Nonsenseorship (1922)

In this “levititious literary escapade” — as publisher George P. Putnam describes his anthology — some of the wittiest writers of the Jazz Age lambaste the often nonsensically censorious atmosphere of prohibition-era America.

In short pieces of prose and verse, Dorothy Parker, Ben Hecht, and Wallace Irwin (among others) protest the “prohibitions, inhibitions, and illegalities” in a nation then subject not only to Prohibition (which banned alcoholic beverages from 1920 until 1933) but also to the first rumblings of what would become the Motion Picture Production Code (which restricted depictions of sex in Hollywood movies from the 1920s until the 1960s) as well as other forms of censorship covering everything from radio broadcasts to “food... politics, baseball, diversion, [and] dress”. This list is borrowed from Hecht (1893–1964) — the legendary screenwriter responsible for Scarface, His Girl Friday, and other cinematic classics.

You will find no sympathy here for censors. “Their viewpoint is already amply set forth”, Putnam justly says: “Moreover, likely they would not be amusing.” Fortunately for us, most of the writers here remain amusing even a century later. The sheer absurdity of what was considered outrageous in the early 1920s struck them then as being just as absurd as it seems to us today. “The sight of a woman making baby clothes is not generally considered a vicious spectacle in many communities”, the journalist Heywood Broun writes with restrained frustration, “but it may not be shown on the screen in Pennsylvania by order of the state board of censors”. Ample proof, to Broun’s way of thinking, that a censor is a person who “believes he can hold back the mighty traffic of life with a tin whistle and a raised right hand”.

Dorothy Parker, in her wonderfully unrestrained poem, “Reformers: A Hymn of Hate”, gives us some idea of how rapidly the proscriptions of the 1920s set thinking people’s blood to boiling. She begins with the prohibitionists, who

can prove that the Johnstown flood,
And the blizzard of 1888,
And the destruction of Pompeii
Were all due to alcohol.

But she soon moves on to the movie censors:

he motion picture is still in its infancy,—
They are the boys who keep it there.
If the film shows a party of clubmen tossing off ginger ale,
Or a young bride dreaming over tiny garments,
Or Douglas Fairbanks kissing Mary Pickford’s hand,
They cut out the scene
And burn it in the public square.

And she saves no small amount of scorn for “the All-American Crabs”, “The Brave Little Band that is Against Everything” and are

forever signing petitions
Urging that cigarette-smokers should be deported,
And that all places of amusement should be closed on Sundays
And kept closed all week.
They take everything personally;
They go about shaking their heads,
And sighing, “It’s all wrong, it’s all wrong”...

Some of the most interesting arguments here are made by the feminist journalist Ruth Hale in her short essay “The Woman’s Place,” which proposes that women have a great deal to teach men about “how to live under prohibitions and taboos”:

If the world outside the home is to become as circumscribed and paternalized as the world inside it, obviously all the advantage lies with those who have been living under nonsenseorship long enough to have learned to manage it.

Another feminist journalist, Helen Bullitt Lowry, points out — in her tribute to the “Uninhibited Flapper” — the paradoxical attractiveness of all prohibition, whether it concerns a word or an alcoholic drink. “Vice would die out from disuse”, she quips, “if the reformers did not advertise”.

Nonsenseorship is an enduringly entertaining volume, well worth browsing not only for its many quotable lines but for the charming illustrations by Ralph Barton.