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

‘Banned’ café display

Our new café display is up at the National Archives in Canberra. Featuring a large wall montage and stories about books banned in Australia from the 1920s to the 1970s, the display reveals much about how our social attitudes and morals changed during the 20th century.

'Banned' at the National Archive in Australia

‘Banned’ at the National Archives in Canberra
Photographer: Angus Kendon

For conservation reasons, the original books are not on display in the brightly-lit café area, but we scoured bookshops and trawled through eBay to find copies to flick through. We’ve also included copies of censorship documents which provide an insight into why some books were banned.

Check out our Books page for more information about the prohibited publications on display, including links to digitised documents in the National Archives collection.

Stay tuned next week for a story about JD Salinger’s classic novel, The Catcher in the Rye. The banning of this novel in 1956 caused national embarrassment and led to an overhaul of the censorship system.

 

Welcome

Welcome to the National Archives of Australia’s Banned blog. Over the next 12 months we will delve into the secret history of Australian censorship by exploring some of the books that were banned during the 20th century.

To find out more about what was banned and why, head to our About page.

This blog accompanies our new café display on show at the National Archives in Canberra from late January 2013.

Intimate Romances - front cover of banned magazine

Intimate Romances, May 1938
Banned: c.1930s
NAA: C3059, Intimate Romances