Lessons in Censorship

The cover story of this week’s Reader will immerse you in one of the most curious episodes in the history of the University of Chicago. In 1958 the school’s financial interests collided with its academic principles. The bean counters and bluenoses won in the short run; freedom of literary expression in America eventually benefited.

The winter 1958-’59 issue of the Chicago Review was going to be devoted to William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Edward Dahlberg. But a Chicago Daily News columnist wrote a hysterical article denouncing the autumn Review, the administration stepped in, and the winter issue never appeared. Now the story’s part of the mythology of the student-run Review.

“People got a kick out of it, because it was a colorful story that brought the Review into a public sphere it doesn’t usually occupy,” says Molly McQuade, recalling her days as coeditor in the early 80s. “They savored the integrity of the Review. But I heard it as a kind of fairy tale. I had no idea what to make of it.”

Recently McQuade heard much more. Now an editor at a small press in Minneapolis, she set out to interview prominent writers who’d passed through the university, a project that eventually took the form of the recent book An Unsentimental Education: Writers and Chicago, a collection of reminiscences.

“I was surprised by how many of these [21] writers had one connection or another with the Chicago Review,” she says. “I think the Review was quite an important part of their education–some of them–as it was mine. It was one of the reasons I went there. I was a transfer student from Brown, and Chicago was the only university I knew that had a literary journal of stature that was run at least partly by students.”

Three of the writers McQuade talked with had been there when the Review was squashed and went on about it.

Paul Carroll was poetry editor of the Review. After he and other senior editors resigned in protest, he helped found and then ran Big Table, which published the long, steamy excerpt from Burroughs’s Naked Lunch that the Review could not. The U.S. Post Office promptly held Big Table to be pornographic, but when federal judge Julius J. Hoffman upheld the magazine’s right to publish, a new day of liberty dawned in American letters.

In An Unsentimental Education, Carroll mourns, “I’ve been in disgrace at the university for many years because of my part in the scandal and because of establishing Big Table magazine. But we didn’t start Big Table to embarrass the university. . . . What were our intentions as editors? Just to publish good literature, like any little magazine: publish what is new, as well as what is old. We had no intention of being a Beat magazine. . . . The idea was to publish only what seemed genuine and real, and stick to our guns.”

Novelist Richard Stern remains on the U. of C. faculty. He and Saul Bellow are the ones who came up with the idea for An Unsentimental Education, and it was Stern who asked McQuade, a former student, to conduct the interviews. Back in ’58 he was the young head of the faculty committee advising the Review. In Gerald E. Brennan’s account he’s an ambiguous figure who ultimately serves the purposes of Chancellor Lawrence Kimpton.

“Kimpton’s immediate reaction was to suppress the Review, cancel it,” Stern told McQuade. “We committee members met with him in his office and when he told us this, we said, “Are you kidding? Censor the Chicago Review? You’d degrade the university. You can’t do it.’ Kimpton saw that immediately and drew back.”

As Stern tells the tale, Daily News columnist Jack Mabley was a minor player in the “obscenity controversy”–even though it was Mabley’s column describing the autumn ’58 Review as “one of the foulest collections of printed filth I’ve seen publicly circulated” that brought the Review to the attention of trustees. The chancellor told young Stern about wheels within wheels. He explained that with the death of Cardinal Stritch a power struggle had rent the Catholic Church. Now a hostile priest in Back of the Yards, where Catholics driven out of Hyde Park were settling, was exploiting the Review to attack the university. Mayor Daley hoped to pass legislation that would bring urban renewal to Hyde Park and save the school. The situation was delicate. He needed the votes of Catholic aldermen.

“I learned a lot from the whole experience,” Stern told McQuade. He learned how Chicago really worked, and he learned about “the distortions of claims along such sensational lines as ‘literary martyrdom.'” In An Unsentimental Education he calls the idea that the Chicago Review was suppressed a “myth,” but he doesn’t explain why it never came out.

The third writer to go on at length about the Review of ’58 is Robert Coover, a student who wasn’t involved with the magazine. “It was a clear case of literary suppression, of book banning,” he told McQuade. “As I understood it at the time, there were people like the chancellor who wanted to see the Review itself dead and buried once and for all, others who only wanted to suppress that particular issue, these being supposedly the liberals, and, finally, in this context, there were the faculty advisers like Dick Stern who wanted the editors to hold the accepted Beat material for at least one issue and do another first that was more balanced. All of which represented a faint-hearted knuckling under to the yahoos.” The role of faculty advisers, said Coover, should be to watch the money, make sure someone’s running the shop, and otherwise “keep their hands off, let what happens happen, and defend the student staff vigorously against the louts and the Bowdlers.”

