During the 1930s, books confiscated as obscene were often burned under the supervision of police and "moral entrepreneurs" such as those in charge of The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, as their publishers--"pariah capitalists"--made futile protests. Incinerated work ranged from sex pulps and pornographic booklets to copies of Lady Chatterley's Lover and Tropic of Cancer.

Pariah capitalists work in morally ambiguous areas, and do dirty jobs which decent people are supposed to distain. Thus, these jobs--pimping, numbers-running, bootlegging, selling erotica--are often taken by racial and ethnic minorities to whom more respectable kinds of work, or the capital to engage in them, are not available. Erotica distribution during the first half of the 20th century often was a profession which suited the talents and training of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, and their offspring. These people were highly literate. They had shrewdness, a sense of purpose, close friends and family members who could be trusted not to betray confidences. They and their co-workers could work long hours without immediate rewards, so that the business would thrive. They also had chutzpah: they knew the police, and the clergy and politicians who spoke from the pulpit or rostrum, made them examples of what the rest of the "decent" community should condemn. Therefore, when erotic books were burned in police bonfires, as in the photo below:

A November 1936 collection of books worth $10,000 is burned in Brooklyn. From the NY Herald Tribune.

the publishers and sellers of these works had to have the thick skin, and moxie, to live with the material loss. Even more important, they had to live with the psychic pressures involved in being thought to be in a business which deserved no respect or protection.

Only one of the dangers was being caught, having one's books confiscated, and being fined or sent to prison. Another was having one's hot items pirated by other bookleggers. This was especially true if the book was notorious, such as Frank Harris's My Life and Loves. In the mid-twenties, admirers of Harris attempting to distribute the work in America enlisted the help of a Tammany Hall "fixer," and found out what "sharp" and "cut-throat" practices were all about.

Booksellers could expect little sympathy from the public or the authorities, for they were moral pariahs. Therefore vice-hunters could get away with using extra-legal measures to prevent them from the spread of "the virulence of sex." One resourceful erotica dealer, Samuel Roth, swears he was the victim of a "frame-up" devised by the chief smuthound of New York City, John Sumner, who gave one of Roth's colleagues a light sentence if he would smuggle erotica into Roth's bookstore so that police could find it there.

Erotica dealers were regarded as monopolizing a trade with fellow-ethnics, of controlling prices through an underground delivery system, of dealing unfairly with customers, and of being shrewdly manipulative while contributing nothing to the larger community whose morals and mores they were thought both to disdain, and to prey upon. Bigotry, fear, and prudery all palyed their parts in such an attitude. The truth was "bookleggers" dealt in, and transmitted the experience of, prurient fascination in a way essential to keep sexuality identified with the furtive and with guilt. Only people sophisticated in commercial enterprise, and at the same time endowed with pariah status, could do that.

Section Headings:
The Town Censor and Broadway Sam
The Smutmonger
The Ethnic Middleman
The Erotica Dealer's Modus Operandi
Erotica Dealers' Shrewdness, Objectivity, and Chutzpah
Political Vulnerability
The Pariah Capitalist as Indecent Parvenu

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chapter 2