John Saxton Sumner of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice: A Chief Smut-Eradicator of the Interwar Period

By Gertzman, Jay A. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

John Saxton Sumner of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice: A Chief Smut-Eradicator of the Interwar Period


Gertzman, Jay A., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


In 1873, topics of conversation among informed Americans included the increased use of contraceptive devices, radical advocacy of "free love," rising sales of pornographic books and magazines and the large number of prostitutes on the streets of major cities (Broun and Leech 75-78; D'Emilio and Freedman 60-61, 156-57). Reform, and a return to Christian pieties, were called for. Legislative action addressing these issues was forthcoming: the Federal anti-obscenity postal statutes of 1873, which are basically still the law of the land. Their author was Anthony Comstock (1844-1915), life-long fervent crusader for moral purity, whose lobbying of state and federal officials, vivified by his extensive collection of sexually explicit materials, was a model of insistent persuasion on the part of a private citizen. After returning to New York, he founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, a more powerful version of its predecessor, the Young Men's Christian Association's Committee for the Suppression of Vice. The latter had subsidized his efforts in Washington (Rembar 21; Broun and Leech 87-88).

In 1915, Comstock appointed as his successor John Saxton Sumner (1876-1971), who served for 35 years as Secretary for the Society. A lawyer and member of a prestigious banking firm until joining Comstock's staff in 1913, Sumner was a Son of the American Revolution, a member of the Founders And Patriots of America, an Episcopalian and a Republican.(1) During the interwar years, his successes in prosecuting booksellers and publishers under the federal and state Comstock Laws made him a chief spokesman for anti-obscenity advocates, and a touchstone against which proponents of freedom of expression articulated their demands. His tactics, the support he received from clerical and secular authorities and the way he stigmatized not only the publishers and booksellers he prosecuted but also the lawyers and civil libertarians who defended them as un-American and un-Christian tell us much about the way eroticism and moral subversion shared for many Americans a thick and foggy borderline--and why they still do. Sumner is a key figure in any study of American literary censorship.

The personal demeanor of Comstock's successor contrasted sharply to his own. Comstock was a zealot who was often seen ham-fistedly collaring booksellers as well as making violently contemptuous statements about writers and publishers in general. Comstock boasted often of having personally driven some 15 "infernal scoundrels" to suicide (Broun and Leech 193, 232, 253). Sumner, on the other hand, was soft-spoken and impressed everyone with his equanimity (Boyer 30; Woolf 2). Here was no Billy Sunday, no vulgar, speechifying demonizer of agnostic scholars, liberal clerics and sex-obsessed writers. However, here was what Richard Hofstadter has described as the "one-hundred-percenter," one who knew that the newfangled "sophisticated" literature and drama that emerged after the Great War needed careful watching (119-34). He saw a strong relationship between religious orthodoxy, old-fashioned patriotism and repression of the "animal passions." He had a deep distrust of whatever might be praised as "modern," "different" or "loose-moraled." He had, in fact, Comstock's proper sensibility: insular distrust of those one judged to be outsiders and transgressors of conventional codes of conduct. Sumner grouped together scatology, advice about sexual hygiene, studies of homosexuality, erotic literature and art and biographies of prostitutes under the rubric of obscenity. Further, he maintained a patriarchal conviction that women and children especially would be better off not knowing about the sexual instincts. If they were not so fortunate, they should cling to conventional wisdom about the fleshly passions, rather than seeking personally-tested truths about them.

For Sumner, any judge who erroneously ruled a book not obscene claiming it must be evaluated not by isolated passages but as a whole, or by the tolerances of the average adult for non-prurient sexual explicitness, was simply "trying to explain away the appearance of admitted obscenity and filth. …

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