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The belief that some books are dangerous has a pedigree dating back at least to Plato, who maintained that published works 1) destroyed the reader’s capacity for memorization; 2) made a burlesque of teaching by saying “the very same thing forever”; and 3) led perusers to “imagine that they have come to possess knowledge but actually possess opinions”—all concerns that have proven to be spot-on.
Those who have since taken up the view that books are not always an adornment on society held rather narrower objections, mostly relating to particular authors, volumes, or themes. And while kings and censors surely did their part in retarding the propagation of some printed matter, religious agencies proved champions at the business; and none, of course, was better at it than the Catholic Church, which—beginning shortly after the Council of Trent disbanded in 1563, and concluding shortly before the National Organization for Women convened in 1966—developed, refined, and promulgated the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, over time enjoining the faithful from partaking of thousands of books whose contents were considered a threat to faith and morals. So respected were the Church’s skills, that in the early 13th century, a group of French rabbis who believed that Maimonides’s Guide of the Perplexed was too appreciative of Aristotelian thought, but who had themselves never set flame to anything more exotic than a lamp wick, enlisted aid from the Dominicans—known, the rabbis flatteringly put forth in their entreaty, “for burning your heretics”—and the friars obligingly condemned, collected, and burned the Guide in 1233.
The Index, while best known for reproving books by Western civilization’s all stars (Bacon, Spinoza, Milton, Pascal, Locke, Montaigne, Voltaire, Gibbon, Kant, Descartes, Hume, and Copernicus for starters), was in fact far less concerned with philosophy or planetary movement than with dodgy Christian theology. While some Catholics may indeed have been pained by the necessity of choosing between virtue and Madame Bovary, few could have felt themselves injured because forbidden the heterodox musings of Konrad Schlusselburg, (1543–1619), Johannes Hoornbeeck (1617–66), or Jacques Auguste Simon Collin de Plancy (1793–1887).
By the late 19th century, in the democratic West, responsibility for waging war against dangerous books had been assumed by governments, few of which had any interest in suppressing heresy (unless it could be politically useful), but who demonstrated strong aversion to books that advanced sedition or that led youth to sin. In the United States, and particularly in cities in which Anglo-Saxon populations were losing ground, literally, to former residents of Dublin, Salerno, or Kiev, the fear of rampant degeneracy led to the rise of guardians of virtue who organized under vivid corporate titles such as the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and the New England Watch and Ward—the former led by the plump, mutton-chopped, and thunderously obtuse racist Anthony Comstock, and the latter responsible for “banned in Boston” as a brand that for more than four decades was as helpful to the sale of books and theater tickets as a rave review.
Heavy with local power hitters (e.g., industrialists in New York, WASP clerics in Massachusetts), these organizations held political and cultural sway into the early 1920s, with some historians crediting the Comstock crew with the destruction of more than 160 tons of books, and Comstock boasting, with his customary sensitivity, that he’d driven 15 authors or publishers to suicide. But the “clean book” efforts pretty much collapsed by 1929, after publishers, librarians, authors, and newspapers succeeded in together defeating a succession of proposed New York State laws that would have made books vulnerable to obscenity charges based on a single sentence, and without regard for any other words the book contained.
While it’s widely believed that James Joyce’s Ulysses finally brought down the Comstockians, the truth is that the honor fell to The Well of Loneliness, a British novel in which a lesbian found middle-class happiness living with a female lover. (Its most eyebrow-raising sentence was the demure “That night they were not divided.”) When in April 1929, a New York State appeals court dismissed the obscenity charges, the book became a best-seller, and was republished in an autographed “Victory Edition” that retailed for an astonishing $25 per copy. The commercial lesson was not lost on the Comstockians, some of whom later voiced regret that they’d allowed the publisher to bait them into the suit. (The Watch and Ward Society, while similarly baited, had sagely declined to find the book objectionable.) Nor was the lesson lost on publishers. When, in 1933, Ulysses was similarly freed, Bennett Cerf, the young president of Random House, had his typesetters on standby at the other end of a phone line.
Our story on the latest adventures of Ulysses begins here.
Read more by Ben Birnbaum