Another Country

By Tracey Clarke

James Baldwin’s provocative novel Another Country explores the intersection of race, gender and sexuality in the United States in the mid-1950s. Taking more than 13 years to write, the novel became a bestseller after it was published in 1962.

Front cover of 'Another Country'

Cover of Another Country, published by The Dial Press, New York, 1962.
NAA: C3059, Another Country

In August that year the Commonwealth Customs Department seized a copy of the book imported into the country by Danish-born author Irene M Summy. Without seeking advice from the Literature Censorship Board, Customs deemed it a prohibited import six months later.

The Board, which provided a report on Another Country in May 1963, found that the novel presented ‘important and difficult censorship problems’. Although it agreed Baldwin was ‘one of America’s leading writers’ and that his ‘writing is imaginative and sensitive’, it considered his novel was ‘continually smeared with indecent, offensive and dirty epithets and allusions’.

The Board resolved that Baldwin had ‘a message and a reasoned point of view’ on race relations and was particularly concerned that a ban on his novel would damage Australia’s international reputation. In one of five conclusions reached after considerable discussion and consultation, Chairman Kenneth Binns wrote:

Race segregation and the colour question has become such an acute political issue that a ban on “Another Country” might even be associated with Australia’s misunderstood “White Australia” policy and her refusal to support UN condemnation of South African Apartheid.

Since the Board believed Another Country would not ‘corrupt Australian readers for it is too long, too involved and … too expensive for the average novel reader’, it did not agree to the ‘total banning of this significant book’. Instead, it recommended that the novel be made available to ‘the serious minded student or reader’.

The Literature Censorship Board’s view was reinforced two months later by the Appeal Censor, Dr LH Allen, who noted:

As long as genuine students of literature have ready access to the book I do not believe that Australia’s cultural standards will suffer.

Copy of Literature Censorship Board's report

The five conclusions reached by the Board.
NAA: C4419, Whole Series

The banning of Another Country was met with widespread protest. In an open letter to Customs Minister Senator Denham Henty published in the Australian Book Review in June 1963, Geoffrey Dutton, Rosemary Wighton and Max Harris echoed the Board’s concerns that Australia’s image overseas would be damaged. They wrote:

The banning of “Another Country” is very likely to be interpreted as an act of colour and racial prejudice on the part of Australia, and to be interpreted in an anti-Australian way by Asian students and newspapers, by Communist powers, and by liberal racial forces in the U.S.A.

In a review published in the literary and cultural journal Overland, poet and playwright Laurence Collinson wrote that there was ‘nothing in “Another Country” … in the way of language or description, that has not its equivalent in a dozen or so unbanned novels’. Also criticising the practice of censorship in general, he wondered whether the ‘censors select their books by the method of random sampling’.

The prohibiting of Another Country did not prevent Australians from reading the novel. It was common for banned books to pass through Customs without being detained for examination, highlighting the futility of book censorship practices. Several months after receiving notification of the ban from Customs, Irene Summy opened a package containing a copy of Another Country sent by the book’s publishers after they learnt of her difficulties.

Copy of seizure notice sent to Gough Whitlam.

Not everyone was successful. Gough Whitlam, then leader of the opposition Labor Party, had his copy seized by Customs in 1964.
NAA; A425, 1964/1234

Another Country was removed from the prohibited list following intense pressure and a review of banned titles in May 1966.

See more:

Reviews submitted to Dr LH Allen, Appeal Censor and Chairman, Literature Censorship Board (pages 204-14), 1963

Prohibited publication – ‘Another Country’ seizure (Mr G Whitlam), 1964

Peyton Place

By Tracey Clarke

In September 1956 Peyton Place burst onto the American scene as the country’s most controversial novel. Published at a time when small towns were seen as America’s moral compass, the ‘explosive best seller’ exposed the seamy side of northern New England town life with its exploration of illicit sex, abortion, incest and murder. Author Grace Metalious, a young housewife who based the novel on several towns she had known, was dismissed by critics for producing ‘literary sewage’ and shunned by her town folk for writing so frankly on taboo subjects.

