"Banned in Boston" was a phrase employed from the late 19th century through the mid-20th century to describe a literary work, motion picture, or play prohibited from distribution or exhibition in Boston, Massachusetts. In actuality, Boston, having been founded by Puritans and run as a virtual theocracy, started banning books as early as 1651. William Pynchon, the founder of Springfield, Massachusetts wrote a book criticizing Puritanism entitled, The Meritous Price of Our Redemption. Boston’s Puritans banned Pynchon's book and pressured him to return to England. He did so in 1652, which nearly caused Springfield to join the Connecticut Colony.
The phrase "banned in Boston", however, originated in the late 19th century at a time when "moral crusader" Anthony Comstock began a campaign to suppress vice. He found widespread support in Boston, particularly among socially prominent and influential officials. Comstock was also known as the proponent of the Comstock Law, which prevented "obscene" materials from being delivered by the U.S. mail. Some critics have claimed that if the list of banned words were strictly enforced, then even the King James Version of the Bible would be unmailable. From that point on Boston's city officials took it upon themselves to ban anything that they found to be salacious, inappropriate, or offensive. Aiding them in their efforts was a group of private citizens, the Boston Watch and Ward Society. Theatrical shows were run out of town, books were confiscated, and motion pictures were prevented from being shown; sometimes movies were stopped mid-showing, after an official had "seen enough".
This movement back fired in many ways. One was that Boston, a cultural center since its founding, was perceived as less sophisticated than many cities without stringent censorship practices. Another was that the phrase "banned in Boston" became associated, in the popular mind, with something lurid, sexy, and naughty. Commercial distributors were often pleased when their works were banned in Boston—it gave them more appeal elsewhere. Some even falsely claimed that their works were banned in Boston to promote them. H. L. Mencken purposely got himself arrested in Boston in 1926 by selling a banned issue of his magazine, The American Mercury. This was the beginning of the end for “Banned In Boston”.
The power of organizations like The Watch And Ward Society, and the power of municipalities to regulate the content of literature, plays, and movies and the like were greatly curtailed by legal cases such as Memoirs v. Massachusetts, tried in 1966 by the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Warren. Not a group to go quietly, the Watch and Ward Society changed its name to the New England Citizens Crime Commission, and made its main emphasis against gambling and drugs and far less on media.
A short list of books that were banned in Boston would make a library, today, proud to display: An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (Banned in Boston, MA -1927 and burned by the Nazis in Germany –1933- because it “deals with low love affairs.”), Mosquitos by William Faulkner (his second novel - Banned in Boston, MA -1928), The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (Banned in Boston, MA -1930, Ireland -1953, Riverside, CA -1960, San Jose, CA -1960. Burned in Nazi bonfires in Germany -1933.), 'Leaves of Grass' by Walt Whitman (new edition suppressed, 1881-Some considered the American writer's poetry collection immoral because of its open exploration of the human body.) , 'Antic Hay' by Aldous Huxley (1923), 'Desire Under the Elms' by Eugene O'Neill (play, withdrawn after city censor insisted on complete revision, 1926), 'Elmer Gantry' by Sinclair Lewis (1927 Banned following outrage from clergy members, the novel tells the story of an immoral man who becomes ordained as a minister by accident.). The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939 for its supposed pro communist ideas.)
About 50 State Salute to Banned Books Week
Banned Books Week 2012 marks the 30th anniversary of the yearly celebration of the freedom to read. To commemorate this milestone anniversary, the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom is coordinating the "50 State Salute." For more information, please visit www.ala.org/bbooks.
For the second year in a row, the American Library Association along with the cosponsors of Banned Books Week is hosting the Banned Books Virtual Read-Out. Check out the special Banned Books Virtual Read-Out channel on YouTube to view the videos.
"Banned in Boston" From Open Road Integrated Media
Noah Gordon, internationally bestselling author of the Cole Family Trilogy:
In the city I love above all others, rigid censorship has cast a long and early shadow that remains a stain on its history. In 1621, the town elders of Boston reacted with cold rage when William Pynchon, founder of Springfield, Massachusetts, wrote a book criticizing Puritanism. They condemned the book and drove the author back to his native England—the sorry beginning of a shabby tradition of Boston book banning.
In the twentieth century so many books were branded that “banned in Boston” became an idiom and a cliché. To Kill a Mockingbird, Brave New World, Native Son, The Sun Also Rises, Strange Fruit, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—and so many other wonderful books, all of them forbidden! The banning guaranteed that I and others immediately sought them out and read them, so the bluenosed banning, while despised, was nevertheless a semicomical happening.
Not so other bannings. In the 1930s, in a square across the street from the University of Berlin, Nazis burned books considered unsuitable for Aryan readers. Today we have graduated to a world where literary disapproval may well involve a fatwa, bloodshed, riot, and murder. One of the most worthy goals of a free society must be to strive for free dissemination of ideas, on a planet in which writers may publish books without fear.
Mary Glickman, author of Home in the Morning and One More River:
In 1983, a translation of The Penitent, a 1974 novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer, winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Literature, was launched. I loved Singer. I devoured every word he wrote. Multiple times. I asked my local library to purchase the book. Weeks later, I was sent a postcard refusing purchase on the basis that the work in question was “offensive” and without redeeming esthetic merit. Why and to whom it was offensive was not revealed.
My local library was in Brookline, Massachusetts, Boston’s epicenter of Jewish life, a bastion of liberalism, as progressive as people got in 1983. The refusal flummoxed me. I never understood it. Until recently, that is, when I googled the book’s New York Times review by none other than renowned professor and critic Harold Bloom, who opined: “It is an extremely unpleasant work without any redeeming esthetic merit or humane quality.”
I read the book. I do not pretend to the genius of a Harold Bloom, but I found much esthetic merit and humane quality in it. The Penitent may not have been Singer’s best work, but it’s work that expresses ideas from a Nobel Prize–winning mind. While I can’t be certain, I can make a case that it was Bloom’s review that prompted the library‘s attempt to blast The Penitent into oblivion. It was a boneheaded move.
But it’s a cautionary tale, no? Best summed up as: Do not make judgments based solely on the opinions of others. No matter who they are. Especially where great art is concerned.
Open Road Integrated Media Banned Books Week Celebration and Support Includes…