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1933 Fifty Years Ago

March 2023
3min read

“I say to you that from this date on, the Eighteenth Amendment is doomed!” These prophetic words were spoken by Franklin Delano Roosevelt as he accepted his party’s nomination in 1932. Even Herbert Hoover, the incumbent, had grudgingly—and with much hedging—admitted that the Eighteenth should be repealed. It was only a matter of time.

The time arrived on December 5. Utah was the thirty-sixth state to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment (Repeal) and it went into effect immediately. Prohibition, the “noble experiment,” was over.

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to find anyone today with a good word to say about it. To Prohibition is attributed the birth of large-scale organized crime: it created the gangster. The scope, wealth, and murderousness of mobs like Capone’s were the direct result; there were more violent deaths in Chicago alone, for each year of Prohibition, than in all the British Isles.

Some of the immediate effects of Repeal were predictable. The stock market went up, and the price of drinks was cut in half. The Society of Restaurateurs published a guideline of suggested prices for cocktails to be consumed on the premises: gin and whiskey cocktails, thirty cents; an Old-fashioned, forty cents; Scotch whiskey, forty-five to sixty cents. The French expressed their pleasure, but their vintners muttered about competition from American upstarts in California and elsewhere. The German press called Prohibition “one of the most gruesome farces any civilized nation ever undertook to stay civilized” and congratulated Roosevelt on its demise.

When the President signed the proclamation notifying the country that Repeal had been ratified, he asked “the whole-hearted cooperation of all our citizens to the end that this return of individual freedom shall not be accompanied by the repugnant conditions that obtained prior to the adoption of the 18th Amendment. … I ask especially that no State shall by law or otherwise authorize the return of the saloon in its old form or in some modern guise. ” The word saloon clearly had demonic powers, and in many states Alcoholic Beverages Control Boards refused to license any premises so called. But it was quickly discovered that bars, taverns, cafés, night clubs, and cocktail lounges served much the same purpose.

DECEMBER 6: John W. Woolsey, a federal district judge sitting in New York, decided that the novel, Ulysses , was not pornographic and could be admitted into the United States.

Joyce had published his book in Paris in 1922; its fame grew and it was hailed by American intellectuals but banned from the country by customs officials dismayed by the explicit sexual passages and the vulgarity of some of the language.

Random House chose to challenge the government’s power to censor by importing Ulysses and selling it. The federal authorities responded by taking the case to court under the Tariff Act of 1930.

Woolsey’s argument was made in two stages. The first is an appreciation of the novel, holding that Joyce was “a real artist in words” attempting “to draw a true picture of the lower middle class in a European city.” The book is “sincere and honest.” Indeed there is a good deal of sex, but “it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring.” The basic point for Woolsey was that “in spite of its unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist.”

However, Woolsey goes on, it is not enough to find that Ulysses was not written with pornographic “intent.” “I must endeavor to apply a more objective standard to his book in order to determine its effect in the result, irrespective of the intent with which it was written.” The statute under which the action was filed forbids the importation of any “obscene” book; it does not, as Woolsey notes, summon any other word from “the spectrum of condemnatory adjectives.” Therefore he needed only to determine whether Ulysses qualified as obscene under the legal definition of that word: “Tending to stir the sex impulses or to lead to sexually impure and lustful thoughts.”

Woolsey had given the book to two friends (“literary assessors” he called them) and found that their opinions agreed with his. “In many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic,” he wrote, "[but] nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac. Ulysses may, therefore, be admitted into the United States.”

Random House printed Woolsey’s opinion as a foreword to the American edition, which sold nearly half a million copies, and it stands today as a landmark in the struggle against censorship.

DECEMBER 4: Two days before Judge Woolsey arrived at his decision, the public was confronted by brutal and explicit sexuality in another form. Tobacco Road , Jack Kirkland’s adaptation of Erskine Caldwell’s novel, opened at the Masque Theater in New York City. It explored the interworking of poverty and degeneracy in the Deep South; some held, however, that it reduced the desperate plight of the sharecropper to a bawdy joke.

Brooks Atkinson’s review for The New ‘York Times prefigured Woolsey’s argument, but at a feverish pitch. The play is “indecent,” certainly, but it is also Art. “[The play] is also one of the grossest episodes ever put on the stage. Once the theatre used to be sinful. But now it is the novel that ferrets out the abominations of life and exposes them for sale in the marketplace … the theatre has never sheltered a fouler or more degenerate parcel of folks than the hardscrabble family of Lester that lives along the ‘Tobacco Road.’”

And yet, “Mr. Caldwell is a demoniac genius—brutal, grimly comic and clairvoyant. … He writes with the fiery sword. Although Tobacco Road reels around the stage like a drunken stranger to the theatre, it has spasmodic moments of merciless power when truth is flung into your face with all the slime that truth contains. That is why Mr. Caldwell’s grossness cannot be dismissed as morbidity and gratuitous indecency. It is the blunt truth of the characters he is describing, and it leaves a malevolent glow of poetry above the rudeness of his statement.”

The play ran for 3,182 performances, breaking the record that was held by Abie’s Irish Rose.

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