Georgia’s obscene novels.
Sixty-one years ago today, on February 19, 1953, the State of Georgia approved the formation of the first-ever literature censorship board in the United States. It went by the misleading name of the Georgia Literature Commission, and its humble charge was to stamp out obscenity in all of the myriad and insidious forms it took in our nation’s periodicals and publications. The Washington Post has an excellent gloss on the commission, which persevered for some twenty years, despite having been mired in controversy from its inception. James P. Wesberry, the committee’s chairman—and not coincidentally a Baptist preacher—found himself ridiculed by the national press when, soon after the committee’s formation, he said, “I don’t discriminate between nude women, whether they are art or not. It’s all lustful to me.”
Thus, with God and a pure, unyielding ignorance on his side, Wesberry developed an eight-question checklist with which to gauge literature for obscenity:
1. What is the general and dominant theme?
2. What degree of sincerity of purpose is evident?
3. What is the literary or scientific worth?
4. What channels of distribution are employed?
5. What are contemporary attitudes of reasonable men toward such matters?
6. What types of readers may reasonably be expected to peruse the publication?
7. Is there evidence of pornographic intent?
8. What impression will be created in the mind of the reader, upon reading the work as a whole?
(One imagines that question seven did most of the heavy lifting—the committee probably skipped ahead to that one, much as a wayward youth would skip ahead to the prurient bits in a girlie mag.)
Erskine Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre was the first book to be suggested for censorship, in 1957; The Catcher in the Rye and The Naked and the Dead were also deemed obscene. For the most part, though, the commission went after dime-store sleaze like Alan Marshall’s Sin Whisper—when they banned that title, the battle went all the way to the Supreme Court, which overturned the decision. By 1971, the whole commission seemed kind of silly. When Jimmy Carter, he who had lusted after women in his heart, was governor, he slashed the commission’s funding, and by 1973 it was no more. Still, when you see the lurid covers of these novels, you’ll understand why they were believed to corrupt and deprave. Here are some of the books the committee found too debauched for the public consumption: