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In the Galleries: Ogden Nash’s padlocked collection of poetry

By Elana Estrin

One of Ogden Nash's copies of  'Hard Lines' with padlock and chain. Photo by Pete Smith.
One of Ogden Nash's copies of 'Hard Lines' with padlock and chain. Photo by Pete Smith.

“All of these books are worse than opium… I would rather have a child of mine use opium than read these books,” declared Senator Reed Smoot of Utah in March 1930, speaking from behind a desk towering with “smutty” books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Robert Burns’s poetry.

In 1929, Senator Smoot and Representative Willis Hawley of Oregon introduced a tariff bill to Congress that included a section restricting the importation of obscene materials, which inspired the widely repeated news headline “Smoot Smites Smut.” Senator Bronson Cutting of New Mexico led a protest against the proposed ban on obscene literature, and the House approved an amendment that removed books from the list of obscene materials.

But the battle wasn’t over. When the full bill reached the Senate in March 1930, Smoot brought book censorship back into the spotlight. After much debate, the Senate returned books to the list of obscene materials with the exception of “classics” and works of “established literary and scientific merit.” The Smoot-Hawley Tariff became law on June 17, 1930.

In response to the controversy, poet Ogden Nash penned “Invocation” and submitted it to The New Yorker, his first published contribution to the magazine, in January 1930.

The first verse reads:

Senator Smoot (Republican, Ut.)
Is planning a ban on smut.
Oh rooti-ti-toot for Smoot of Ut.
And his reverend occiput.
Smite, Smoot, smite for Ut.,
Grit your molars and do your dut.,
Gird up your l__ns,
Smite h_p and th_gh,
We’ll all be Kansas
By and by.

“Invocation” appeared in Nash’s collection Hard Lines. As a publicity stunt, Simon and Schuster sent out advance copies with a chain, padlock, and key attached.

One of Nash’s copies of Hard Lines appears in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored, on display through January 22. Nash intended to send this copy to book critic Alexander Woollcott. The inside front cover of the book includes the beginning of an inscription to Woollcott, but Nash misspelled Woollcott’s name (he forgot the second “l”) and inscribed the book to himself instead:

“For Ogden Nash with the very best wishes of the author. This is one of several advance copies equipped with lock and chain for attention-catching which were sent to current celebrities in hope of eliciting favorable comment. I started to mis-spell Alexander Woollcott’s name in this one, so kept it for myself. Woollcott didn’t like the one he got, even though I spelled his name right.*

*It sold nearly 40,000 copies in spite of him.”

In the Galleries: Censorship of "The Sex Side of Life"

By Alicia Dietrich

Photo of Mary Ware Dennett from New York Journal American collection.
Photo of Mary Ware Dennett from New York Journal American collection.

In 1919 Mary Ware Dennett (1872–1947) published The Sex Side of Life, a sex-education pamphlet for young people that she originally wrote for her sons. The U.S. Post Office declared the pamphlet obscene in April 1922, and Dennett struggled on her own to get the ruling reversed, all the while continuing to distribute The Sex Side of Life through the mail.

In 1928, in consultation with attorney Morris Ernst, Dennett agreed that it was time to test The Sex Side of Life in court.  The trial came sooner than anticipated when the Justice Department indicted Dennett for mailing the pamphlet to “Mrs. Carl A. Miles” in Virginia. A jury convicted Dennett of distributing obscene material, and the judge fined her $3,000, which Dennett refused to pay. Newspapers and magazines across the country expressed outrage at the jury’s decision. Dennett became a cause célèbre and received a contract from Vanguard Press to write about her experiences.

Dennett’s conviction was overturned on appeal in 1930. In his decision, Judge Augustus Hand wrote: “The defendant’s discussion of the phenomena of sex is written with sincerity of feeling… Any incidental tendency to arouse sex impulses which such a pamphlet may perhaps have, is apart from and subordinate to its main effect.”

A copy of the pamphlet, as well as correspondence documenting its censorship, is on display in Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored through January 22.

Cover of 'The Sex Side of Life' by Mary Ware Dennet.
Cover of 'The Sex Side of Life' by Mary Ware Dennet.

Photo Friday

By Kelsey McKinney

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

University of Texas alumnus Kevin Kautzman portrays John Sumner in 'Censorship Then and Now.' Students in Kathryn Dawson’s 'Applications in Museum Settings' class at The University of Texas at Austin studied performance as a way to bring museum exhibitions to life, including creating characters based on the Center’s exhibition 'Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored.' Photo by Pete Smith.
University of Texas alumnus Kevin Kautzman portrays John Sumner in 'Censorship Then and Now.' Students in Kathryn Dawson’s 'Applications in Museum Settings' class at The University of Texas at Austin studied performance as a way to bring museum exhibitions to life, including creating characters based on the Center’s exhibition 'Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored.' Photo by Pete Smith.
University of Texas at Austin undergraduate student Rachel Panella argues her point as Upton Sinclair in 'Censorship Then and Now,' a performance for area high school students. Photo by Pete Smith.
University of Texas at Austin undergraduate student Rachel Panella argues her point as Upton Sinclair in 'Censorship Then and Now,' a performance for area high school students. Photo by Pete Smith.
As part of their ongoing training at the Ransom Center, volunteers examine Leigh Hunt’s collection of famous people’s hair, including John Keats and John Milton. Photo by Pete Smith.
As part of their ongoing training at the Ransom Center, volunteers examine Leigh Hunt’s collection of famous people’s hair, including John Keats and John Milton. Photo by Pete Smith.

Recommended Reading: Books from the "Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored" exhibition

By Kelsey McKinney

The Ransom Center’s current exhibition Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored reveals the rarely seen “machinery” of censorship in the United States between the two world wars.  See the Center’s recommended reading list of historically banned books, and visit the exhibition to learn more about these and many other books caught up in the complex world of American censorship. See which book was considered so obscene prosecutors “assiduously avoided using its title in public discussions of the case.”