In the West, Much News

In late January 1929, Erich Maria Remarque’s anti-war novel Im Westen, Nichts Neues (In the west, nothing new) was published by Propyläen Verlag. In England the book was quickly translated by the Australian librarian Arthur Wesley Wheen and republished under the title All Quiet on the Western Front.

Ref: Two original 1929 editions that finally made it into the Library, the one on the left is from the Quaker Collection.

Remarque’s novel soon caused controversy among patriotic ex-servicemen, moralists and right-wing politicians in various parts of Europe and America. However when the book was considered for accession to New Zealand public libraries All Quiet on the Western Front stirred up new controversy of quite another kind.

The librarians of the Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin public libraries decided the novel’s language was coarse and lurid; it was immoral and amoral and that it contained plain and frank descriptions of sexual activity, bodily functions, human depravity and the shocking naked truth of war’s brutality which was likely to be injurious to the morals of women and children. However the Dunedin librarian, Mr W.B. McEwan, did concede that his adult male readers should be able to cope with the book.

The librarians’ attitudes were well summed up in Mr McEwan’s statement printed in the New Zealand Herald on 29 June 1929: ‘It is a coarse book, and not a publication for general circulation. I admit it is a strong book on the war, but it is the naked truth, and nothing but the truth. It is not a book for circulation by a public library.’

Auckland Public Library’s decision to ban All Quiet on the Western Front was probably made by an unofficial book-selection committee of academics, senior journalists and businessmen who met with the Chief Librarian, John Barr, to decide on the literary quality of the books which the library would make available to its readers. This committee had been created to select the library’s books in the days before the Auckland Public Library had a qualified librarian in charge. Mr Barr was Auckland’s first qualified librarian.

In the Evening Post’s aptly titled article, ‘Barred From Shelves’ (22 June 1929), John Barr explained the way this committee of self-appointed literary critics and moral guardians made their judgements. ‘Our first consideration in the selection of books is their literary merit. It occupies much of our time ferreting out reviews from recognised literary journals and reading criticisms. The [library] staff also co-operates in the reading of new books. It is not a capricious system, and very few undesirable books reach our shelves.’

‘Mr. Barr said that from 1000 to 1500 books were passed into the lending library each year. A novel need not be offensive to earn exclusion. Trash was rejected simply because it failed to measure up to literary standards. The widely-discussed German novel, Jew Suss, had been passed. It was not altogether free from a certain grossness but it had undoubted literary quality, and a fine historical vein. The novel Simon Called Peter had not reached the library shelves (but eventually made it), and the Tarzan series of stories had been rejected as ‘trash’.

When the decisions of the book-selection committee were put in front of the Council’s Library Committee, it seems as if the councillors simply approved the decisions placed before them by the book selectors. The chairwoman of the Library Committee, Miss Ellen Melville, told the Council meeting that the Library Committee’s policy was to leave the selection of books to the Chief Librarian, and that ‘the Committee desires to reiterate its confidence in the Chief Librarian’s judgement.’

It is clear that the chief librarians of the time seemed to regard themselves as moral policemen and the guardians of decency in modern civilisation. An editorial in the Otago Daily Times on 2 July 1929 notes: ‘It is possible that the demand for All Quiet on the Western Front may not be prompted so much by the fact that the work is calculated to further the cause of peace as by the excitation of curiosity respecting the aspects of the work that lead the public librarians to regard it as unsuited for general circulation. If there is much in Remarque's book that is coarse and objectionable, if it contains expressions, as it does, that are commonly regarded as unprintable, surely that is a sufficient reason why those who have charge of public libraries should be as reluctant to hand it out to anybody in the ordinary way as parents would be to place it in the hands of their boys and girls.’

In other words, the librarians seemed to take a lofty, elitist and basically prudish view about the kinds of people who might be tempted to read All Quiet on the Western Front. While they grudgingly conceded that the book dealt with a serious subject – that of war and the degrading effects of war, they were afraid that another type of casual, sensation-seeking and prurient reader would now seek to read the book solely because of its notoriety. Along with the sensation-seekers went uncritical and impressionable younger readers whom, the librarians feared would be easily corrupted by Remarque’s immorality and amorality.

How sordid and bannable was All Quiet on the Western Front? The article ‘German War Story’ in the Herald of 22 June 1929 mentions two English reviews. The first is from The Publisher’s Circular and Book-sellers’ Record. It concludes: ‘we regret the quite unnecessary use of certain vulgar words which may have been used by the German soldiers, but which are usually considered unfit to appear in print. Certain situations, also, are described in a manner that can only be called objectionable. We think the crudity of the language will disgust the average English reader.’

However the Herald article then quotes from the review in the Times entitled ‘A Wonderful Portrait’. It said ‘The English reader must be prepared for what he may dub coarseness or frankness, according to temperament, of a type that he will not find in English novels. We do not mean merely insistence upon the realities of war - for a war novel would not be of much value without that - but a constant preoccupation with bodily functions. There is reiterated complaint of lack of food, of dysentery caused by starvation, of paper bandages for the binding of wounds, of misery caused by an increasing shortage of every necessity for the soldier s comfort and sustenance.’

‘It is a wonderful portrait, built up little by little, without a superlative. There emerges the ideal soldier - brave, steady, crafty, never excited, but never off his guard. We have had grim English war novels in which the wine of victory is represented as tasting bitter enough; but it is doubtful if we shall ever have one with a note so hopeless as that of the concluding chapters. That wine may to many have tasted bitter, but it could not have been so bitter as this vinegar of defeat. 

To put the censorship of All Quiet on the Western Front into further perspective, the Auckland Star (2 July 1929) praised the decision of the Christchurch city librarian to allow the book into the Christchurch Public Library, where it would not be displayed on the shelf but would be issued to subscribers (presumably adults only) and only when those subscribers applied to read it. While the Star’s correspondent thought that ‘this decision was strictly correct and ought to commend itself to the general public’, he said that:

‘The library authorities in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin have decided that their institutions shall not be used to circulate the volume, and they are well within their province in so deciding. They are entitled to the opinion that their shelves should harbour no book that would offend the susceptibilities of the most sensitive, or bring a blush to the cheek of the most innocent. If that is their policy, the coarse language of All Quiet on the Western Front might well have brought that volume under their ban. We do not quarrel with them on that score. Doubts have been expressed whether the book should ever have been written, but written it was, and published it has been, and he would be a very daring censor, or a very foolish one, who denied it circulation. This is quite clearly the view taken by the librarian of the Canterbury Public Library and it should be approved by everyone who gives the subject serious thought.’

And at the far end of the country Mr. H. Greenwood, the librarian at the Dunedin Athenaeum (the mechanic’s institute private lending library), already had two copies of All Quiet on the Western Front in circulation. Furthermore, he reported that demand for the book was so great that the Athenaeum had ordered six more copies!

Author: Chris Paxton