Day 507: Saving The Souls Of All Bostonians

originally published May 21, 2013

I’ve never been one to target the masses with swift aplomb and savvy scribing. Possibly because I still use expressions like ‘swift aplomb’ – the masses aren’t really into that. But had fate plunked me down in a simpler, less outspoken, less internet-y time, I would have known the secret to placing my words at the iris-end of eyeballs all over the country, even the world.

The trick, as any writer from the seventeenth through twentieth centuries would tell you, is to get your stuff banned in Boston.

Why Boston? Why is there no Wikipedia page devoted to things that were banned in Pittsburgh? Or Richmond? Or <insert city name that you, the reader, despise>? Everyone knows those schlubs don’t know from quality literature.

Boston was founded way back at the dawn of what would become America by a bunch of uppity Puritans who had no time for such blasphemous notions like profanity, mature content, adult themes, or independent thought. Actually, I think a lot of early American cities were founded by Puritans, it’s just that Boston took a little longer to shimmy free from the shackles of repression – a word I’ve decided is a portmanteau of ‘religious oppression’. Boston was a theocracy, pure and simple. And despite whatever yammer-jammer may have been scribbled in the First Amendment later on, city officials still held on to the right to save its citizens from objectionable material that had the potential to book their souls on a one-way ticket to an unfathomable HELL.

And it all started with this guy:

That’s William Pynchon, founder of Springfield, Massachusetts, and sporter of one of the funkier soul patches of the 1600’s. Pynchon was a pillar of the Massachusetts elite, a well-respected leader in the New World. Then, in 1651, he wrote a book. Not a lurid book, nothing that promoted promiscuous sex or lighting people on fire (actually, the latter probably would have been okay back then), but a book that had the audacity to criticize Puritanism. The Meritous Price of Our Redemption asked some questions that the Puritans didn’t want asked. They banned the book – the first time in the short history of the New World that a book had been publically nixed – and pressured Pynchon to get on a boat and fuck off to England.

So he did. And nearby Springfield, aghast at what their Bostonian neighbors had just done, nearly defected to the Connecticut colony. Boston’s reputation for censorship began thusly – not with a strike against sketchy ethics or scandalous boob-showing, but with a  vicious slash of intellectual thought, of questioning the status quo. Seems somewhat apropos for a nation’s introduction to censorship, doesn’t it?

When noted politician and self-appointed moral crusader Anthony Comstock decided he was the best man for the job of protecting the collective American conscience from itself, he found a ridiculous amount of support in Beantown. The city brass jumped on board, happy to throw a ban at anything they deemed risqué. We’re into the late 1800’s now; the Puritans have long been tucked into the history books, but Boston was not ready to become a bastion for progressive urbanization. They left that to those crazy bastards in New York.

And so was born the New England Watch and Ward Society, a hearty gaggle of allegedly moral men and women who… nope, just men, sorry. Women were not allowed to be a part of the organization because they were deemed too frail to handle the subject matter. They clamped down hard in Boston, and the local library played along, banishing all book deemed unacceptable in a locked-up room in the basement. Plays that would travel to Boston would be performed with adapted scripts – nobody wanted to piss off the Watch & Ward brigade.

These guys weren’t just finger-waggers. They were tight with judges and prosecutors. They had obscenity charges in their arsenal, and weren’t afraid to open fire.

In 1882, the Watch & Warders went after Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a collection of poetry that was already over a quarter-century old. District attorney Oliver Stevens demanded the publisher remove some of the poems and change others. Whitman wouldn’t hear of it, and also wrote to his publisher, insisting no changes be made. The publisher, smart enough to stay out of an argument but stupid enough not to realize this would boost the hell out of sales, refused to publish another edition, and allowed Whitman to take it to another publisher who was all too happy to rake in the controversy profits.

During a production of Clifford Odets’ Waiting For Lefty, a 1935 play about cab drivers and unions and communism, the performance was brought to a halt and four actors were taken to jail for obscenity. Movies would get yanked off the projector mid-reel when some judicious putz with the right connections had felt he had seen enough. Anthony Comstock’s legacy in Boston endured long after he’d left to kick-start the Comstock Act, which banned obscene materials from being sent through the mail. Like anatomy textbooks to medical schools.

So what became of this so-called push for morality in Boston? Well, mostly it became an industry inside joke. When anything – movie, play, book, etc – was ‘banned in Boston’, it meant it would probably be a huge draw in other cities, since its content would be something most people would want to see. Boston came to be known as less sophisticated, less forward-thinking than other major cities who didn’t rely on strict censorship to sit at the helm of their local culture.

As for the works themselves, none of them really suffered from having been banned in that one city. The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway still somehow managed to find a handful of people who didn’t feel they were complete smut. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence was found not to be an immediate gateway to a lustful hell. Otto Preminger’s 1953 comedy film The Moon Is Blue sucked zero souls into a brimstone-lined oblivion. And the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Susie” damned not one teen to fire and… wait, seriously? Wow, Boston. Just… wow.

And so life went on. The Watch & Ward folks turned their attention to gambling and drug crime, and Boston sheepishly stopped throwing city-wide bans on respected works of art. Some towns just take a little longer to grow up, I suppose.

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