The Catcher in the Rye

This is an abridged version of an article by Tracey Clarke published in Issue 9 of Your Memento.

First published in 1951, JD Salinger’s classic novel about teenage angst and rebellion had been freely circulating in Australia for some years when a clerk of the Customs Literature Censorship Section seized an imported copy for review. Despite describing it as ‘extremely readable … and punctuated with humour, pathos and wise commentaries on our society’, he felt the novel contained enough ‘indelicate, indecent and almost blasphemous references’ to be considered a prohibited import.

Cover of The Catcher in the Rye

Cover of The Catcher in the Rye, 1953 edition published by Signet Books.
NAA: C3059, The Catcher in the Rye

Without referring it to the Literature Censorship Board, which was established in the 1930s to provide expertise on works of literary or scholarly merit, the Customs Department added the novel to the list of banned books on 21 August 1956.

Although prohibited in Australia, The Catcher in the Rye was respected around the world. The United States Ambassador even donated copies to foreign governments as an example of his country’s literature. When a copy of the book was seized from the Parliamentary Library in September 1957, the press declared the ban a national embarrassment and widely criticised the censorship regime.

On 20 September 1957 the Sydney Morning Herald reported that ‘this country has one of the most arbitrary – and perhaps one of the most inefficient – systems of book censorship in the world’. An editorial published the next day proclaimed:

The Customs Department can ban a book on its own initiative. The ban may (but need not) be reviewed by the Commonwealth Literature Censorship Board; after that, by a one-man appeal board; and, finally, by the Minister for Trade and Customs (who is not, however, obliged to follow anybody’s advice) … Commonwealth censorship is superfluous, and should be abolished.

Letter from EC Harris Publishers

Only months before the ban on ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ was lifted, the book’s publisher made an unsuccessful appeal to have their expurgated edition of the book released.
NAA: B13, 1957/10559

When the Literature Censorship Board reviewed Salinger’s novel in October it had ‘no hesitation’ in recommending release.

Shortly after, Customs Minister Denham Henty announced that the list of banned books would be reviewed by the Literature Censorship Board, and that these reviews would occur every five years. All literary works were to be forwarded to the Board and the list of banned literary and scholarly works was made public for the first time.

Following the 1958 review, the banned list was reduced to 178 titles. Determined protest from book importers and anti-censorship groups, as well as a change in the attitudes of key Customs personnel, contributed to a more relaxed policy. The introduction of R-ratings for books in the early 1970s saw the end of effective literary censorship in Australia. By December 1973, no books were on the banned list.

Next month we will take you back to the banning of JM Harcourt’s Upsurge in 1934. Described as one of the most radical Australian books written during the interwar years, Upsurge was the first novel to be regarded as both obscene and seditious by the censors.

See more:

Customs file on The Catcher in the Rye, 1956-57

Press statement announcing the 1958 review (page 14), 1957

List of banned books following the 1958 review (pages 41-44), 1957

Newspaper articles relating to The Catcher in the Rye, 1957

6 thoughts on “The Catcher in the Rye

  1. I quite enjoy reading through the list of books that were prohibited publications in RecordSearch. Great collection of letters and newspaper cuttings on “Brave New World” ( NAA: A425, 1937/9526 ) for example. Thanks for the great post!

    • Thanks, Chloe, for your comment. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed reading through the digitised documents in RecordSearch. The Customs file on ‘Brave New World’ is one of my favourites as well. There will be a post about this novel later in the year.

      National Archives

  2. “By December 1973, no books were on the banned list”, you say. Perhaps there weren’t any in 1973, but there sure are some now. Well, isn’t “PIHKAL – A chemical love story” still on the list? I believe there are a few other RC (refused Classification) books still on the list, including “Defence of Muslim Lands”, banned at the insistence of then-Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock.

    Can I ask, does the “five-yearly review rule” still apply?

    • Thank you for your comment, Elly. You are correct. PiHKAL: A chemical love story was refused classification in the 1990s. In more recent years, the Classification Review Board banned Defence of the Muslim Lands and Join the Caravan following an application from Phillip Ruddock, as Attorney-General, to review the classification of eight Islamic books and a film in 2006. The two books were refused classification under section 1(c) of the National Classification Code which concerns publications that ‘provoke, incite or corrupt in matters of crime or violence’.

      The focus of this blog is the censorship of imported publications by the Department of Customs between the late 1920s and the early 1970s. The banned list referred to in this article only covered literary titles or those considered by Customs to have some public interest. According to historian Nicole Moore, who wrote The Censor’s Library, the last books remaining on this list were removed by December 1973. The previous year, censorship became the responsibility of the Attorney-General’s Department.

      I am not sure whether a five yearly review, or similar, still applies. You may like to refer to the Australian Classification website for further information.

      National Archives

  3. I don’t anything wrong with this book. Although its more suited for a VERY mature person who won’t take anything serious from the book. The only thing I got from this book was to avoid the wrong path and stay on the good. Being a rebellious teen only gets you into deep trouble. Now that I am an adult I read it again and found it boring.

    • Hi Jackie,
      Quite a few of those involved with Customs agreed with you about not seeing much wrong with this book! It was only banned in Australia for a little over a year – from August 1956 to October 1957. Even the press said it was a national embarrassment that it had been banned in the first place!

      National Archives

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