Banned in Boston: The Watch and Ward Society’s Crusade against Books, Burlesque, and the Social Evil
By Neil Miller
Boston, Beacon Press, 209 pages

It’s easy to be smug when you live in the state with the most educated population, some of the best schools and universities, and one of the most vibrant literary scenes in America. But it wasn’t so long ago that Massachusetts was known for its aversion to new thought—a place that would strike even Sarah Palin as sadly lacking in cosmopolitanism.

Banned in Boston, by CommonWealth contributing writer Neil Miller, gives us the scoop on the Hub’s read-no-evil era, from the end of the 19th century through the 1950s. Before reading it, I thought of the title as a joke. I knew that city leaders at the time went beyond tsk-tsking at racy books and actually made them illegal. But just as Prohibition was weak tea in terms of curbing alcohol consumption (Daniel Okrent’s recent book, Last Call, discusses the lax enforcement in Boston), I had assumed that it was relatively easy to obtain “banned” books here, and that being put in the forbidden zone only increased sales.

But Miller explains how the shadowy nature of the censorship system here—completely lacking in transparency and accountability—made it so effective. At the height of its power, the extralegal Watch and Ward Society, the impetus behind the book-banning craze, could more or less single-handedly pull books out of circulation in Boston, without any kind of judicial review—helped by a broadly written obscenity law at the state level, which the Society was instrumental in enacting. Area booksellers acquiesced to the crackdown, perhaps tired of seeing their clerks arrested for selling titles they often knew nothing about. Beginning in 1915, a committee consisting of three booksellers (always including downtown’s Old Corner Book­store) and three Watch and Ward members examined new books and decided which ones would be sent down the memory hole. “The general public knew almost nothing of what was going on,” writes Miller. “The names of banned books were never announced, and such books were never reviewed or advertised…. It was if they never existed.”

For much of the 20th century in Boston, it was almost as difficult to get a book mentioning abortion as it was to get an abortion itself. Miller notes that readers often traveled to New York to stock up on the latest national bestsellers, as the Watch and Ward Society’s influence extended to most of New England. Predictably, the “banned” label often boosted sales elsewhere. Miller notes that as early as 1882, sales of poet Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass benefited from its exclusion from Boston, so much so that the book’s publisher quietly, but unsuccessfully, tried to get it banned in Phila­delphia, too. (One question left unanswered by Miller is whether there was a significant underground market for banned books in the Hub. But perhaps verboten titles like Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy weren’t dirty enough to profitably peddle from beneath trench coats.)

The “gentlemen’s agreement” between booksellers and the Watch and Ward Society fell apart in 1927, thanks in part to H.L. Mencken’s successful crusade to overturn a ban on his American Mercury magazine. But there followed what Miller calls a “wild orgy of book-banning,” lasting about a year and a half, in which the Boston Police Depart­ment, the Suffolk County District Attorney, and the Boston Archdiocese of the Catholic Church each made their own contributions to the “banned” list that booksellers continued to honor. During this time, banned books included Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises; Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry, presumably for satirizing religion; and Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, ostensibly because it included a scene at a “petting party,” though Sinclair charged that he was being punished for his socialist politics.

By this time, civic leaders started to get concerned about Boston’s national reputation. In a 1927 letter to a Boston newspaper, department store magnate A. Lincoln Filene came out as something of a precursor to modern-day sociologist Richard Florida and his “creative class” theories, as he warned that Boston’s prissiness might scare off the city’s “younger and more vigorous sectors.” (Filene may have also been distressed by the thought of these sectors doing their Christmas shopping in New York.) Still, it would take a couple of decades for censorship fever to completely pass, as legislators and courts hemmed and hawed about rewriting, and reinterpreting, obscenity statutes.

In the meantime, Boston’s bluenoses turned their attention to the stage. Watch and Ward had some success in getting the city to act against burlesque shows that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today (“vulgar contortions of the body” was a typical offense), but the authorities seemed to give more leeway to popular entertainment. Highbrow plays were another matter. In 1929, Mayor Malcolm Nichols put the kibosh on Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Strange Interlude, forcing it to move to a theater in Quincy, on the grounds that it promoted atheism and infidelity. By this time, even the Watch and Ward Society was loosening up a bit, determining that the printed version of O’Neill’s play was “not actionable,” but it no longer had control over the “banned in Boston” label (perhaps the group should have trademarked the phrase). For decades, Boston had a city censor with a hands-on approach (the “urban dramaturge?”). In 1960, he forced the producers of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to delete “irreverent references to the Deity,” and in the 1970s he vetoed the desecration of an American flag in Hair. The post was finally abolished in 1982, by which time the city was on its way to its current national reputation as hopelessly permissive.

Why did the censorship impulse sink such deep roots in New England? Ironically, the region’s liberal politics was a factor. Book-banning was of a piece with “moral uplift” crusades, and the New England Watch and Ward Society was equally concerned with rooting out public corruption and working toward “good government.” On the national political stage, as Okrent points out in Last Call, the drive for a constitutional amendment banning alcohol was part of a progressive agenda that included a national income tax and women’s rights, though Watch and Ward seemed more interested in tightly regulating alcohol than in wiping it out completely.

Watch and Ward was founded (originally as the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice) by some 500 men at Boston’s Park Street Church in 1878. Miller calls the event “in part a reaction to the perceived moral decline of a materialistic age, in part an extension of the reforming impulses and Puritan conscience that were long the heart and soul of Boston.” He notes that “ultimate Brahmin” Godfrey Lowell Cabot, said to be the wealthiest man in Boston when he died in 1962, was a major financial supporter, as well as an active member, of Watch and Ward; a Cabot biographer wrote that the man “was much happier when he found something to condemn.” And his censorious impulses were certainly catholic with a small “c.” He was offended by the “coarse and immoral” book The Three Musketeers but also by the city of Cambridge’s lack of competitive bidding for municipal contracts. (He once ran for mayor of that city as a reform candidate and was crushed by the incumbent Democrat.)

Watch and Ward fought against gambling, opposing lotteries that targeted poor people desperate for a lucky break and supporting laws that gave the police expanded powers to break up penny-ante poker games. It also ran sting operations in and beyond Boston exposing bars and hotels that abetted prostitution, which it euphemistically called “the social evil.”

Given this agenda, plus the society’s dogging of machine politicians like Boston’s James Michael Curley, it seems unlikely that many well-educated suburbanites—the kind that now vote for Deval Patrick and Martha Coakley—would have opposed Watch and Ward just so everyone could get their hands on Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Still, it seems almost too tidy that Puritan-founded Boston, rather than some other big city, would become synonymous with censorship. Miller doesn’t tell us much about what was going on elsewhere at the time, but his biographical sketches of Watch and Ward leaders leave the impression that a handful of determined and resourceful people made a big difference, and if they had lived in the nation’s biggest city instead, perhaps “Nixed in New York” would have become a catchphrase.

Miller also avoids commentary on contemporary issues (nothing on school libraries banning Heather Has Two Mommies and the like). This is perhaps out of a concern that taking sides in current ideological battles would distract from a carefully researched work that does not use the benefit of hindsight to take cheap shots. He does not suggest that Watch and Ward leaders, many of them clergy, were hypocrites or charlatans (though some politicians may be a different story). And after all, all of this was before talk radio and cable TV, so they weren’t in it for the money. Their aim, misguided as it might have been, was true.