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The Censor of Art.


THERE ARE ADMIRALTY courts for delinquent mariners, and courts of domestic relations for eventful households. An author alone is condemned to appear, not before a jury of literary men, but in the lowest and most outer court. And an august and lawful body of men, who leave unreproached the lewdities designed to attract the T. B. M. to “Follies” and “Revues,” prohibits Mr. James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen as a dispenser of immorality, despising what they cannot understand. In truth, Jurgen [etext] is not an innocent book (in company with most of the Classics), if innocence be ignorance; though should Jurgen have lost its pristine virtue, there is no shadow of a doubt that the Vice Society was responsible for the deed. Not only has a fine book, filled with a true and rare rapture, been wantonly degraded, but the very law itself has been debased by so vulgar a usage.

Mr. Cabell’s avowed intention, as definitely set forth in the Preface to The Certain Hour, is to write beautifully of beautiful things. Beyond the peradventure of a doubt, Mr. Cabell has dealt fairly with his intentions; yet Jurgen was hailed to the bar, Phrynetically disrobed before the eye of justice and that of twelve good men and true, — though not his peers, — and cast into the Moabitish wash-pot of censorial deletions. There are things as they are. Philistia rejoiced and Jurgen was suppressed.

The chief and essential offense committed by the Society for the Suppression of Vice, was the violation of the constitutional right of any man to be tried by a jury of his peers.

The chief and essential offense committed by the Society for the Suppression of Vice, was the violation of the constitutional right of any man to be tried by a jury of his peers. Here at least it is pleasant to record that such a Jury of Peers has risen and insisted on rendering a true verdict, even if it partake some-what  of the nature of a post-mortem. In a small book entitled Jurgen and the Censor, an Emergency Committee has set up a record of the legal proceedings, and has appended a perfect symposium of brave opinions concerning the “liberty” which we have in America, and which consists mainly of those liberties that other people take from us. There are letters from Robert Herrick, Amy Lowell, Amelie Rives, E. H. Bierstadt, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Bliss Carman and many more, including some foreigners, — George Moore, St. John Ervine, and Hugh Walpole. It is a formidable volume of protest, and serves indirectly to disapprove the naïve affirmation of Prof. Brander Matthews, that by the efforts of the Vice Society “no true work of art will be suppressed.” Like the tread of Remy de Gourmont across the literary fields, Mr. Cabell’s may resemble that of a man with one shoe on and one shoe off. The emphasis is perhaps one-sided. But Jurgen is either a “true work of art” or it is negligible; and if it were the latter, wherefore this volume of authoritative protest? (And after all, as Ruskin pointed out in reference to Chaucer, a certain coarseness has ever enriched the roots of our most pronounced Anglo-Saxon characteristics). No; the outcry at the moment follows a more trenchant scent, over the mangled form of confiscated literature, direct to the evil-odored lair of censorship. The contributors have felt keenly and rather suddenly the offense which aroused Flaubert and other Frenchmen in their day, and, more recently, the dramatists in England as well. They have seen a prurient hand overturn the tablet upon which were written Meredith’s words: “It is deeply conceived, it cannot be immoral”; and that same hand has set up in its place: “It is deeply conceived, — it must be immoral.” This sense of injury will be made clearer further on, I trust, when we have left the local, though fragrant, issue of Jurgen, and turned to greater examples and authorities.

It is difficult, in America, to leave such concrete instances as Jurgen for the general question of censorship, since we are happily free from an official censor attached to our Federal Government, except in war time. Each State has its form of Comstock in trade; but to observe the national censor in all his glory, one must look to England, where the Goliath has only recently been laid low.

To show the trend of many English minds, I shall at once quote from Henry Arthur Jones’ brilliant letter to the Rt. Hon. Herbert Samuel, which is a fountain of quotation in itself, and from John Palmer’s condensation of the legal proceedings which intended the abolition of the English dramatic censor. These sources pour forth an attesting volume of opinion that censorship of letters is an “outrage upon the dignity and honesty of the calling.” Thus spake Conrad. Arnold Bennett declared that “most decidedly the existence of the censorship makes it impossible for me even to think of writing plays on the same plane of realism and thoroughness as my novels.” Not only Fielding was turned from the theatre because of the censorship, but, because of that policy, H. G. Wells wrote: “The censorship, with its wanton powers of suppression, has ever been one of the reasons why I haven’t ventured into play-writing.” The majority of these opinions concerns the dramatic censor, yet the principle applies to books, despite the fact that Mr. Jones considers a book more dangerous than a play. That Bird of Paradox, Mr. Chesterton, is in opposition, maintaining that an objectionable book may be closed with a snap, whereas one has to crawl over seven people to remove a bad play. The final word was spoken in 1737 by Chesterfield. The essence of all argument is here: “If poets and players are to be restrained, let them be restrained, as other subjects are, by the known laws of their country; if they offend, let them be tried, as every Englishman ought to be, by God and their County. Do not let us submit them to the arbitrary will and pleasure of any one man.”

