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Ransom Center chronicles an age of censorship

Jane Sumner

Book burnings have been around since the ancient Library of Alexandria went up in smoke. But how many people know that between 1918 and 1941, hundreds of thousands of books were banned, burned, seized and censored right here in the United States of America?

That's the subject and title of a historical and revelatory exhibition running through Jan. 22 at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas. Drawing on the center's many collections from that era, "Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored" graphically examines how censorship took hold in this country between the world wars.

"One of the things I like about this exhibition is that it puts the phenomenon of banning books in a historical, cultural context," says Steve Hoelscher, chair of American studies at UT and academic curator for photography at the Ransom Center. "There are a lot of quirky stories connected to larger economic issues."

"Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored" tracks the reformers who waged war on literature they deemed "objectionable," usually for sex-related reasons, and the lawyers, publishers and writers who battled for freedom of expression in courtrooms and print.

It's a complex subject, and curator Danielle Sigler has wisely organized the display into manageable gulps: (1) censoring institutions, (2) the famous 1933 "Ulysses" trial and (3) writers' responses to obscenity charges.

"Give yourself plenty of time for this exhibit," advises Brett Gary, associate professor of media, culture and communications at New York University. "One does not move through it quickly. Be prepared to spend a couple hours. It's a very rich, very keen and very sophisticated exhibit."

First, we meet two of the period's major players: anti-censorship attorney Morris Ernst, co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, and his bete noire, vice crusader John Saxton Sumner, secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

In a 1935 newspaper photo, Sumner appears in topcoat and hat calmly presiding over the annual burning of what he termed "dirty books" and other "obscene" printed material in New York City Police Department furnaces.

Opposite the "conflagration party" is a 1935 newspaper photo of Ernst, the era's most prominent civil liberties attorney, defending Gustave Flaubert's 1842 novella "November" in court.

"Ernst wasn't interested in defending what one would think of as smut," says Gary, who's writing a book about the nearly forgotten but vital legal activist. "He was interested in setting up cases in defense of works that had significant literary reputation." Ernst's archive at the Ransom opens for research later this year.

Check out author Theodore Dreiser's letter to Ernst detailing his run-ins with the Society and follow the flap over "The Well of Loneliness," Radclyffe Hall's 1928 novel of same-sex love finally cleared of obscenity charges.

While Sumner was storming into bookstores in New York, the New England Watch and Ward Society in Boston had a less rambunctious approach: a network of booksellers who quietly removed "objectionable" titles from shelves.

"A whole high school class of unwed mothers may be the result of a lascivious book," warned Methodist minister the Rev. J. Frank Chase, executive secretary of the Watch and Ward Society, who also went after burlesque, prostitution and gambling.

"Massachusetts knows what decent literature is," he intoned and proceeded to remove Sinclair Lewis' "Elmer Gantry," Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises," Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy" and a host of other novels from shelves.

"It's eye-opening to see that great books we hold up as hallmarks of American civilization were banned," says Hoelscher. "'The Grapes of Wrath,' winner of the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was banned in California."

By 1920, writers began to realize that having books banned in Boston could make cash registers ring. Look for the photo of muckraker Upton Sinclair wearing a fig leaf-shaped sandwich board hawking a special edition of his banned novel "Oil!" with fig leaves in place of "obscene" sections.

To combat the reformers dubbed "smut hounds," writers turned to satire, lawyers and European publishers. Others left the country or expurgated their own works. To become a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, Richard Wright agreed to edit and rewrite parts of "Native Son" that readers might have found offensive.

Don't miss D. H. Lawrence's letter telling "Aaron's Rod" publisher Thomas Seltzer: "I can no more alter those chapters than if they were set in iron." He then authorized radical cuts of sexual material.

Read John Steinbeck's letter to editor and publisher Pascal Covici reacting to complaints about language in "The Grapes of Wrath." "This book wasn't written for delicate ladies," the author grumped. "If they read it at all, they're messing in something that's not their business." He then altered the offending language, mostly four-letter words.

The feds, too, got into the moral watchdog game. Customs agents confiscated books at the border. Postmasters seized what they judged to be lewd in the mail. "We now have 27,000 new censors," journalist H.L. Mencken griped. "Every village post master is now banning books at will."

Ironically, the U.S. government distributed books to the military in wartime that included banned "shockers" like "The Grapes of Wrath," Kathleen Windsor's Restoration romance "Forever Amber" and "Strange Fruit," Lillian Smith's novel of interracial love in post-World War I rural Georgia.

In 1933, the same year Ernst argued and won the obscenity case against James Joyce's "Ulysses" for Random House, Nazi-led students torched more than 25,000 volumes of so-called un-German books while bands played.

Don earphones to hear a radio broadcast of Stephen Vincent Benet's "They Burned the Books" aired on the ninth anniversary of the Nazi bonfires. Hit a touch screen to see "Laughing Horse" magazine devoted to censorship and "Censored Mother Goose Rhymes" dedicated to censors "who taught us to read naughty meanings into harmless words."

Though the exhibit ends with the outbreak of World War II, censorship and the fight for freedom of expression goes on. "The ACLU continues Morris Ernst's work today with our "Banned Books Report," which tracks censorship in public school libraries," says Dotty Griffth, public education director at ACLU of Texas.

But though books are still being banned in Texas, Griffith says, "This year's report 'Free People Read Freely' again reflects a decline in the number." In 2009-10, 98 books were challenged and 20 banned. Of the 67 challenged in 2010-11, 17, mostly in the popular YA (Young Adult) category, were banned.

Also at the Ransom through Jan. 22 is "The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia" exhibition, a precious and charming look at a time and place of artistic ferment.

From 1920 to 1925, Frank Shay's Bookshop at 4 Christopher St. in the heart of the Village was, as author Christopher Morley wrote, "too personal, too enchanting, too Bohemian to survive, but for five or six years it played a very real part in the creative life of New York."

Because Shay liked an afternoon nip in those Prohibition years, he hung a door to hide his office. Soon the writers, artists, poets, publishers, playwrights and theater people who frequented the tiny bookshop began to autograph both sides of its panels.

When the shop closed in 1925, manager Juliette Koenig took the door with more than 240 signatures home. In 1960, the Ransom bought the door and added it to the archive of Christopher Morley, a patron of the shop and friend of many of the signers.

Like Lewis Carroll's rabbit hole, the autographed door, only partly deciphered (more than 50 names remain unidentified), serves as the entrance to another world with fascinating characters.

In this case, it's the epicenter of Modernism, where the avant-garde, activism and experiment flourished. For more about this choice exhibit, imaginatively curated by Molly Schwartzburg, the door, shop and notable clientele, visit

'Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored' and ‘The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920-1925'