Forever Amber

By Tracey Clarke

American author Kathleen Winsor’s notorious bestselling bodice-ripper Forever Amber tells the story of Amber St Clare, a peasant-class, illiterate woman who uses her wits and beauty to climb to the heights of King’s mistress in 17th-century Restoration England. Three million copies of Forever Amber sold after its publication in November 1944 and the novel became a blockbuster in 16 countries.

Cover of banned book

Cover of Forever Amber, 1945 English edition published by The Modern Publishing Company.
NAA: C3059, Forever Amber

Import embargoes on American fiction prevented the US edition of Forever Amber from being brought into Australia, beyond individual copies sent by post or brought in travellers’ luggage. However, reviews and publicity for Forever Amber that had reached Australia fuelled widespread interest in the novel.

Concern that a Hollywood film adaptation of Forever Amber, which was announced before the book was released, and publication of an English edition with minimal excisions to the first edition would stimulate further demand, prompted Customs to forward a copy to the Literature Censorship Board in May 1945 for urgent review.

Copy of letter

Letter from Comptroller-General JJ Kennedy to Chairman of the Literature Censorship Board, LH Allen, noting that Customs was ‘being pressed for a decision’ about Forever Amber.
NAA: A3023, Folder 1945/1947

Owing to the length of the novel at more than 900 pages, only the Board’s chairman, LH Allen, wrote a comprehensive report. Allen dismissed Forever Amber’s enormous sales, stating that ‘popularity is no sure guarantee of worth’. ‘The source of [the novel’s] notoriety is more properly to be found in a crude and obvious appeal to the sexual instinct’, he added.

Allen’s two-page summary, completed on 5 June 1945, criticised the novel for lacking literary merit and over-emphasising sex. ‘There is no eminence in the writing. Powerful, pointed, or delicate phrasing is missing’, he wrote. Citing pages that highlighted the book’s offending passages, including those that dealt with sex, impotence and abortion, Allen concluded the book was too obscene for Australian readers. The other two board members, Kenneth Binns and JFM Haydon, concurred with Allen’s assessment.

Customs Minister Senator Richard Keane agreed with the Board, publicly stating, ‘The Almighty did not give the people eyes to read that kind of rubbish’. The ban also applied to the expurgated English edition.

Copy of Binns' report

After reading 248 pages in addition to those marked by Allen, Kenneth Binns concluded ‘that in many places [Forever Amber] is so bawdy as to be classified as indecent’.
NAA: A3023, Folder 1945/1947

An unsuccessful appeal to release Forever Amber by the book’s British publisher in 1953 maintained that the novel was ‘a descriptive masterpiece of authentic historical detail’ with ‘no modern foul language [and] no pornography’. Sir Robert Garran, who was appointed as the first Appeal Censor in 1937, upheld the Board’s original decision:

The Board’s view and my view of this book was that it had no particular literary merit, but was mainly a collection of bawdiness, amounting to sex obsession, and with little appeal apart from that … I see no reason to vary the previous recommendation.

Copy of Garran's report

Garran’s 1953 report on Forever Amber as Appeal Censor.
NAA: C4419, Whole Series

Kathleen Winsor was aged 24 when Forever Amber, her first novel, was published. When she learned the Australian Government banned the book she retorted, ‘I don’t care whether Senator Keane likes my book or not’. ‘Apparently he does not like English history’, she added. ‘I don’t make English history. The English did it first. I only wrote about it.’

Forever Amber was removed from the Commonwealth list of prohibited imports in 1958 following the first review of banned books since Federation.

See more:

Reports by the Literature Censorship Board (pages 15-30), 1945

Garran’s report as Appeal Censor (pages 191-93), 1953

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

Naked Lunch

By Tracey Clarke

First published in 1959 by the provocative Olympia Press in France, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (sometimes The Naked Lunch) provides a fractured account of American homosexual and drug cultures in the 1950s. One of the most radical novels of the 20th century, it was banned as ‘hard-core pornography’ by Customs after an imported copy was seized at Port Adelaide in February 1960.

Cover of 'The Naked Lunch'

Cover of The Naked Lunch, 1962 edition published by Corgi Books, London.
NAA: C3059, The Naked Lunch

Naked Lunch was first sent to the Literature Censorship Board in September 1963 after Clem Christesen, founder of the literary and cultural affairs journal Meanjin, made an application to import the novel under Regulation 4A of the Customs Act, which allowed prohibited literary books to be placed on restricted circulation.

The Board did not agree with the Customs Department’s decision to ban Naked Lunch as a pornographic work and recommended that Mr Christesen’s request be approved. However, the censors unanimously agreed to retain the ban on the general sale of the book. Chairman Kenneth Binns concluded that ‘there is no need to note any particularly objectionable scene or passage for the book is so full of them and the general writing so extremely coarse that one need only consider the general character and tone’.

Chairman Kenneth Binn's report

Chairman Kenneth Binn’s report on ‘Naked Lunch’, 3 October 1963.
NAA: C4226, CG 71-6637

Another appeal for the book’s release came to the Board from the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Adelaide in 1967. Chairman ER Bryan described Naked Lunch as ‘one of the crudest books we have read in recent years’ but recommended the novel continue to be available to literary students and writers. ‘There is something to be said for letting some of them read him; it is possible that opinions might change after the experience’, he added.

Released in July 1973, Naked Lunch was one of the last literary works to remain on the prohibited list. Its release was prompted by Mr John Allen who wrote to Customs Minister Don Chipp in 1972. ‘Being well aware that book censorship has to some extent been liberalised during your present term of office,’ Mr Allen stated, ‘I am most perplexed that Burroughs’ work should still be unavailable here.’ The Board agreed to remove the ban on Naked Lunch, as well as two other titles by Burroughs, since ‘none of them [are] likely to be popular reading, [and] had already been on the list for some time’.

The next post will explore the banning of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, which shocked and amused readers with its frank treatment of sexuality. Banned from 1969 to 1971, this novel was the last work of fiction to be taken to court in Australia.

See more:

Customs file on Naked Lunch, 1960–1963

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