town; many withdrew their support from the society. One year after the American Mercury case, the society’s annual report concluded it had inadvertently “given advertisement to the very thing it is seeking to suppress.” Many members of the board resigned, leading Mencken to observe wryly how “wowsers always desert one another in times of stress.” The episode took its toll on Mr. Chase, and he died eight months later.

By 1929, censorship in Boston was in decline. “Since the Mencken affair nothing seemed to have gone right for the Watch and Ward,” Neil Miller writes. The publicity that accompanied the banning of books proved to be a boon for authors such as Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair, who stated, “I would rather be banned in Boston than read anywhere else because when you are banned in Boston, you are read everywhere else.”

By the 1930s, the Great Depression redirected everyone’s attention from the great moral issues; it also dried up contributions. Even so, the society refused to call it quits. Magazines continued to provide a fertile field for censorship throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s. The first (and last) attempt at movie censorship, for Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, failed. (The film eventually won an Oscar nomination for best picture.) Live theater censorship, against Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour,” proved to be a bust.

Not so the society’s attacks on burlesque, which had enjoyed a long history in Boston. The downtown entertainment district, including the Old Howard, one of the most celebrated burlesque palaces of the city, became the society’s glittering new target. Watch and Ward investigators diligently made weekly visits to various shows, documenting each shimmying and grinding performance in detailed reports.

Even so, the Watch and Ward Society knew its days were numbered. The 1948 death of its secretary, Louis Croteau, coupled with mounting deficits, helped mark its end. One by one, aging leaders passed away. From the 1950s onward, the society’s approach shifted back to its progressive roots, concentrating on safety and public order.

The New England Watch and Ward Society Records, 1918-1957, located at the Harvard Law School Library, are filled with sober entries and sanctimonious self-praise; I can personally attest they are a hoot to read. These boxes of material, with Mencken’s own careful record of his exhilarating 1926 arrest, plus contemporary newspaper accounts (written in a pre-television era) proved to be rich ore for Neil Miller.

Mr. Miller has provided a service by being the first to document the entire history of the notorious Watch and Ward Society, from its formation in 1878 to its last, dying gasps in the 1950s. The story is fascinating and often funny, and the author (who teaches journalism at Tufts University) tells it with clarity and perception.

Ultimately, as Mr. Miller points out, the Watch and Ward Society’s zealous attempts at censorship reflected nothing less than a fear of social and cultural change - attempts to shore up traditional values. But I would argue against the author’s statement that the society’s moralism “has passed into history.” The defeat of the Watch and Ward Society never fooled anyone into thinking free speech would be permanently sheltered from such assaults. The American Library Association annually lists “censored or challenged books” that continue to be banned or restricted by some schools and libraries.

The association’s roster for books in 2010 includes such classics as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” George Orwell’s “1984,” Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men,” J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” - and yes, Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” These are grim reminders, indeed, that the suppression of literature continues in the United States. In the end, as Christopher Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and trustee of the Freedom to Read Foundation, observes, free speech depends on the courage of those who fight for it.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast” and editor of the newly released set of Mencken’s “Prejudices,” published by the Library of America.

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