The newest issue of CommonWealth magazine is now out, and it includes my review of Neil Miller's Banned in Boston: The Watch and Ward Society’s Crusade against Books, Burlesque, and the Social Evil.
It's hard to believe now, for much of the early 20th century, Bostonians had to go to New York to get copies of the latest novels that the American intelligensia was chattering about (including An American Tragedy and Elmer Gantry). An excerpt from my review:
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.”
Could such a system ever be revived in Boston or elsewhere in the US? Almost certainly not, if only because bookstores are fast becoming extinct. The prudes would have to go after online booksellers and e-reader suppliers like Kindle instead. Maybe they'll try, for the sake of the children.