Big Table is long gone. The Review survives. “It’s very well run at the moment,” says McQuade. “David Nicholls has been the editor the last five years. He’s a graduate student in English. They’ve done a lot of special themes, one about contemporary writing in India that was sold to Penguin and published as a book.”

Unabomber’s Hollow Victory

An open letter to the Unabomber:

So you pulled it off. You penetrated the sanctum sanctorum inhabited by Lotto numbers, college-football odds, astrologers, and Mister Boffo. Your coup has caused some aggravation. Some say you finagled your way into a paper that was a cut above–the Washington Post, which printed your 35,000-word tract with the connivance of the even more regnant New York Times. But for all their splendors they’re daily papers too, and daily papers print what the breeze blows by.

“Neither paper has any journalistic reason to print this,” Donald Graham, publisher of the Post, insisted. That of course is flatly untrue. You’re a sick man, Unabomber, but I suppose hypocrisy registers on your radar. Your denunciations of civilization as we know it have struck a certain chord. Among the public there’s the modest clamor for more that justifies diagramless crossword puzzles, Ziggy, the Tribune’s Online NewsExtra service, and many things editors put in their papers.

Suppose you’d kept it short and sweet: “America repent. Print this or I shall kill again.” Would any paper have hesitated to report every word? Of course not. Suppose you’d sent your statement to the nation’s editors to do with as they wished. No one would have carried all 35,000 words, but we’d have seen long excerpts published under the rubric “news” (as indeed we did, long before the Post carried the entire statement).

The controversy then–to the extent there is one; the nation is not aboil–turns on three points: (1) you went on forever; (2) you’re a killer; (3) you hinted that if “Industrial Society and Its Future” appeared in full, you would not kill again. Point three might be construed as sweetening the pot, but it’s understandable that some journalists read it as extortion.

If you ask me, Unabomber, the Times and Post may have decided wrongly, but I’d be troubled only if they hadn’t decided at all. Publication should always be an option. An odd little AP story in the Sun-Times said you’d stirred up a debate “between those who said the newspapers were acting in the public interest and those who said the Times and Post had sacrificed their journalistic independence and set a dangerous precedent by caving in to a killer.” How do the Times and Post sacrifice their independence by exercising it?

Some critics assert that the Times and Post showed independence back in the 70s when they published the Pentagon Papers, but were coopted by the Justice Department this time. The cases don’t compare. In the 70s those papers resisted suppression. This time they would have been the suppressors. I know, Unabomber, you’re thinking, “Wise up. The papers have always suppressed plenty.” Point well taken. So maybe you now feel like the patron saint of every agitated schmuck who ever called a city desk with an ingenious theory of how the world’s going to hell and was blown off by a supercilious copy clerk. “Sorry. Not news fit to print. Empty ranting. Not for us.”

The papers don’t just convey the world–they fashion it, they tidy up, they filter out. Consider what the editor of the American Journalism Review told the Chicago Tribune when the Post printed your diatribe: “It sets a very dangerous precedent, particularly since there is so much anger out there, with people going to such a great extent to express their rage. This is like turning over a newspaper at gunpoint.”

Precedent? Come on. The next 35,000 words of anarchic Luddite sermonizing turned in by an unknown serial killer will hit the spike so fast an editor might drive a hole in his hand. I hear the AJR solon insisting that the vaster and more virulent the rage with which rabble like you threaten decent people like us, the further beneath a proper newspaper’s dignity it should be to communicate it. But subterranean hysterics are Americans too, and we have a right to know of them. The press’s filtering-out function ranks several rungs below its witnessing function.

Actually I doubt that first principles have much to do with your manifesto’s free ride. Do you buy the excuse that limitations on the New York Times’s presses are why the screed ran only in the Post? All over the nation the Post’s a lot harder to find, usually arriving at the few newsstands that carry it a day late. When you bought your copy did you take a look around? Do you think you spotted the FBI agent trying to spot you, maybe the guy thumbing through Penthouse?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.