Censorship in the 1920s
The 1920s was the first time American youth had a culture of their own. Prior to WWI, there was little interaction with the larger world, especially in a mostly-rural nation. Culture was regional and consistent. However, by the 1920s, the United States integrated technology perfected during the war, like cars, radios, photography, motion pictures, and advances in all types of communication.
The war also moved Americans around as never before, and they returned home with an expanded view of their world. The conflict introduced millions of Americans to the diversity of other cultures, and the realization that their own lives were increasingly affected by global influences.
Young people, especially those who experienced, first hand, the realities of war, embraced fatalism tempered with abandon. The bedrock of society was often perceived as a sham benefitting few, controlling the masses.
Rebellion was reflected in music, literature, and films. The youth of America veered into unknown territory, freed from outdated ideas and their own previous naïveté. The youth culture emerged. Fashion ditched stuffy constraints; silhouettes were looser and more freeing, especially for women. Chaperones were passé; those of the old school saw modern dating as dangerous, and cars as “rolling bedrooms.” Films splashed sexy scenes onto the big screen; actors became influencers and stars with millions of fans hanging on their every move. Libraries and bookstores offered modern literature with fresh ideas that spoke to a generation demanding civil rights, voting rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and especially the right to free speech.
After the Civil War, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was banned in the United States, as it was pro-abolishionist; it threatened the status quo by rousing widespread debate. This spawned an era of censorship intended to control access to materials and ideas in conflict with those in p0wer.
By the 1920s, special interest groups sought to ban books and movies that offended their base. In 1922, The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, later known as Motion Picture Association of America, was formed with Former Postmaster General William H Hays as its leader. That Marvel – The Movie, a book published in 1923, included an introduction by Hays. The author (and Hays) cite the need to protect Americans from themselves by censorship of radical thoughts and ideas that were not in keeping with prevailing Protestantism and the ruling male hierarchy.
In 1923, The American Civil Liberties Union published a pamphlet, Civil Liberty, their statement on an individual’s rights in the United States of America. Publications such as Bibliography on Censorship and Propaganda, targeted at youth, described how censorship and propaganda were effective tools of social control.
In 1925, the Scopes Trial polarized American society.
Booksellers and Book Bans
Booksellers and many librarians defied acts of censorship and helped to galvanize readers locally, in many locations throughout the United States. They were important advocates in the fight for intellectual freedom and freedom of speech. Hoping to avoid actions like those taken by the City of Boston, a city that became famous for the number of classic literary works they banned, including those by Upton Sinclair, HG Wells, John Dos Passos, Bertrand Russell, and others.
This year, during the week of September 18 – 24, 2022, the American Library Association (ALA) has asked readers to support Banned Books Week. This annual event celebrates the freedom to read, an important freedom especially in this era of increasing censorship.
The Washington Post published an article by Angela Haupt (2022 06 09), titled, The Rise in Book Bans, Explained. She cites Jonathan Friedman, Director of Free Expression and education at PEN America, who said current efforts to ban books from schools and libraries is “unprecedented in its scale, and in the proliferation of organized groups” who want to remove entire lists of books from public access. PEN reported there were 1586 instances of books being banned in a nine month period through March 2022. (See the list of books on Fire.org.)
To learn more, visit Unite Against Book Bans.
Advocates for Intellectual Liberty in the 1920s – And Today
In 1923, the American Civil Liberties Union published a pamphlet stating that “all though on matters of public concern should be freely expressed without interference.” Civil Liberty is a brief publication denouncing repression, stating that it does not protect individuals nor evade conflict, but leads, instead, to violence and division.
Project Gutenberg.org provides a list of books that have been banned from 387BC to 1978AD, and are available online, free.
The University of Pennsylvania has offered readers online access to some of the books that have been banned from schools and libraries.