In 2013, the National Archives is delving into the secret history of Australian censorship in a new blog and highlighting some of the books banned by the censors. In this article, curator Tracey Clarke explains how the banning of a literary classic brought the Australian censorship regime under scrutiny.
‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.’
So begins The Catcher in the Rye, one of the most famous novels of the 20th century. Its narrator, Holden Caulfield, became an icon of teenage angst and rebellion. JD Salinger’s classic work was prohibited in Australia – one of the strictest censors in the western world.
It was also one of the most secret. Except for the occasional ban that was picked up by the media, consumers and booksellers didn’t know which publications were being held back. The Commonwealth Customs Department, which was responsible for administering federal censorship under Section 52C of the Customs Act 1901, had the authority to prohibit imports deemed obscene, indecent, blasphemous and seditious, or that excessively emphasised sex, violence or crime.
A prohibited import
First published in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye had been freely circulating in Australia for some years when a clerk of the Customs Literature Censorship Section seized an imported copy for review. Despite describing it as ‘extremely readable … and punctuated with humour, pathos and wise commentaries on our society’, he felt the novel contained enough ‘indelicate, indecent and almost blasphemous references’ to be considered a prohibited import.
Without referring it to the Literature Censorship Board, which was established in the 1930s to provide expertise on works of literary or scholarly merit, the Customs Department added the novel to the list of banned books on 21 August 1956.
A national embarrassment
Although prohibited in Australia, The Catcher in the Rye was respected around the world. The United States Ambassador even donated copies to foreign governments as an example of his country’s literature. When a copy of the book was seized from the Parliamentary Library in September 1957, the press declared the ban a national embarrassment and widely criticised the censorship regime.
On 20 September 1957 the Sydney Morning Herald reported that ‘this country has one of the most arbitrary – and perhaps one of the most inefficient – systems of book censorship in the world’. An editorial published the next day proclaimed:
The Customs Department can ban a book on its own initiative. The ban may (but need not) be reviewed by the Commonwealth Literature Censorship Board; after that, by a one-man appeal board; and, finally, by the Minister for Trade and Customs (who is not, however, obliged to follow anybody’s advice) … Commonwealth censorship is superfluous, and should be abolished.
When the Literature Censorship Board reviewed Salinger’s novel in October it had ‘no hesitation’ in recommending release. One Board member described the novel as ‘uncannily successful in presenting [an] adolescent attitude through a first person account’.
Shortly after, Customs Minister Denham Henty announced that the list of banned books would be reviewed by the Literature Censorship Board, and that these reviews would occur every five years. All literary works were to be forwarded to the Board and the list of banned literary and scholarly works was made public for the first time.
Following the 1958 review, the banned list was reduced to 178 titles. Determined protest from book importers and anti-censorship groups, as well as a change in the attitudes of key Customs personnel, contributed to a more relaxed policy. The introduction of R-ratings for books in the early 1970s saw the end of effective literary censorship in Australia. By December 1973, no books were on the banned list.
Archive of the banned
The Custom Department’s role as moral guardian has left a rich collection of the books and magazines considered ‘obscene, indecent, blasphemous and seditious’. The department kept a reference library of around 15,000 publications banned in Australia between the 1920s and the 1970s. It includes well-known literary works such as DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, as well as thousands of pulp fiction novels, comics and adult magazines.
Some of the titles are rare editions, and many are no longer in print. This valuable collection, held by the National Archives, reflects the social attitudes and morals of the period and provides a fascinating insight into how these have changed.