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This Is What It Was Like To Be the Book Censor for All of New England in 1930

"I’ve read more dirty books than any man in New England."

Prisma/UIG via Getty Images

He was a small man, not running much over five feet five, but I was physically very much aware of him. He gave off a confusion of qualities which would have put a dog in ecstasies but which can only puzzle a man. His hair was of that slick black kind—combed like a boy’s on the side and a little ragged at the extremities—that strongly suggests baldness underneath. Forehead and chin were vertically cleft along the line of a rather flat nose and contrasted with a wide, tight, succulently red mouth. A floppy black Windsor tie dragged on his chest. He wore no coat. A vest buttoned once at the bottom enclosed a yellow and green plaid shirt and supported a mildly straining belly. The pants were dark, wrinkled at the crotch and baggy at the knees. I did not much notice his hands at the time, but I recall that they were muscular and very hairy, and that the left one incongruously exposed a large signet ring. Altogether, I could not keep my eyes off him.

Nor could I have done so in any wise while I remembered his office. He was, this small man, censor of printed matter for an eastern port. As I had had the most excellent reasons to know during my years in the book business, his authority was practically supreme, his opinions irreversible, and his taste above impeachment. It was this authority which had brought me to his office. He was representing, for me, the benevolent side of bureaucracy, for he had agreed to return a certain book to England instead of confiscating it. I was representing my old employer, who was too busy that morning to come in himself. I had brought with me, by the censor’s instructions, string, paper, corrugated cardboard, and an addressed label: these the government does not furnish those it favors.

Our initial contact was pleasant. He had the book on his desk, all ready for me, and very agreeably got me some sealing wax and glue. While I was doing up the bundle and burning my fingers on the melting wax, I reflected on the innocuous character of the book in question. It was a volume in a series called The Art of Eastern Love. The series was mostly composed of translation and paraphrase of various Indian texts, and circulated, I knew, freely enough in England. I wondered if perhaps it had not been banned largely on account of its inflammatory title; so I asked him what he found wrong with it. He was eager to talk.

“It’s too blasé,” he said; and for the rest of the time I was there I had nothing to do but prompt him occasionally. He had the great merit of believing, in his own way, in the dignity of his job and in his own qualifications therefore. “It’s too blasé,” he repeated. “It’s not as bad as some; it’s not nearly so bad as a good many. I thought it was dull, myself. But it treats a sacred subject in a blasé way, and nothing like that can get by me. You ought to see the stuff that comes in here. You ought to have the opportunity to see the vile, filthy stuff that comes in here. There’s no doubt about it, it’s filthy. I read it all and I know. But,” he said, drawing himself up a little and raising his voice, “none of it gets by me. The kind of books you fellows get, I mean the ones you don’t get, are sweet and virtuous beside the ones I’m thinking of. You can’t imagine the vile stuff they try and get in.”

I said I thought I could imagine very well, and asked him if he had ever felt that so much contact with filth had not perhaps injured him a little. Had he ever felt the beginning of corruption? He looked at me sharply, and then spoke softly, “Listen,” he said. “I’m speaking in my official capacity. As a human being it’s different. As a human being I get a big kick out of some of those books. I get a thrill. I’m not any different from the next man.” He paused, with a reminiscent illumination on his face. “I been here at this job six years now. I used to hit the high spots. I suppose I’ve read more dirty books than any man in New England, and I could make the biggest collection of erotica in this country if I wanted to. Why, in the last two years I’ve seized 272 different titles—thousands of volumes—and I’ve read them all.”

Then, with a genuinely persuasive pathos, he went on. “If everybody was like you and me everything would be all right; that is, it would if we could keep things to ourselves. But you know how it is. You’d do it yourself. I do it myself. As a human being I get a pretty big thrill out of this stuff. I read a dirty book and if it’s any good I get a kick. But what do I do? Do I keep it to myself? No. I pick out the juicy spots and tell my friends about them. I hand it around and circulate it. It’s only natural. You’d do the same. The same with a dirty picture. If it’s got its good points, it’s real hot, you want to show it off. Of course you do. Everybody does. I do it myself. And that’s just where the trouble comes in. You know and I know that sort of thing can’t go on. That sort of stuff gets into the hands of young boys and girls—and what happens? They’re too innocent and too immature to handle it the way you and I do, so their minds get polluted. Why sometimes…” He paused; his eyes beaded and glistened. “Why, sometimes it’s the contact of innocence with this filthy stuff that sinks a boy into foul habits for a lifetime. Naturally the government steps in here; and that’s my job. I don’t let anything get by me if I can help it. I act in my official capacity and there’s an end to it. But I just wanted you to know I’m a human being.”

“Of course,” he went on—and somehow the more he talked the more rasping his voice seemed—“there’s books and books. I don’t see anything wrong, personally, with a book like Balzac’s Droll Stories. Those are what you might call snappy stories, that’s all. I don’t mind them, and mostly I let them get by, especially if they’re going to a reputable house. There’s some editions that are illustrated, though, and the pictures are too hot. They make a raw book out of it. That makes a difference, and I have to call a halt there. And Straponola, there’s nothing wrong with that. Droll Stories and Straponola, those are just snappy stories, and that’s all—that is, the best of them. I wish they were all like that.”

The gesture was not mightily convincing and had a small air of oratory. I said he must have some difficulty in deciding whether or not to confiscate a particular book. He answered with surprising confidence.

