Dartmouth Street between Commonwealth Avenue and Newbury Street Boston,
On December 16, 1944, Miss E. Margaret Anderson, a clerk at the Dartmouth Bookstall, was arrested for selling a book to a customer. Following complaints from the Boston Watch and Ward Society, city detective Edward Blake visited the Bookstall to purchase a copy of Southern author Erskine Caldwell’s latest novel, Tragic Ground, which the society had described as “obscene” and concerned with “low-life matters.” Blake then charged Miss Anderson with distributing obscene material.
The incident sparked a controversy that spread beyond the Boston area, as the case contained serious implications for legal precedents around censorship. Like many of Caldwell’s books, Tragic Ground details the disintegration of a poor white family, lured by the false promises of a failing boom town in the South. Of all the book’s supposedly lurid material, Blake identified as his case-in-point a scene that depicts a barechested man, a decision that indirectly reflected the city’s puritanical culture and amused the judiciary.
“Have you seen any of the calendars that successful business firms have been giving out around here lately?” said Judge Elijah Adlow, as reported in an article about the trial for the New York Times, titled “Caldwell Novel Cleared as ‘Dull.’” “How about some of the dancers at some of the shows in town? How about other books?”
In his ruling on the case, Judge Adlow argued that neither judges nor members of the police department were authorized to dictate which books could be read or sold. “I’m getting tired of books being banned,” he wrote. “It’s not for me or for you to try to establish the literary tastes of the community.” His decision, though, did offer a brief critique on the artistic merits of Caldwell’s book, stating it was so droll, “one would have to chain yourself to a chair to read it.”
The attention generated by the trial propelled Tragic Ground to the top of the best-seller list the following year, an ironic yet fitting conclusion to the original complaint. Adlow’s decision also foreshadowed a change in legal precedent that would see future censorship claims moved from the criminal to the civil court, where books themselves would be on trial rather than booksellers.