Tuesday, November 29, 2011
“All of these books are worse than opium… I would rather have a child of mine use opium than read these books,” declared Senator Reed Smoot of Utah in March 1930, speaking from behind a desk towering with “smutty” books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Robert Burns’s poetry.
In 1929, Senator Smoot and Representative Willis Hawley of Oregon introduced a tariff bill to Congress that included a section restricting the importation of obscene materials, which inspired the widely repeated news headline “Smoot Smites Smut.” Senator Bronson Cutting of New Mexico led a protest against the proposed ban on obscene literature, and the House approved an amendment that removed books from the list of obscene materials.
But the battle wasn’t over. When the full bill reached the Senate in March 1930, Smoot brought book censorship back into the spotlight. After much debate, the Senate returned books to the list of obscene materials with the exception of “classics” and works of “established literary and scientific merit.” The Smoot-Hawley Tariff became law on June 17, 1930.
In response to the controversy, poet Ogden Nash penned “Invocation” and submitted it to The New Yorker, his first published contribution to the magazine, in January 1930.
The first verse reads:
Is planning a ban on smut.
Oh rooti-ti-toot for Smoot of Ut.
And his reverend occiput.
Smite, Smoot, smite for Ut.,
Grit your molars and do your dut.,
Gird up your l__ns,
Smite h_p and th_gh,
We’ll all be Kansas
By and by.
“Invocation” appeared in Nash’s collection Hard Lines. As a publicity stunt, Simon and Schuster sent out advance copies with a chain, padlock, and key attached.
One of Nash’s copies of Hard Lines appears in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored, on display through January 22. Nash intended to send this copy to book critic Alexander Woollcott. The inside front cover of the book includes the beginning of an inscription to Woollcott, but Nash misspelled Woollcott’s name (he forgot the second “l”) and inscribed the book to himself instead:
*It sold nearly 40,000 copies in spite of him.”