“Oh no. As a matter of fact, I find it easier all the time. It’s much easier now than it used to be. You see, well,” he said, and then, with that pleased look people wear when proposing conundrums, he asked if I were married, and after my negative he went on: “Well, I am, and that makes a big difference. You’d be surprised. I’ve been married quite a while now, and the work gets easier all the time. You’ll find out what I mean when you get married yourself. I mean you’ll be able to decide things like this much better. Why, before I was married, sometimes I’d go easy on the stuff. But marriage makes a big difference. You learn what things are and what they aren’t.”

I missed the point and inquired if he might not be more explicit. How exactly did his domestic economy affect his judgment of books? How exactly would he decide upon a book in any given instance? It would seem to me, I said, very difficult to devise a system which would apply to more than one book—books being so very different among themselves and serving such contradictory purposes. In any event I admired his courage.

He took me up quickly, gleefully, with that assurance which substitutes in public life for spontaneity as well as for the more intellectual virtues. “It’s easy,” said he, “and takes no courage. I just figure out whether I can read the book aloud in mixed company. If I can, it gets by; if I can’t, it don’t, and that’s all. You don’t need to go any further.”

I could not help imagining this small, energetic man in the middle of a great mixed circle of spinster aunts and avuncular beards—all on squeaky wooden benches—reading aloud form, say, the Ulysses of James Joyce. So satisfying was this image that I very nearly kept the peace; but I did offer a trifling suggestion on the ground that some books were what was called literature.

“Literature!” he said, and in his mouth it was an expletive of magnificent proportions, an exhaustive, bursting flatulence. “Literature! Don’t speak to me about literature! Or classics.” I have not heard a word sound more thoroughly obscene than this simple, if controversial, word “classics.” He went on: “Yes, I know. People come in here and they call up and they write letters and try and tell me a thing is literature. I know the argument.” He put on a finicky tone. “‘You can’t suppress this book because it is part of our classic heritage….’ That’s tripe. Why, I’ve had people come in here and tell me that Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is a classic. It’s a treatise on pederasty. Pederasty.” He spat the word at me.

I said I thought the play was a little more than that. “No,” he said shortly, “that’s all it is: pederasty. But I’ve had worse books than that called classics. Book you never even heard of. Do you know what a classic is? No. Well, I’ll tell you. And it’s straight. A classic is a dirty book somebody is trying to get by me.”

“As for literature. I’m a student of literature myself. I enjoy good literature, and when I Was younger I took a course in comparative literature myself. So you see, I know what I’m talking about. And if somebody don’t like what I say, why they can take it to the Secretary of the Treasury, and maybe, by the time thy get through, they’ll learn better.”

At this point I reminded him that a few months previously Candide had been refused entry, and that later the ban had been raised. Indignant innocence—or was it hurt pride?—raised a husky voice.

“Some swell banker friend of Mellon’s put up a howl. That’s why that’s that. But it don’t happen often. There’s very times I get overruled, very few times. I can count them. But about Candide, I’ll tell you. For years we’ve been letting that book get by. There were so many different editions, all sizes and kinds, some illustrated and some plain, that we figured the book must be all right. Then one of us happened to read it. It’s a filthy book, and I think the ruling ought to have been upheld. And it would have been if that banker fellow hadn’t got into it.”

As light-heartedly as I could, I mentioned to him the vote taken in the Senate at the instance of the Senator from New Mexico, and suggested that if the action were sustained he might shortly be out of a job, as the censorship of books on the ground of obscenity would then be altogether removed from the tariff.

He was very confident on this matter. “It won’t go through. If the Senate doesn’t reverse itself, the House will take care of it. The Senate just wasn’t thinking what it was about. If that got through everything would be upset and we wouldn’t know where we were at. I said so myself to my own Senator. On Armistice Day after his speech, I went up to him and I said, ‘Bill, did you know what you were voting for when you voted to amend that book section in the tariff?’ He looked at me kind of funny. Then he smiled and said no, he guessed he didn’t. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’ll tell you. You voted to overturn the whole machinery of government. You voted to change the whole procedure of the courts.’ I don’t think he’ll vote the same the next time it comes up.”

There was on question I had been very much wanting to ask him, but had been afraid of the answer the oracle might give. He seemed in such a pleasant mood after the story about Senator Bill that I thought I might risk it, at least in a declarative form. So I described my experience over a term of five years in the book business with the demand for such books as his office had refused entry. Bankers, lawyers, scholars, men both socially and professionally reputable, I said, almost exclusively made up the list of customers. Much better men, I said, than either he or I, as I was sure he would admit. Should not their taste and knowledge, their position and reputation, be given some consideration in matters of this kind? Why should we except their judgment on this point alone?

He was ready for me. My verbosity had but let him gather breath. “That’s just where you find the dirtiest minds, in the men higher up. I know. When I was younger, I used to hit the high spots. I used to go all round. I’ve seen all kinds of people. And I never saw a workingman, anyone who worked for a living, who was a pervert. It was all the other kind, men higher up, wealthy men, bankers and lawyers. You work for a living and you’ll be all right. I know. I tell you I’ve seen them all.  The wealthy class is full of perverts. Look at me,” he cried, shoving his hands in my face. “Did you ever see a pervert with dirty hands? Did you?”

I looked quickly down and made sure mine were gloved; else I had been suspect. Again he said it, with a ferocious intonation. “Did you ever see a pervert with dirty hands?”

Though we could not agree on this point, we parted amicably. As I walked up the street I looked into the windows and wondered. And I also wondered whether it was because Utah is so far from any customs office that Senator Smoot is enabled to speak so righteously of censorship in the tariff.