Local History: Decent Literature Committee
A citizen's group tried to ban material with questionable content in the '50s
Bye, Bye Birdie, set in 1958, seemed like a quaint period piece to me, especially when the main character’s singing and dancing scandalizes an entire town. Then I learned that, in the same year, Maplewood was taken with a similar issue.
In January of 1958, “after months of spadework,” according to the News-Record, about 30 representatives of Maplewood civic, religious, service and fraternal organizations gathered at the Memorial Park Civic House to hear the report of what a group of citizens discovered in “its study of the problem of 'trash' publications on local newsstands” and to organize more formally for action.
The results of that first survey included a report and exhibit organized by Detective William Peto, who presented exhibits of “objectional magazines” found on Maplewood newsstands. Peto reported that, “all of Maplewood’s 14 dealers have expressed a willingness to cooperate,” but “need help in stopping the flow of no-good stuff to them from the magazine distributors.” “Dealers get magazines they don’t order and don’t want—including the trash,” according to Peto.
The Decent Literature Committee was formed that night, and it included notables such as May Thomas W. Sweeney, local clergy and Mrs. Elizabeth P. Nichols, young people’s librarian at the Maplewood Memorial Library. Nonetheless, an indignant public took to the editorial page that January, penning letters of outrage and anger. “The idea of one group influencing the literary tastes of the community to the point of regulation contravenes the free press heritage,” wrote Bob Rapaport. Ira Kay asked, “Why not just let the ‘trash’ publication die a natural death?” Robert Rudolph referred to a “Big-Brother method.”
The Committee replied in kind. “The printing press is not sacred!” begins one letter from the Chairman. “[The press] has a moral duty to be clean, honest and decent as well as free.” A supporter commended the Committee’s efforts to maintain Maplewood’s “moral atmosphere,” while another writer linked “the displaying of literary materials that overtly pander to the abnormal and distorted taste in our society” to a rise in crime.
By March of 1958, legal action was threatened, but the Decent Literature Committee was assured by Maplewood attorney William H. West, Jr. that the State Legislature “has supplied us with all the legal basis we need.” He further explained that the test of pornography was whether the material is “dirt for dirt’s sake” and “presented to incite lust” or whether it is genuine art.
The Committee’s efforts to influence news dealers and “encourage the distribution of printed matter to our children on a level that is constructive, educational, and informative” continued through the spring. Mrs. Wallace A. Glover was elected president, and the group decided to ask all 14 news dealers in town for signatures affirming that they would not sell “smut.” The group also promised “continued surveillance of periodicals on newsstands.”
After a summer break, the group reconvened in September. The new president assured the public that the group was “not just a bunch of muckrakers,” and she happily reported that two local merchants had stocked “quality” paperback books and “placed the racks in prominent positions for display.”
The same can’t be said for the group; it faded from the pages of The Home News after the fall of 1958. Perhaps, the group felt that it had succeeded or the members felt the tenor of the times had shifted. Maplewood’s news dealers and booksellers are free to sell what we will read; “quality” literature is what we each determine it to be.