Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Pulp Fiction on Monument Square

Last month, Abraham Schechter of the Portland Public Library's Portland Room pointed this photo out to me. The other night I finally had a chance to do some digging and find out what it was.
Pictured here is Russell Mack, proprietor of Russell's Cigars, a variety shop run at 15 Monument Square. [Those Portlanders among you will know the building as the current location of a few businesses including Others! Fair Trade Coffee House.] Both Abraham and I were enthralled by the array of old pulp books and magazines shown on Mr. Mack's shelves.

In digging for the article that this photo used to be attached to, I had good luck. In fact, the story is more than just a "Hey, look at this local business owner working with his customary stock." No, instead the story was "Here is Russell Mack dutifully packing up books and magazines that Portland city officials are banning due to their salacious content!" Those pulp paperbacks he's holding are by Erskine Caldwell, the famous author who owned a bookstore in Portland in the late 1920s, in Longfellow Square at 668 Congress Street (see below).

The Portland Press Herald article, published in the August 21, 1948 issue on page 14, details the ban on Caldwell's novels that occurred in Portland... it was in effect for a mere 5 hours on August 20th, before the "misunderstanding" was corrected.

After receipt of the complainant's letter, a city inspector was sent out on the town to see what was what. He returned bearing 6 so-called "art magazines" and 3 of Caldwell's books. The ban was intended to target the magazines only, but in a miscommunication, the Caldwell books got lumped into the mix. The entire brouhaha was started by a letter to City Hall from a Portland citizen who was concerned about the "salacious magazines" and literature being made available to local students in the bookshops of the area. Perhaps some of the other visible titles below Mr. Mack's bent knee are those in question? With titles like "Confessions of a Good Time Girl," "Party Wife," "Pleasure After Hours," "Excess Wife," and "Confessions of a Shakedown Dame," it is hard to imagine these publications wouldn't raise an eyebrow or two. On the other hand, they probably weren't talking about the nearby magazine with the banner headline, "FOOT DOCTOR TO THE STARS!"

Misinformed, the Portland Police Department's detective squad was sent out to warn booksellers off the banned titles, including the 3 Caldwell books, only to have to rescind the ban as it pertained to the Caldwell titles 5 hours later. The City government announced belatedly that it had "no opinion" when it came to differentiating between the varying degrees of worth in adult literature, even though earlier in the day it had officially typified Caldwell's books as "distasteful literature." The "art magazines," however, remained under ban due to their manifest tendency "to corrupt the morals of youth."

Five local booksellers were interviewed as to their opinions on the ban. Most agreed it was "a silly thing to do," as one female bookseller (unnamed) neatly summed it up. Booksellers are notorious as being the bastions of freedom of literary expression, and it seems this has been a trend for a long time.

For those of you wondering about where Erskine Caldwell's Longfellow Bookshop was, here is a comparative shot of 668 Congress St. in 1925 (before Caldwell opened his shop) compared with how it looks today. True to form, this location is right across the street from my own used bookshop, the Green Hand Bookshop, at 661 Congress Street. Longfellow Square cannot help but attract booksellers, no matter what century it is.