The boldest indecent passages I have ever seen

Posted by | March 10, 2015

Publishers’ Weekly 145 (March 25, 1944):
“Strange Fruit banned by Boston booksellers”

Says a Cambridge adage: “Banned in Boston is the trademark of a good book.” On March 25,1944 Cambridge Police Chief Timothy J. O’Leary, Boston’s Police Commissioner Thomas F. Sullivan, and the Boston Bookseller’s Association all joined in squashing the sale of Strange Fruit, Lillian Smith’s recently published controversial novel about Southern racial problems, miscegenation and lynching. “The boldest indecent passages I have ever seen,” said Sullivan. The group asked the author to delete three lines of “sexual phraseology,” thereby adding the novel to the long list of Boston’s hallmarked books.

novel Strange FruitSmith, for many years director of the Laurel Falls Camp for girls in Clayton, GA, achieved national fame with the publication of Strange Fruit, which tells the story of the forbidden romance between a white man, Tracy Dean, and a black woman, Nonnie Anderson.

Commissioner Sullivan insisted that he had not banned the book, in fact “had no right to do so.” He had merely dropped in at Boston’s oldest booksellers, the Old Corner Bookstore (whose head, Richard F. Fuller, was also President of the Boston Board of Retail Book Merchants), and drawn an interested clerk’s attention to Strange Fruit‘s overripe passages. Soon all Boston booksellers received a notice from the Board of Retail Book Merchants asking them to withdraw the book.

Detroit was quick to follow Boston’s lead. Nor was the black community particularly won over. In 1945 Dean Gordon B. Hancock, editor of The Associated Negro Press wrote: “It is difficult to imagine a more subtle yet scathing indictment against the Negro race in general and the Negro womanhood in particular than that presented in Strange Fruit.”

Smith’s publisher fanned the flames. In response to the requests of some Boston booksellers to make “minor changes,” Reynal & Hitchcock issued a statement that they “have no intention whatsoever of tampering with a fine and important book in order to transform it to what official Boston might regard as acceptable. The book was published because Reynal & Hitchcock consider it an outstanding work of literature.”

Within 2 weeks of the ban, Smith’s book was selling 3,000 copies a day, while a new edition of 50,000 copies was tumbling off the press.

author Lillian SmithThanks to the ban, the novel created a sensation in 1944, going on to become a best seller, and was dramatized by Smith and her sister, Esther, for Jose Ferrer’s Broadway production of it the next year.

“In trying to shut the Negro race away from us, we have shut ourselves away from the good, the creative, the human in life,” wrote Smith about the response to her work. “The warping distorted frame we have put around every Negro child from birth is around every white child from birth also.

“Each is on a different side of the frame, but each is there. As in its twisting distorted form it shapes and cripples the life and personality of one, it is shaping and crippling the life and personality of the other. It would be difficult to decide which character is maimed the more–the white or the Negro–after living a life in the Southern framework of segregation.”


sources: “Overripe?” Time magazine April 10, 1944
Patton, Randall. “Lillian Smith and the Transformation of American Liberalism, 1945-1950.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly(GHQ). Volume 76, no. 1-2, p. 373-392, 1992.


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