SLIS Student Wins San Jose State University’s Outstanding Thesis Award

CIRI Blog

Published: April 24, 2012 by Dr. Linda Main

SLIS Student John Tilney’s thesis titled Containing Obscenity: The Gathings Committee, Moral Crusades, and Paperback Books won the University’s 2012 Outstanding Thesis Award. His faculty advisor was Dr. Debbie Hansen who provided the following summary.

Containing Obscenity explores the growth and impact of the paperback book industry in postwar America. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War and an increasingly repressive social and political climate, this thesis examines the production, content, and popularity of paperback books, particularly pulp fiction with racy content and suggestive covers. After discussing the emergence and operation of this new print genre, Tilney considers the growing hostility toward these books, particularly among women’s clubs, parent-teacher associations, religious organizations, and local authorities. Responding to this moral panic, the US House of Representatives in 1952 established the Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials (popularly known as the Gathings Committee ) to investigate the threat paperback books posed to the nation’s health and security and to develop strategies for regulating them. After chronicling the Gathings Committee’s activities and findings, Tilney describes the vigorous opposition that the committee encountered from publishers, editors, and journalists. Tilney concludes that American traditions of free speech and free enterprise ultimately prevented the Gathings Committee from endorsing outright censorship or proposing restrictive legislation.

John Tilney’s thesis is distinguished for several reasons. First is the extensive original research he conducted into the 1950s moral crusades against the paperback industry. This entailed traveling to Arkansas and New York, where he examined, respectively, the E. C. Gathings Papers at Central Arkansas University and the Records of New American Library (a branch of the British Penguin Books) at NYU. In addition to these archival sources, Tilney consulted the Gatherings Committee’s published reports and intensively mined additional government documents relating to publishing and censorship more generally. Tilney also immersed himself in the books and magazines of the period to analyze firsthand paperbacks’ content and design and the popular response to them. As his footnotes and bibliography amply document, Tilney’s historical narrative and analysis are rooted in this impressive original research.

Tilney’s thesis is also noteworthy because of its solid grounding in previous scholarship and its contribution to current historical debates. Reading extensively in the historical and theoretical literature on 1950s politics and popular culture, as well as in the history of US publishing and censorship, Tilney presents a sophisticated, critical analysis of the meaning of the crusade against paperback books and its implications for understanding the McCarthy era. The thesis also draws upon the sociological theory of moral panics which posits that popular crusades are often fueled by perceived threats against the social order. In this case, according to Tilney, Cold War anxiety found expression in the publicss seemingly irrational fear of paperback books. Finally, and most important, Contesting Obscenity makes a significant contribution to the literature on the history of books and publishing in America. As the first researcher to be given access to the Gathings papers at Central Arkansas University, Tilney’s thesis affords the initial in-depth analysis of the committee?s work. This thesis is also unique in its use of print culture to elucidate the theoretical construct of moral panics. As Tileny observes in the conclusion, his thesis ?shows how the cultural and political anxieties of an era are simultaneously reflected by books and are projected onto books themselves. It exposes the extent to which a cultural medium like the book can stir not just controversy and moral outrage, but also social movements for reform.

Finally, and most important, Contesting Obscenity makes a significant contribution to the literature on the history of books and publishing in America. As the first researcher to be given access to the Gathings papers at Central Arkansas University, Tilney’s thesis affords the initial in-depth analysis of the committee’s work. This thesis is also unique in its use of print culture to elucidate the theoretical construct of moral panics. As Tileny observes in the conclusion, his thesis shows how the cultural and political anxieties of an era are simultaneously reflected by books and are projected onto books themselves. It exposes the extent to which a cultural medium like the book can stir not just controversy and moral outrage, but also social movements for reform. Finally, Tilney’s finding that the combined pressure from publishers and the press prevented Congress from acceding to popular demands to censor paperback books has important implications both for American political history and contemporary politics.