A lively history of the Watch and Ward Society—New England's notorious literary censor
"I want to be intelligent, even if I do live in Boston."
—an anonymous Bostonian, 1929
In this spectacular romp through the Puritan City, Neil Miller relates the scintillating story of how a powerful band of Brahmin moral crusaders helped make Boston the most straitlaced city in America, forever linked with the infamous catchphrase "Banned in Boston."
Bankrolled by society's upper crust, the New England Watch and Ward Society acted as a quasi-vigilante police force and notorious literary censor for over eighty years. Often going over the heads of local authorities, it orchestrated the mass censorship of books and plays, raided gambling dens and brothels, and utilized spies to entrap prostitutes and their patrons.
Miller deftly traces the growth of the Watch and Ward, from its formation in 1878 to its waning days in the 1950s. During its heyday, the society and its imitators banished modern classics by Hemingway, Faulkner, and Sinclair Lewis and went to war with publishing and literary giants such as Alfred A. Knopf and The Atlantic Monthly. To the chagrin of the Watch and Ward, some writers rode the national wave of publicity that accompanied the banning of their books. Upton Sinclair declared staunchly, "I would rather be banned in Boston than read anywhere else because when you are banned in Boston, you are read everywhere else." Others faced extinction or tried to barter their way onto bookshelves, like Walt Whitman, who hesitantly removed lines from Leaves of Grass under the watchful eye of the Watch and Ward. As the Great Depression unfolded, the society shifted its focus from bookstores to burlesque, successfully shuttering the Old Howard, the city's legendary theater that attracted patrons from T. S. Eliot to John F. Kennedy.
Banned in Boston is a lively history and, despite Boston's "liberal" reputation today, a cautionary tale of the dangers caused by moral crusaders of all stripes.
“Verdict: Boston aficionados may well find this methodical book a revelation as they learn about the city’s past. Also a good choice for American social history collections.”
Review The Chronicle Review - September 5, 2010
"As a catchphrase, "banned in Boston" made history; as an imprimatur it sold books. Now telling its story in rollicking fashion is Banned in Boston: The Watch and Ward Society's Crusade Against Books, Burlesque, and the Social Evil (Beacon Press), by Neil Miller..."
Review Booklist - August 16, 2010
“…Miller relates a wealth of historical anecdotes regarding the likes of H. L. Mencken, Upton Sinclair, and Walt Whitman …the society moved on to other matters of perceived public good, but it left no shortage of entertaining censorship initiatives for Miller to recall here for readers’ enjoyment.”
Review The Tufts Daily - October 12, 2010
“Miller, who knew almost nothing about the history of book banning in Boston before beginning research for his book, was presented with the idea for this latest project by his publishers at Beacon Press after they discovered that their office was located in the old New England Watch and Ward Society headquarters. Ironically enough, the building is now a hub of dissemination of many of the types of literature that the society once sought to ban, he said.”
Review PhiloBiblos - October 14, 2010
“A fast-paced, highly readable account of a forgotten…chapter in Boston’s history.”
Review The Washington Times - October 22, 2010
“Mr. Miller has provided a service by being the first to document the entire history of the notorious Watch and Ward Society, from its formation in 1878 to its last, dying gasps in the 1950s. The story is fascinating and often funny, and the author (who teaches journalism at Tufts University) tells it with clarity and perception.”
Review Suite 101 - October 25, 2010
“Banned in Boston is Neil Miller’s entertaining and informative account of the Society’s activities from its founding through its heyday in the early 1960s…Banned in Boston provides a balanced look at a local movement that represented a widespread – and continuing – tension within American society.”
Review Journal of American History - October 1, 2011
“…Miller’s book is rich with colorful anecdotes.”
"With precision, perception, and wry wit, Neil Miller serves up a juicy tale of censorship past. From sex, drugs, and a swearing parrot to almost anything French, Banned in Boston demonstrates that campaigns to save us from ourselves never go out of fashion."
—Nan Levinson, author of Outspoken: Free Speech Stories
"A lively history of the notorious Watch and Ward Society, which for a century sought to establish decency by suppressing 'obscene' works by authors such as Boccaccio, Whitman, Dreiser, Faulkner, and Mencken. This is a must read for anyone interested in understanding how censorship ultimately destroys not indecency, but freedom."
—Geoffrey R. Stone, author of Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism
"I read this book with one eye over my shoulder, fully expecting the Watch and Ward police to burst in and confiscate it for being too provocative! But it would have been worth it. Neil Miller has given us everything we could ask for in an enjoyable history—a revealing subject, well-drawn characters, and a colorful portrait of another era, all wrapped in a fast-paced, easy-to-read story. Banned in Boston is a Boston gem."
—Stephen Puleo, author of A City So Grand, The Boston Italians, and Dark Tide
"Neil Miller has created a fascinating and often funny history of a time when censors ruled. The fight for artistic freedom in America begins in Boston, and Miller gives us a front-row seat."
—Christopher M. Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and author of From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America