I’m a bit of a collector of publishing ephemera. From a first edition of War All the Time that Bukowski signed 200 copies of in order to avoid his publisher’s threat to send him on a book tour, to the limited run of F. N. Doubleday’s The Memoirs of a Publisher, I have probably taken my obsession with inside baseball stories a bit too far. That said, nothing prepared me for the incredible gift given to me by my friend Mark for Christmas.
The whole thing is a bit of a regifting, of sorts. The original receivers were friends and acquaintances of Blanche and Alfred Knopf in 1949. For Christmas, the Knopfs asked the Grabhorn Press in San Francisco to design and print 500 copies of the judge’s notes in Commonwealth v. Gordon, et al., an obscenity trial brought against five booksellers in Philadelphia. The case came in response to a challenge by Houghton Mifflin, Vanguard, Knopf, two authors, and a handful of booksellers who decided to stand up for free expression. It’s printed on fine Ingres VGZ paper, cloth bound, with wide, red margins to accommodate the case law citations.
It’s a remarkable bit of history, a lovely insight into the courage of those in the book business, and the tender affection the Knopfs had for beautiful books. It makes me proud to work in this business.
Here’s the full introductory note, written by Blanche and Alfred:
On March 20, 1948, members of the Vice Squad of the Philadelphia Police Department, at the direction of Inspector Craig Ellis, head of the Vice Squad, commenced a series of mass raids upon book stores and booksellers in Philadelphia. Inspector Ellis gave his men a list of books that in his opinion were obscene, and directed them to seize the books wherever found. Fifty-four booksellers were raided, and nearly twelve hundred copies of the books were confiscated.
These raids were remarkable not only because of the scale on which they were conducted, but in several other respects. First, they were directed in major part against books written by authors in the forefront of American literature and published by some of the leading publishers in America. Second, the raids were conducted and the books were confiscated without warrants of search or seizure or court order of any kind. Third, the list of books to be seized was compiled by Inspector Ellis and a patrolman in his office, without consultation with the District Attorney’s office or the obtaining of any legal opinion as to whether the books were obscene under the Pennsylvania statute.
For once the publishers took the offensive. Houghton Mifflin Company, publisher of Raintree County, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., publisher of Never Love a Stranger, and The Vanguard Press, Inc., publisher of books by James T. Farrell and Calder Willingham among those seized, commenced actions in the Federal District Court in Philadelphia to restrain further police seizures of these books and to recover damages from the police officers for their unlawful acts. In these two actions the authors Harold Robbins and James T. Farrell, as well as Charles Praissman, a courageous bookseller whose stores had been raided, joined the publishers as parties plaintiff. The District Attorney of Philadelphia countered by commencing criminal proceedings against five of the booksellers whose stores had been raided, and on June 30, 1948 the grand jury, upon presentation of the District Attorney, indicted the booksellers on a charge of having violated the Pennsylvania statute prohibiting the sale of obscene books.
In the meantime the Federal court cases brought by the publishers had come to trial before Judge Guy K. Bard, and at the conclusion of the trials Judge Bard had enjoined further seizures of the plaintiffs’ books, as well as police invasion of Praissman’s stores or seizure of his books without a warrant. At the time of this writing, the Federal court cases have not been finally decided.
On January 3, 1949, the criminal cases came on for trial before Judge Curtis Bok of the Pennsylvania Court of Quarter Sessions. The defendants pleaded not guilty and waived trial by jury. They stipulated that at the times and places mentioned in the indictments they had had possession of the books for the purpose of offering them for sale to the public. The books were then placed in evidence, and the prosecution rested its case. The defendants “demurred to the evidence,” the effect of which was to raise the issue of whether the court, in the light of the constitutional guaranty of freedom of the press, could hold, beyond a reasonable dout, that the books before it were obscene within the meaning of the Pennsylvania obscenity statute.
Judge Bok reserved decision, and on March 18, 1949 sustained the demurrers and entered judgment in favor of the defendants. Because we believe that his opinion, in which he states his reasons for this action, is, in the words of Bernard De Voto, “a great document in democracy and a great document in human freedom,” we have asked our friends the Grabhorns to give it this permanent and beautiful dress.