To prove the truth of Chesterfield’s lines on the inadvisability of a censorship, Mr. Sumner, of the Vice Society, has innocently remarked, in his own defense, that “out of the thousands of books published last year, action has been taken against possibly four or five.” The capriciousness of his choice is to be deplored. Many corrupting books have been offered for sale, but the admirable Jurgen is singled out for suppression. What is the criterion? Is it Mr. Sumner’s personal idiosyncrasy? When he is on vacation, does he delegate his office to his clerk? Is the Vice Society actuated by its motto: “Morals, — not Art or Literature,” which, being interpreted, means no more than “Nenuphars, not bread or cheese”? I presume he behaves much as the English censor behaved: that is to say, on no principle whatever. For years in England, a law of censorship prohibited plays of a religious of Biblical nature. Several were banned by the censor. Samson and Delilah, however, being assured of an enormous popularity, and for no other reason than that, was permitted, in flat contradiction of the law. Everyman, because it was discovered in a muniment chest at Ely and possessed an ex-cathedra je-ne-sais-quoi, was also licensed. And while the English censor was valiantly swinging in simian fashion and illegally passing these plays, he was condemning, — on the return swing, — Shelley’s Cenci; Ibsen’s Ghosts; Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession; plays by Brieux; Barker’s Waste, — plays all deeply conceived, — and, lastly, that integral part of every schoolboy’s education, Sophocles’ Œdipus Tyrannus.

But what, after all, are our standards of decency? The Vice Society affirms that the “test of obscenity is this: whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscene is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands such a publication may fall.” Beware lest our children purchase the Book of Genesis, the Dictionary, or Shakespeare. This is on a par with past legislation which deprived women, children, and idiots of the vote. Similar inanities moved Goethe to say that Life daily displays the most scandalous scenes in abundance. With children, people need by no means be so anxious about the effect of a book or a play. For this reason, Goethe resigned the theatre to jeunes filles and stayed at home. Decency is such a fluctuating thing, at best, that the promiscuous æsthetic lynchings of the Vice Society cannot possibly be actuated by any sound principle. Everywhere is its position equivocal. Compare Byron and Shelley. Byron was indecent, Shelley immoral; Byron moved by vain-glorious license, Shelley by misdirected idealism. Shelley was condemned by an outraged orthodoxy, Byron was condoned on account of his looks. To what end a censorship? What price the censor?

The answer lies in the contrast between censored and uncensored art. The Puritan Rebellion abolished the House of Lords, the theatre, and Ireland. The activity of none of them seems to be impaired. Literary censors have teased or mutilated Selley, Flaubert, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, George Moore, without damaging permanently anything but the censorship. What, then, happened when the restriction was removed? If I cite the Restoration Drama, Philistia will again rejoice; but there are two great principles to be deduced from that period which should give the coup de grace to Mr. Sumner. According to Pepys’ Diary, — which to my knowledge has not yet been cited in this connection, — the first ten years of the Restoration saw the few theatres in London given over to Shakespeare, Jonson, Shirley’s tragedies, translations of Corneille, Dryden, and Beaumont and Fletcher. Pepys mentions twelve Shakespearean plays; I doubt if New York has seen more in the last decade. What profoundly shocked Evelyn, and whence comes the disrepute of that generation, was the appearance of women on the stage. We can hardly consider this an indecent custom without offending many idols of the American public. The second and greater principle, confirmed by both Pepys and Evelyn, is that when at the rare behest of a licentious court, an indecent play was put on, the public refused to patronize it. The creed of our faith in America, of our liberty and our law, has ever been made articulate by the voice of the people. Are they so depraved that they cannot judge? Are they become so wanton that Mr. Sumner must correct them? Only those things which have the vigor of truth in them can stand unsupported. Public indecency, to persist, must have support, and it is on record that indecency is not popular. Can the public no longer be trusted?

Samuel  L. M. Barlow was an art critic, composer and frequent contributor to the North American Review, where this essay first appeared in the March 1921 (Vol. 213, No. 784) number.

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