By Tracey Clarke

Described as one of the most radical Australian books written during the interwar years, JM Harcourt’s Upsurge was the first novel to be regarded as both obscene and seditious by the censors. Portraying the lives of Western Australia’s working class during the Depression, it was published in London in early 1934.

Cover of ‘Upsurge’, 1934 edition published by John Long, Limited. NAA: C3059, Upsurge

Cover of Upsurge, 1934 edition published by John Long, Limited.
NAA: C3059, Upsurge

Its arrival in Australia provoked controversy. A review in the West Australian in June 1934 remarked:

It would be hard to imagine a more thoroughly unpleasant set of people than are found in the pages of Mr. Harcourt’s immature narrative of “petting parties”, shop girls’ strikes, street-rioting – in which the police are made to behave like a lot of Bashi-Bazooks – Communist agitators, crude caricatures of magistrates and business magnates – the whole extra-ordinary conglomeration being liberally spiced with frankly erotic situations…

The Clerk-in-Charge of the Western Australian Customs office, CJ Carne, was instructed to purchase a copy of Upsurge for review in July 1934. He reported that the book was ‘decidedly indecent … and advocates the overthrow by violence of established Government’. Describing it as ‘thinly disguised propaganda on behalf of Communism and social revolution’, Carne made it clear he felt the novel was seditious under the provisions of the Customs Act.

However, the newly created Book Censorship Board, which reported on Upsurge in November 1934, banned the novel primarily as indecent. Chairman RR Garran described it as ‘a crude book … [that is] disfigured by some very gross passages’:

E.g. pp. 31–2 – “Lord of the Urinal” – just dirty with no apparent reason. And the brothel scene – pp. 189–90 … is quite unnecessarily indecent – on a level with an indecent photograph.

Garran concluded that ‘a book cannot be “cut” like a film. If a writer chooses to introduce obscenities like these, I should ban.’ The Customs Minister agreed and added the novel to the list of prohibited imports on 20 November 1934.

Book Censorship Board report on Upsurge

Although ‘Upsurge’ was banned as indecent by the Board, one member also noted the author’s ‘tendency to hold established authority to contempt or ridicule’.
NAA: A3023, Folder 1933/34

Before it was banned by Customs, Upsurge was subject to legal action in New South Wales and Western Australia under state laws. After police confiscated copies from Perth booksellers in August 1934, Harcourt defended his book as a socialist critique of Australian society:

The theme of the novel is the modern economic crisis, with its accompanying decay in the manners and morals of society … I do not think that anyone, other than those who run away from all forms of unpleasantness, would regard it as indecent … English and American reviewers have given it high praise.

Banned for nearly 24 years, Upsurge was released on 29 April 1958 following the first review of banned books since Federation.

Next month we will look at one of the most provocative and radical novels of the 20th century, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Banned as ‘hard-core pornography’ by Customs in 1960, this novel was one of the last literary works to remain on the prohibited list.

See more:

Customs file on Upsurge, 1934–61

Book Censorship Board report on Upsurge (pages 115–17), 1934

Newspaper articles relating to Upsurge, 1933–1949

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