NAA; C3059, Peyton Place 2

Cover of Peyton Place, 1957 paperback edition published by Dell.
NAA: C3059, Peyton Place 2

In May 1957 the Literature Censorship Board recommended the release of an expurgated edition of Peyton Place, published by London firm Frederick Muller earlier that year. During the 1950s it was common for British publishers to pre-censor American novels in an effort to avoid Australian censorship. Known as ‘Australian Editions’, expurgated copies were released quickly and frequently arrived on Australian shores before the original editions.

With many of the offending passages removed, the Board argued that the scenes of sex, violence and ‘bestial behaviour’ in Peyton Place had a credible place in the story. Derek Scales, who was appointed to the Board in 1954, described the novel as ‘a work of absorbing interest and of considerable literary value’. ‘There are some crudities of speech’, he added, ‘but these are only such as one would expect from the characters uttering them’.

Derek Scales' report on Peyton Place. NAA: A3023, 1957

Derek Scales’ report on Peyton Place.
NAA: A3023, 1957

Chairman LH Allen agreed, providing a favourable two-page review of Metalious’s genuine portrayal of life in a ‘narrow and isolated’ town. ‘There are, of course, exposures of cupboard skeletons which are bound to exist in any community, but there is sincerity in the closing words of the tale which represent life, despite its sins and errors, as fine and splendid.’ Allen concluded that ‘the book is not pernicious, and, if read in the proper light, is instructive’.

One of the book’s ugliest situations is the raping of 16-year-old Selena Cross by Lucas Cross, her drunkard step-father. Allen felt that the town’s physician, Dr Swain, who performs an illegal abortion out of sympathy for Selena and then risks his professional reputation by revealing the truth after she is accused of murdering Lucas, ‘commands admiration’. As does Selena, who is ‘prepared to hang rather than betray the doctor’s secret’.

The Board’s decision to release Peyton Place was not unanimous. A dissenting view came from Deputy Chairman Kenneth Binns who felt the novel’s ‘profanity and obscene expressions’ were excessive. ‘It is unfortunate that Mrs Metalious is so flustered with sex’, he wrote, ‘for she often writes well’.

Kenneth Binns' report on Peyton Place. NAA: A3023, 1957

Kenneth Binns’ recommendation that Peyton Place be banned.
NAA: A3023, 1957

Comptroller General FA Meere also disagreed with the majority opinion and in May 1957 wrote to Customs Minister Denham Henty requesting that he overrule the Board’s recommendation. Meere argued that the Board placed too much importance on the book’s literary merit. ‘I feel that the question of prohibition must be determined on a judgment as to whether the book is indecent or whether it unduly emphasises sex, irrespective of whether the book is well or badly written.’

In the end, Henty upheld the Board’s decision. However, six months later, on 6 December 1957, the original Dell edition of Peyton Place was placed on the banned list, remaining there until 11 February 1971. It was the book’s sexual passages, rather than its handling of taboo subjects, that concerned the censors.

Copy of Peyton Place with references to 'sex pages'. NAA: C3059, Peyton Place 2

Copy of Peyton Place original edition with references to ‘sex’ pages.
NAA: C3059, Peyton Place 2

Peyton Place became one of the most widely read novels ever published in the United States. More than 12 million copies in paperback were sold, and it sat on The New York Times bestseller list for 59 weeks. In 1958 it surpassed Gone with the Wind to become the top-selling novel of all time, a position it held for nearly 20 years.

By the time the novel came to the attention of the Australian censors in 1957, it was being adapted for the silver screen. This was followed by a sequel to the novel (1959), a sequel to the film (1961) and a long-running television series (1964–69). Such was the immense popularity of Peyton Place that its title became shorthand for any small town accused of harbouring a scandal.

Grace Metalious

Dust-jacket photograph of Grace Metalious. Captioned ‘Pandora in Blue Jeans’, it remains the most famous photograph taken of the author.
Photographer: Larry Smith

The legacy of Peyton Place in popular culture far exceeded the tumultuous and short life of its author. Grace Metalious, who struggled with her new-found notoriety, died in 1964 of cirrhosis, at age 39.

See more:

Reports by the Literature Censorship Board (pages 24–29), 1957

Prohibited publications – ‘Peyton Place’ (copy seized at Port Adelaide), 1962

Prohibited publication – ‘Peyton Place’ (German edition seized at Port Adelaide), 1965–66

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