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Grolier Club Exhibitions

U.S. Book Bans

US Book Bans, The Best-Read Army in the World, curated by Molly Manning, exhibited at the Grolier Club

Although the U.S. government encouraged Americans to read books in the face of Germany’s book bans, two key incidents involved the U.S. government itself banning books and impacting what titles were produced as ASEs. First, in May 1944, the U.S. Postal Service barred shipment of Lillian Smith’s best-selling book, Strange Fruit, citing obscenity concerns (likely because the book featured an interracial relationship). Second, the U.S. Congress passed a law barring the distribution of reading material to troops if it had the potential to influence the 1944 presidential election. Public outcry led to the swift amendment of this law, and formerly banned books became ASEs.

War Department, Adjutant General’s Office. Restrictions in new ‘Federal Voting Law’ on dissemination to members of the armed forces of political argument or propaganda.” Washington, D.C.: April 27, 1944. 

When Congress passed the 1944 “Soldier Voting Law,” it included “Title V,” which prohibited the distribution of books containing “political argument.” Violators faced a hefty fine and imprisonment. Broadly interpreting “political argument” to avoid the possibility of criminal charges, the Army’s new policy on book selection was: “When in doubt, leave it out.” This 12-page memorandum detailed all of the material the Army purchased that might violate Title V.

Signal Corps. “Soldiers in South Pacific Vote. October 30, 1944. 

AP Wirephoto. “Foxhole Voting Booth in Italy.” November 3, 1944. 

Voting in the 1944 presidential election took many guises across theaters of war; ballots were filled out everywhere from voting booth-tents to foxholes. By the time these soldiers cast their ballots, Title V had been modified so that all reading material freely flowed overseas—regardless of whether they included any political themes.

Lillian Smith. Strange Fruit. Editions for the Armed Services, Inc., No. 972. 

Though banned in Boston and prohibited for mailing by the U.S. Postal Service, Strange Fruit became an ASE. Rumors of its salacious content caused the book to be in high demand. “The books that are most read are the books that have at least an essence of—to put it bluntly—sex and a lot of it,” one soldier explained. Creased covers, loose pages, and taped spines are the norm for this very popular title.

Lillian Smith. “Strange Fruit” (advertisement). Saturday Review of Literature. July 1, 1944. 

Defying the U.S. Postal Service’s mailing ban, and every city that banned the sale of Strange Fruit, the Saturday Review of Literature permitted Reynal & Hitchcock to champion Lillian Smith and Strange Fruit in a full-page advertisement on the back cover of the magazine. The same issue of the Saturday Review of Literature scolds the government for its bad case of “censoritis.”

Kathleen Winsor. Forever Amber. Editions for the Armed Services, Inc., T-39. 

When Forever Amber was banned by American cities on obscenity grounds, troops immediately wanted to read the book. “If you’ve ever seen books that were completely worn out by reading. . . it was the copies of Forever Amber,” one soldier said. Publishers rather enjoyed printing banned books as ASEs; one jokingly told the press: “all an author has to do to get into the armed forces library is to be banned in Boston.”

Mari Sandoz. Slogum House. Editions for the Armed Services, Inc., No. P-28. 

Charles A. Beard. The Republic. Editions for the Armed Services, Inc., No. P-29. 

Catherine Drinker Bowen. Yankee from Olympus. Editions for the Armed Services, Inc., No. P-32. 

As soon as Title V’s book ban was lifted, the Council on Books in Wartime arranged for the publication of several titles that had been barred. The “P series” boasts several formerly banned titles, including Slogum House, The Republic, and Yankee from Olympus.