1929 April 16

“An American Tragedy”: Obscenity Trial Opens in Boston


Theodore Dreiser’s famous 1925 novel, An American Tragedy, was subjected to several censorship efforts for alleged obscenity. The trial, which opened on this day, was the result of a concerted censorship campaign that helped to popularize the phrase “Banned in Boston” (although censorship in the city began in the 17th century). The day was a momentous one for the First Amendment. In the evening, because Boston Mayor James Curley had banned Margaret Sanger from speaking about birth control in Boston, she famously appeared on stage that night with a gag over her mouth (see the separate event on this day for that event).

The ban on An American Tragedy was part of a dramatic upsurge in censorship activity in Boston between 1926 and 1929, in which 65 different books were withdrawn from distribution in the city.

Two other Dreiser novels were banned in the U.S.: The Genius (Cincinnati, 1916), and Sister Carrie (New York City, 1916). Both Genius and An American Tragedy were burned by the Nazis in Germany in 1933 because of their portrayal of “low love affairs.”

Read the classic novel: Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy (1925)

See the film adaptation, with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift: A Place in the Sun (1951)

Learn more about Dreiser: Richard R. Lingeman, Theodore Dreiser, 2 vols (1986, 1990)

And more: Leigh Ann Wheeler, Against Obscenity: Reform and the Politics of Womanhood in America, 1873-1935 (2007)

Find a Day

Abortion Rights ACLU african-americans Alice Paul anti-communism Anti-Communist Hysteria Birth Control Brown v. Board of Education Censorship CIA Civil Rights Civil Rights Act of 1964 Cold War Espionage Act FBI First Amendment Fourteenth Amendment freedom of speech Free Speech Gay Rights Hate Speech homosexuality Hoover, J. Edgar HUAC Japanese American Internment King, Dr. Martin Luther Ku Klux Klan Labor Unions Lesbian and Gay Rights Loyalty Oaths McCarthy, Sen. Joe New York Times Obscenity Police Misconduct Same-Sex Marriage Separation of Church and State Sex Discrimination Smith Act Spying Spying on Americans Vietnam War Voting Rights Voting Rights Act of 1965 War on Terror Watergate White House Women's Rights Women's Suffrage World War I World War II Relocation Camps


Tell Us What You Think

We want to hear your comments, criticisms and suggestions!