“Banned in Boston” is a phrase that probably doesn’t resonate with many people today. But there was a time when Footloose might as well have been set in Beantown.
Founded by Puritans in the 1630s, Boston held onto its Puritan zeal—if not necessarily the Puritan faith—for centuries. From 1659 to 1681, Christmas was outlawed there. Long after the American Revolution, which started there, Boston famously banned books, plays, and songs. In 1882 Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” was banned. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Earnest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and a serialized version of his A Farewell To Arms were prohibited. The Everly Brothers’ song “Wake Up Little Susie” hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts but was nonetheless barred from Boston radio in the 1950s. William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch was briefly banned in Boston (and Los Angeles) in 1962 until courts overturned the decision a few years later.
I shouldn’t single out Boston, given that censorship in America has a long and storied history. From John Adams’ Sedition Act in 1798 (which outlawed malicious criticism of federal officials) through both world wars, there has been plenty of censorship in this country. And I mean real censorship, which involves the government, not private actors forbidding free expression of one kind or another.
But the reason I start with Boston is that the phrase “Banned in Boston” became a fantastic marketing tool. Few things piqued buyers’ interest more than being told a book was too hot to handle in Beantown. Upton Sinclair once remarked, “We authors are using America as our sales territory, and Boston as our advertising department.”