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A Brief History of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice

By Nicole Levy | October 1, 2015 9:06am | Updated on October 1, 2015 12:18pm
 The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice was founded in 1873.
The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice was founded in 1873.
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It's Banned Books Week, an annual event celebrating the freedom to read, which draws attention to books that have been challenged or banned. (The New York Public Library really, really wants you to take a quiz about them.)

Back in the first half of the 20th century, authors and their would-be censors fought frequently over the definition of obscenity; the sale of texts and images deemed "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, indecent or disgusting" were outlawed by the New York state penal code. Ardently monitoring compliance with those laws was an organization founded by Anthony Comstock in 1873, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

In 1915, John Sumner succeeded Comstock as both executive director and lifelong anti-smut crusader. His society, chartered by the state legislature, had the power to search for and seize "obscene" materials, arrest suspected peddlers and refer cases to the city's criminal court system. 

By October 1946, shortly before the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice disbanded for good, the organization could claim responsibility for the arrest of 5,567 offenders and the confiscation of 397,471 books and sheet stock. Sumner read many of the books brought to the society's attention as potential penal code offenders.

Asked whether all that reading he did had harmed him, he smiled and said, "I do not think they have done me any good — any more good than the air in a sewer in which some men must work all day." 

We take a look below at the books Sumner succeeded in banning, and those that eluded him.

Sumner's successes:

► "Homo Sapiens," by Stanislaw Przybyszewski

The trilogy, translated from German in 1915, traces the dissolution of a Don Juan named Eric Falk. He's characterized as saying such things as, "You are like a hydromedusa which suddenly parts with its feelers stocked with sexual organs and sends them off to seek the female, and then does not bother about them any more."

Sumner brought charges against the book, demanding its removal from distribution. He withdrew them when the trilogy's publisher, a young Alfred A. Knopf, decided to withdraw the novel from sale at the suggestion of his father's lawyer, who doubled as a director of Sumner's society.

"The Genius," by Theodore Dreiser

Dreiser's semi-autobiographical novel tracks the professional and sexual lives of Eugene Witla, an artist rather susceptible to the "sheer animal magnetism of beauty." 

Sumner, objecting to 70 pages of the book, paid a call to its publisher, John Lane. Lane promptly withdrew all copies of "The Genius" from stores to avoid prosecution. But Dreiser, deriding Sumner as one of those "amateur censors who have been making such nuisances of themselves in their efforts to earn their salaries,” refused to cut the offending material to circumvent the ban.

"Ulysses," by James Joyce

In an excerpt of Joyce's masterwork published by the American journal "The Little Review" in 1920, young Gerty MacDowell solicits the gaze of the aroused hero, Leopold Bloom. We'll let you imagine how Bloom handles that. 

An unsolicited copy of the magazine fell into the hands of a young woman whose father, a New York lawyer, complained to Manhattan District Attorney's office. Sumner's society ultimately brought the case to court, where the judges found the publication's editors guilty of printing "indecent material." The court fined each $50, and Joyce's novel was effectively banned in the U.S. until 1933.

"Ladies in the Parlor," by Jim Tully

 James Joyce's
James Joyce's "Ulysses," effectively banned by Sumner's society
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Tully's novel follows the story of Leora Blair, a poverty-stricken young woman who turns to prostitution to make her living in Chicago. In its two most contested passages, the book describes Leora's sexual encounters. At its most explicit, she's said to "half swoon" in her lover's embrace, feeling "every particle in her body respond in ecstatic rhythm."

In 1935, Sumner's private investigator, Charles Bamberger, bought a copy of "Ladies in the Parlor" at a Macy's department store to bring to court, where two out of three judges found declared it obscene and fined Greenberg Publishers Inc. $50. Magistrate Goldstein accused the book of "emphasizing dirt in the raw." 

"Memoirs of Hecate County," by Edmund Wilson

The controversial heart of Wilson's book, “The Princess with the Golden Hair,” is a "starkly realistic novella about New York City, its dance halls and speakeasies and slums," according to the New York Review of Books. 

The society brought a suit against the book's publisher, Doubleday, in 1946, and won. Appealed twice, the decision calling for a $1,000 fine held.

Sumner's failures:

"Jurgen, a Comedy of Justice," by  James Branch Cabell

"Jurgen," a satiric take on the Medieval romance, stars an overweight, middle-aged pawnbroker granted another year of youth. Jurgen, who encounters several mythical and real ladies on his travels "was a married man and these encounters proved too much for John S. Sumner," reads Cabell's obituary in the New York Times. "Sumner managed to have the book supressed [sic] for a time [in 1920]. Thereafter its sales mounted.”

New York Tribune book reviewer Heywood Broun couldn't say why Sumner ever objected: "There is nothing in it to bring a blush to the cheek of any unsophisticated person. Unfortunately most censors of books are persons of lascivious minds.”

"God's Little Acre," by Erskine Caldwell

"God's Little Acre" follows the lives of a poor Georgia farmer, Ty Ty Walden, and his family. The Waldens, who generally espouse casual views toward sex, do a fair amount of talking about oral sex.

So it's no surprise that Sumner brought a complaint of "obscenity" against the book's publisher, Viking Press, and an employee who sold the book to an agent of his society in 1933.

At trial, Viking's lawyer called Sumner a "man who outdoes Hitler in fanaticism." 

The court dismissed Sumner's case, writing that the book was "obviously not a work of pornography." 

"A World I Never Made," by James Farrell

"A World I Never Made," which recounts the stories of two Irish families living in Chicago, contains a lot of "short Saxon words of common vulgarity," as one judge put it

Before the trial that Sumner set in motion began in 1937, a reporter passed a copy of the book around the courtroom to collect autographs. After his name, Sumner wrote "I thoroughly disapprove of this book." The literary scholar who signed his name beneath wrote, "I thoroughly disapprove of John S. Sumner."

The court ultimately dismissed the case against Farrell's book.

This retrospective was compiled with reference to archives of The New York Times and The New York Tribune, as well as Dawn Sova's "Literature Suppressed on Sexual Grounds."

"Jurgen, a Comedy of Justice," a book that escaped censorship
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