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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Rare Book Cafe companion piece: Georgia's experiments in literary criticism

by Lindsay Thompson, co-host, Rare Book Cafe (for the February 25, 2017 program)



For twenty years, seven men labored to stanch the flow of paperbacks “so bad the devil would blush.” Several died on duty.

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Here’s what The New Georgia Encyclopedia said of it:

Georgia launched its first major campaign against obscene literature in 1953, when the General Assembly unanimously voted to establish the Georgia Literature Commission. The onset of the paperback book revolution in the years after World War II (1941-45), the rising popularity of adult magazines, and the introduction of Playboy magazine in the United States led the legislature to create the commission, consisting of three members who would meet monthly to investigate literature that they suspected to be "detrimental to the morals of the citizens of Georgia." If the commission determined something to be obscene, it had the power to inhibit distribution by notifying the distributor and then, thirty days later, recommending prosecution by the proper prosecuting attorney. Governor Herman Talmadge appointed Atlanta minister James P. Wesberry, Royston newspaper publisher Hubert L. Dyar, and Greensboro theater owner William R. Boswell to serve four-year terms.

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Writing in The Georgia Historical Quarterly in 2000, Gregory Lisby chronicled the post-World War II era’s concerns over moral standards that seemed to have gotten lost in the exigencies of conflict, what with all the men gone, the women working, and the kids latch-keying themselves home every afternoon.

The paperback revolution, and the rise of girlie magazines, found ready audiences in millions of demobilized servicemen for whom Betty Grable pinups lacked the allure they’d had in, say 1942:

Thus, the Georgia General Assembly unanimously voted to pass House Bill 247, establishing the Georgia Literature Commission to combat immorality as represented by "obscene literature." The commission- a "study agency [to investigate and recommend, with] no powers of censorship nor authority to punish offenders," in the words of then-Governor Herman Talmadge- was to consist of three members, citizens of "the highest moral character," who would meet monthly to investigate "literature which they have reason to suspect is detrimental to the morals of the citizens" of Georgia. Literature was defined in the statute as "any book, pamphlet, paper, drawing, lithograph, engraving, photograph, or picture," but specifically did "not include pictures used in projection of motion pictures or television." The Bible,"weekly and daily newspapers, all Federal and State matters, and all reading matter used in the recognized religions and in scientific or educational institutions of the United States" were exempt, as were radio, television, and film.

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Rev. Wesberry, who dodged Governor Talmadge until reminded by the chief executive of his duty to the people of Georgia, got off to a poor start:

As might be imagined, the commission found itself embroiled in a controversy over its purpose and identity from the beginning. First, there was Wesberry’s fear that the commission would be made to look like "a monkey to the nation." Then, in response to a question about the potential offensiveness of certain works of art, "with more zeal for his task than common sense," Wesberry answered, "I don't discriminate between nude women, whether they are art or not. It's all lustful to me." Wesberry's biographer characterized the statement as "the worst thing he could have said." The comment was reported nationally. The media - from radio's Walter Winchell to Collier's magazine to the International News Service - "made great sport of [his] remarks and inferred that if all nudity was lustful to [him] that [his] thoughts must be evil."

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Wesberry struck again in the summer of 1953: "When asked by a reporter to
name some of the books which have drawn fire, the chairman replied that if he named any of the books, a lot of people would go out and buy them.”


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Lisby and the Georgia Encyclopedia report the Commission had some early successes:

Most of the commission's early work was through a program of mutual cooperation with publishers, distributors, and retailers, although the commission became increasingly ineffective in its dealing with magazines, as it could prohibit distribution of a particular issue it found to be obscene but not any future issue. In late 1956, four out-of-state publishing companies sued the commission in federal district court on the grounds that the statute establishing the commission was unconstitutional. A special three-judge appellate panel ruled that the statute as correctly construed did not raise a constitutional question. Because the court concluded that the commission did not have any powers of censorship—the commission could only recommend to distributors that a publication not be sold or to prosecuting attorneys that a distributor be prosecuted—the suit was subsequently dismissed.

Through 1967 the commission was required to take legal action in only six instances. The beginning of the end of the commission's efforts came on August 19, 1966, when the commission sought and received a declaratory judgment in Muscogee County Superior Court that Alan Marshall's Sin Whisper (1965) was obscene. The Georgia Supreme Court also sided with the commission, concluding that the book was "filthy and disgusting." The unanimous opinion continued, "Further description is not necessary, and we do not wish to sully the pages of the reported opinions of this court with it." The U.S. Supreme Court, however, reversed the judgment without comment in a memorandum decision without any explanation of why the book was not obscene, without any comment about the standards applied by Georgia courts determining it to be obscene, and without any ruling on the constitutionality of the commission itself. Other books chosen for review by the commission were Erskine Caldwell's God's Little Acre (1933), J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye (1951), Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead (1948), George H. Smith's Strip Artist (1964), and John Dexter's Lust Avenger (1965).

