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was part of a dramatic upsurge in censorship activity in Boston between 1926 and 1929, in which 65 different books were withdrawn from distribution in the city.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)

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