1929 July 26

Lesbian Themed “The Well of Loneliness” Held Not Obscene by U.S. Customs Court


The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall is probably the most famous lesbian novel of the first half of the 20th century. U.S. Customs had banned it from being imported into the U.S. On this day, however, the Customs Court ruled that it was not obscene and could be imported. This was the second victory for the novel in three months. On April 19, 1929, a New York court had ruled that the novel was not obscene under the terms of New York state law. That case had been initiated by John Sumner of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

In the United Kingdom, the novel had been found to be obscene, and copies were ordered destroyed. In the U.S., however, it was an enormous success, having sold 40,000 copies by the spring and eventually 100,000 copies. In his memoirs, Hall’s publisher Donald Friede recalled writing her first royalty check for $64,000. Since the New York obscenity case had caused sales to double, Friede went to Boston to try to maneuver the Watch and Ward Society, the famous local anti-obscenity group, to declare it obscene, but to his disappointment it said it did not find the novel objectionable.

Read the novel: Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness (1928)

Watch a short reading of The Well of Loneliness: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJoIwgeCG9U

Learn more: Diana Souhami, The Trials of Radclyffe Hall (1999)

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

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