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Other titles the Commission tried to suppress included Swan’s Campus Lust, Reese Hayes’ Turbulent Daughters, and Betty Short’s Rambling Maids. In 1964, Wesberry went after James Baldwin’s 1962 best-seller, Another Country, complaining that it was obscene and also inflammatory “because it was written by a Negro.” The book, which featured interracial and bisexual extramarital relationships, had already been declared obscene in New Orleans; as with the Commissions campaign against God's Little Acre- a full two decades after it was published, its campaign against Baldwin, who was then a leading figure in the growing civil rights movement, looked to many like just wandering around trying to pick fights.

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By the end of its first decade, the Commission’s work had produced precious little progress despite burning through $100,000 in taxpayer funds. The supply of offensive material outstripped its ability to review and evaluate it; because it could not ban serial publications into the future, they had to go after naughty magazines month after month, one issue at a time.

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Some distributors complained that even when they thought they were cooperating by not selling certain titles, they never knew when they Attorney General, given the Commission’s latest blacklists, might determine they weren’t, and prosecute them. Others freelanced their own notions of prior restraint, trying to pander to the Commissioners. A Washington Post report found,

Early on, officials struggled to define exactly what constitutes obscenity in literature, eventually developing an eight-part test. Publishers and distributors tried to appease the board, with some even voluntarily withdrawing books. Hefner even wrote them, thanking them for differentiating Playboy from the other “gross and tasteless ‘girlie’ magazines.”

By 1960 the Commission had failed to get a court to ban Erskine Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre, but has managed to get distributors to voluntarily suppress 119 titles.

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The trouble was, everything had to be tested next to eight criteria:

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?

The courts began to turn in a new direction as the 1950s gave way to a new decade. And a new governor, one Jimmy Carter, was the Commission’s nemesis. As Lisby reported,

[I]n 1971, after years of steady support, its annual appropriation was reduced by almost 20 percent. Ironically, then-Governor Jimmy Carter's decision to cut the commission's budget coincided with his public pronouncements decrying pornography.

He proclaimed May 9-15, 1971, "Fight Pornography Week," and declared his intentions "to do everything I possibly can to rid Georgia of pornographic literature and movies," urging "all Georgians to join ... in this fight.”
"Jimmy [Carter] was ... a liberal," Wesberry remembered in 1991. "He didn't see the evils of pornography as we saw it.”

Carter spent his governorship trying to unload the moribund Commission without yielding any ground on the need to stamping out smut. Lisby says,

In September [1972], he implemented a plan that would solidify his stance as "tough on pornography," yet circumvent the need to shut down the commission. Carter chose to argue that while certainly "not their fault," the commission had become no more than a "mere complaint department" and was "completely ineffective in stopping the spread of obscenity," the result of recent Court decisions that had "placed enforcement responsibility on the local level and left the state Literature Commission without enforcement power." He then named a new six-member advisory committee on pornography with instructions to"make a crash study of the pornographic situation in Georgia" and report back to him with "recommendations for fresh legal action." The committee recommended the creation of a new literature commission with a special, "circuit-riding prosecutor on its staff'; nothing, however, finally came of this proposal.
Carter's last, most subtle tactic to ensure the demise of the commission was to take no action at all. Both he and the next Georgia governor, George Busbee, "declined" to appoint replacements for Commissioner William Pirkle who died on October 11,1972, and Hubert Dyar, executive secretary, who died on October 4, 1973, at age forty-seven, the result of complications following surgery. Thereafter, the three-member agency was precluded from conducting official business as it was never able to have a quorum. It was, thus, "impotent" and, as a consequence, legally "inactive." Though Wesberry never said so publicly, he held Carter responsible: "Some of the best people I know couldn't see what was wrong. It broke my heart, [for] when you're fighting obscenity, you're fighting the devil."
From 1973 on, the commission's activities can only be described as its few last gasps for life. Wesberry was then the only living commission member, and despite his efforts, his appointment - which officially ended on April 1, 1973 - was never renewed. The last expenses deposit for the commission was made in June 1973, and the last minutes from a "meeting" were recorded October 9, 1973, during which Wesberry elected himself interim executive director and telephoned the governor's office to request that Carter
appoint two new members. The commission's last financial statement on file is for the quarter ending December 31, 1973.
Finally, in January 1974, the Office of Budget and Planning rejected the commission's quarterly allotment request because it had not been signed by its legally elected executive secretary, Hubert Dyar, who had died the previous year. The Georgia Literature Commission was completely paralyzed. This fact is reinforced by the words written in bold on the outside of Governor George Busbee's file on it: "Not Going To Appoint."

Wesberry also retired as minister of the Morningside Baptist Church the following year to become director of the Lord's Day Alliance, an interdenominational group whose aim is to promote "the Lord's Day as a day of worship, rest, family culture, and Christian service."
Although the 1953 statute creating the commission was never officially rescinded by the General Assembly (for what Georgia legislator would want to be seen voting for pornography?) , the new Georgia Constitution of 1976 authorized eight constitutional boards and commissions. The Literature Commission was not among them.


Among those surviving him, and his Commission, was Jimmy Carter, former governor of Georgia and 39th President of the United States.

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