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Goddam, it’s Banned Book Week

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 3, 2012

It’s Banned Books Week, and it reminds me, ruefully, that an anthology I edited, The Devil’s Book of Verse, was banned in 1983, when the publisher’s new parent company, a  Bible purveyor, demanded that I tear out two pages containing the blasphemous word “goddam.”  One of them contained the familiar parody Winter is Icummen in,” and the head of the new parent company actually demanded to know, “Who is this geek Ezra Pound, and can’t he write better poetry than that?”

The book had already been published and handsomely reviewed, and when the company pulled it from stores and locked it up in the warehouse, I sued.  I just found this account of the lawsuit in mid-course:

When author Richard Conniff presented a book of poetry,
limericks and epigrams, entitled “The Devil’s Book
of Verse,” to his publisher, Dodd, Mead & Co., the
company informed Conniff that Thomas Nelson, Inc.,
the parent company of Dodd, Mead, considered portions
of the book to be “blasphemous” Conniff refused to remove
the objectionable material, and Dodd, Mead
ceased its promotion and distribution of the book. SamMoore,

the president of Thomas Nelson, stated to the
press that he had ordered Dodd, Mead to cease selling
the Conniff book because “he did not want his companies
to publish trash.” Conniff responded by suing Thomas
Nelson and Moore for tortious interference with
contractual relations, intentional infliction of emotional
distress, prima facie tort and defamation.
Federal District Court Judge Goettel first dismissed the
complaint against Moore on the basis of a lack of personal
jurisdiction. Moore’s only contact with New York
was by acts carried out as a fiduciary of a corporation.
Conniff had not demonstrated that Moore lost the protection
of this “fiduciary shield” (by showing that
Moore’s actions were not in the best interest of Thomas
Nelson) or that Thomas Nelson was a mere shell for
Moore.
In turning to Conniffs claim of tortious interference
with contractual relations, the court declined to grant Thomas Nelson’s motion to dismiss that cause of action and found that the claim presented a factual issue to be determined at trial. Although a parent company may supervise
contracts made by a subsidiary, the parent may
not use illegal means to interfere with the contract or act
with malice in its supervisory role. Conniff had adequately
alleged the presence of malice on the part of
Thomas Nelson, and this issue therefore must be determined
at trial, declared Judge Goettel.
Thomas Nelson’s motion to dismiss Conniff’s cause of
action for intentional infliction of emotional distress also
was denied, since a trier of fact might find that the company’s
conduct was “extreme and outrageous” these being
the requisite elements of the cause of action.
Conniffs prima facie tort claim was dismissed for its
failure to plead special damages fully and with sufficient
particularity.

Conniffs defamation claim, however, was not dismissed
because Moore’s statement that Thomas Nelson
would not publish “trash” is susceptible of a defamatory
meaning. Judge Goettel declined, at this stage of the
proceeding, to rule on the “interesting and close question”
of whether Moore’s statement was an opinion protected
by the First Amendment. The privilege of fair
comment was not available to Thomas Nelson, because
the publisher could not compare itself to a critic commenting
on and evaluating a writer’s book. Judge Goettel
concluded by stating that even if Conniff was a
public figure, as Thomas Nelson argued, he had alleged
the presence of malice and therefore would be entitled
to an opportunity at trial to present proof on this issue.
Conniff v. Dodd, Mead & Co., 593 F.Supp. 266
(S.D.N.Y. 1984) [ELR 6:12:13]

Anyway, we eventually settled on favorable terms, and I now have an attic full of The Devil’s Book of Verse.  It’s not exactly the way I would like to be in the company of Mark Twain, Charles Darwin, and other authors of banned books.  But I hope you will all go out this week and read something the Bible-Thumpers and Dunderheads would be shocked to see you read.

And just to get you in the mood, here is That Geek Ezra Pound:

Winter is icumen in, 
Lhude sing Goddamm, 

Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Sing: Goddamm.
Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,

An ague hath my ham.

Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damm you; Sing: Goddamm.
Goddamm, Goddamm, ’tis why I am, Goddamm,
So ‘gainst the winter’s balm.
Sing goddamm, damm, sing goddamm,
Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.

2 Responses to “Goddam, it’s Banned Book Week”

  1. I like this sentence, from fellow author Michael Sims: “Who are these purse-lipped, vinegar-and-thistles, scowling and growling, dry-as-dust virginal sweating bureaucratic mole rats who go over children’s books with magnifying glasses and get their bleached white granny panties or tighty-whities in a wad and cause a childish ruckus to get books banned?”

  2. Mark Twain to his editor on the Concord Public Library banning The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1885:

    “Apparently, the Concord library has condemned Huck as ‘trash and only suitable for the slums.’ This will sell us another twenty-five thousand copies for sure!”

    And for more authors’ funny responses on the banning of their books: http://www.flavorwire.com/333790/famous-authors-funniest-responses-to-their-books-being-banned

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