Several generations of Americans have grown up with the idea that the city of Boston, Massachusetts is one of the anchors of “liberalism” in America. That statement may well be true today, but it was not always so.
During the early part of the 20th century, there was probably no place as conservative as Boston. And Bostonians, by virtue of their close identification with the early Puritan settlers who had founded the colony, held themselves to be the arbiters of morality for our young country.
If a play or a book, a movie, a painting or a song carried with it the designation, “Banned In Boston,” it meant that it had failed the standards of decency which the Bostonian morality mavens had established and could neither be sold or performed or in the case of art be displayed within the city nor could it be included in the Boston Public Library’s collection. The practice was commonplace until 1965 when William S. Burroughs challenged and won his case to allow his book, “The Naked Lunch” to be distributed in the city.
Over the years many works which we now consider to be classics fell under the “Ban.” Among these were Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”; “Desire Under the Elms” by Eugene O’Neill; “The Sun Also Rises” and “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway; “God’s Little Acre” by Erskine Caldwell; “Wake Up Little Susie” by the Everly Brothers and one of Sinclair Lewis’ books, “Elmer Gantry.”
The basis for banning most of these works centered around one of two issues – either the vulgarity of the language employed in creating the work or that the censors felt there was either too much implied or explicit mention of sex in it. By far, the second was the greatest reason on which the “morality committees” made their decision.
But Lewis’ work was unique in that he hardly ever employed an expletive stronger than “Damn” in his writing – and then only infrequently. And while it was true that he described sexual behavior and liaisons in his work, he did not do so in an evocative or lurid way. It was the subject matter of the book, “Elmer Gantry” itself which riled the censors into taking action.
You see, the protagonist of “Elmer Gantry” was a degenerate, womanizing, alcoholic preacher man of the lowest moral standing – and it was Lewis’ characterization of a “man of the cloth” in such a way that offended the Boston censors.
In the America of 1927 when “Elmer Gantry” was published, most Americans identified themselves with some religious group or other. Going to shul for our Jewish citizens or church for those of us who were Christians was a regular and normal part of our lives.
The clergy, priests, rabbis and ministers were looked up to as standard bearers of righteousness and morality. Many Americans felt they could confidentially receive the same kind of loving advice from their spiritual pastor as they could from their best friend or their closest relative. And the clerics in our society generally held themselves to the highest possible standards not only by preaching their virtue in their sermons but by living it as an example for all of us.
There should be no wonder that movies with religious themes such as “Going My Way” were extraordinarily popular. The moviegoer could leave the theater and relate to Barry Fitzgerald’s and Bing Crosby’s portrayal of the pastor and the parish priest and say, “Why they seemed just like Pastor McGowan and Fr. Timothy.”
There are many of the clergy who have abrogated the high standards to which they have been called. Our tabloids are filled with their names and their misdeeds. But there are some who have received their message and lived it out – giving those of us who still remain in the flock a guiding light to lead us.
The next post will offer a brief summary of the lives of members of both groups.