Book Review: Banned in Boston, by Neil Miller

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As American society began to undergo radical changes in the late 1800s, stalwarts of the old order joined in a crusade against immorality of all kinds.

Founded in 1630 by Puritans who saw it as a divinely ordained “city on a hill” that was to illuminate mankind, Boston soon became the cultural and intellectual center of the British North American colonies. By the middle of the 19th century, as the home of innumerable authors, poets, painters, philosophers, and publishers, the city was with justification known as “the Athens of America.” But Boston, like the rest of the nation, was changing fast.

The Birth of the Watch and Ward Society

The influx of immigrants that had begun before the Civil War and increased significantly afterward, combined with the rapid growth of industrialization, transformed Boston from a city dominated by its “Brahmins,” the elite descendants of the founding Protestants, to one dominated instead by working-class Irish Catholics. As Boston, like all large cities, found itself threatened more and more by the problems associated with drunkenness, gambling, prostitution, and other social evils, the Brahmins launched a crusade against immorality. In 1878, they established the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice, known through most of its existence as the Boston Watch and Ward Society.

“Banned in Boston”

Banned in Boston is Neil Miller’s entertaining and informative account of the Society’s activities from its founding through its heyday in the early 1960s. The title reflects the Watch and Ward’s ongoing attempts to “protect” the citizens of Boston (and surrounding areas) from the pernicious influence of obscene, immoral, or simply offensive books. The Society had no legal censorship authority, but it maintained an “understanding” with the booksellers of Boston: a member of the Society would simply write the name of the targeted book on a slip of paper and pass it to a member of the Boston Booksellers Committee, and within hours that book would disappear from the shelves of every bookstore in Boston.

Of course, every time a book was banned, its popularity increased enormously. The novelist Upton Sinclair once declared, “I would rather be banned in Boston than read anywhere else because when you are banned in Boston, you are read everywhere else.” Besides Sinclair, the contemporary authors “honored” by being banned in Boston included Walt Whitman, Sinclair Lewis, H. L. Mencken, John Dos Passos, and Theodore Dreiser, among many others – not to mention foreign writers such as James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence, and even “classic” authors like Voltaire and Victor Hugo.

A Crusade Against Evil

The Watch and Ward Society not only banned books; they closed down theaters and burlesque halls, broke up gambling dens, raided brothels, smashed stores of bootlegged liquor, and generally intimidated anyone they considered corrupt – all without a shred of legal authority; though it must be admitted that they sometimes brought along a policeman to do the actual arresting.

In the end, it was the Watch and Ward’s vigilante nature that turned public approval into disapproval – combined with rapidly changing notions among that public of what they should or should not be allowed to read or hear or do, and who should decide such matters. Neil Miller concludes that “one can admire some of [the Society’s] goals and deplore others – and both wonder at and recoil from the audacity of its tactics.” Banned in Boston provides a balanced look at a local movement that represented a widespread – and continuing – tension within American society.

Neil Miller teaches journalism at Tufts University and is the award-winning author of five nonfiction books.