Burning books is a long standing favorite of reformers, politicians and tyrants. No society has ever escaped it, but, may I say with a certain amount of misplaced pride, an American did it best. His name was Anthony Comstock, and he was born in 1844 in Connecticut. After a stint as a soldier in the Civil War, he became a dry goods salesman in New York and a mainstay in the YMCA by dragging saloon keepers who defied Sunday blue laws into court. In 1866, young Comstock found his true calling in the proliferation of printed material coming out of the new technology. Dime novels, yellow dailies, he called “Feeders for brothels.” He formed the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and, as secretary of the organization, started lobbying.
In 1873, he succeeded in getting the U. S. Congress to pass the “Act of the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use” using such slogans as: “Morals not art and literature.” The act was popularly named after him. It was called the Comstock Law.
For the next 42 years, until his death in 1915, Anthony was a special, unpaid postal inspector, with the power to enter any post office and confiscate any material he deemed obscene. Tirelessly, he invaded publishers’ pressrooms, pursued such people as Margaret Sanger, for her ideas on birth control. Under Anthony’s personal direction, more than 120 tons of literature was burned. Added to the more than 80 tons of literature by such authors as Dos Passos, Hemingway and others burned after his death under the act that bears his name, Anthony weighs in at over 200 tons of burned books. The world’s greatest tyrants have yet to match that figure.
The Comstock Law remains on the books. The portly, side-whiskered ghost of Anthony Comstock remains a threat to anyone who pushes the envelope of literature or journalism, determined to remain in death what he was in life, the world’s greatest book burner.
The beginnings of cracks in Comstock’s armor, almost invisible before 1905, came courtesy of a now venerated playwright and a nearly forgotten publisher and fitness advocate.
In 1905, the Lord Chamberlain of England banned the performance of Mrs. Warren’s Profession , the same month the New York Public Library removed Man and Superman from its shelves. George Bernard Shaw, the author of both, and a man who turned a good phrase, decided his best chance was to attack the action in America, rather than in England.
He convinced the backers of Mrs. Warren to move the play to New York, and then proceeded to attack America as a “…second rate, country-town civilization.” During this campaign he coined the term “comstockery” to characterize censorship in the United States. All of which came as a surprise to Anthony Comstock, who didn’t have a clue as to who Shaw was. Ignorance, however, never stopped Anthony. After a hurried conference with a few advisors, Comstock blasted back against Shaw as an “Irish smut dealer.” He further warned that any of Shaw’s “filthy productions” would meet with the full severity of the law.
The result was that the producers raised the prices of the play and sold it out. True to his word, Comstock and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice moved against the play, losing in court, thereby assuring the play a profitable run and establishing Shaw as a major playwright.
In 1907, Bernarr Macfadden was arrested and convicted for a story in Physical Culture magazine judged to be “obscene material” about a young man who had venereal disease. Combating the spread of venereal disease was a major cause for Macfadden. His objective was to raise the public’s awareness of the problem. Macfadden accurately assessed the problem – to control venereal disease, the medical profession had to stop avoiding it simply because it was an embarrassing or “obscene” subject. He campaigned nationally to have his conviction overturned and finally in 1909, received a presidential pardon from President Taft.
Through Physical Culture , Macfadden was one of the first publishers to challenge laws which restricted freedom of speech and the press. He viewed prudery as the source of many social ills, and taught that feelings of guilt and shame were destructive to a person’s overall physical health. Macfadden was an important influence in changing attitudes toward sex, and his legal battles opened the door to much of today’s publishing freedom.
Macfadden’s issue attacking Comstock, Physical Culture (January 1906), containing the article “King of the Prudes” is a highly collectible magazine. This may all sound a bit old fashioned, we don’t do this anymore, do we? We’ve learned, haven’t we? Guess again. The feud continues even today with Internet auction company eBay censoring issues of Physical Culture due to “nudity.” Gee, has eBay replaced Anthony?