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.
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.
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.
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