60th Anniversary of the Howl Verdict

Today is an historic day.  The 60th anniversary of the landmark Free Speech verdict. On this day in 1957, Judge Clayton Horn declared that “Howl” was not obscene.

As he announced:

“I do not believe that “Howl” is without redeeming social importance. The first part of “Howl” presents a picture of a nightmare world; the second part is an indictment of those elements in modern society destructive of the best qualities of human nature; such elements are predominantly identi­fied as materialism, conformity, and mechanization leading toward war. The third part presents a picture of an individual who is a specific representation of what the author conceives as a general condition.”

Horn goes on to acknowledge the subjective nature of obscenity laws:

“No hard and fast rule can be fixed for the determination of what is obscene, because such determination depends on the locale, the time, the mind of the community and the prevailing mores. Even the word itself has had a chameleon-like history through the past, and as Mr. Justice [Holmes] said: “A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged. It is the skin of living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used.”

Applying this logic to “Howl,” he writes:

“There are a number of words used in “Howl” that are presently considered coarse and vulgar in some circles of the community; in other circles such words are in everyday use. It would be unrealistic to deny these facts. The author of “Howl” has used those words because he believed that his portrayal required them as being in character. The People state that it is not necessary to use such words and that others would be more palatable to good taste. The answer is that life is not encased in one formula whereby everyone acts the same or conforms to a particular pattern. No two persons think alike; we were all made from the same mold but in different patterns. Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemism? An author should be real in treating his subject and be allowed to express his thoughts and ideas in his own words”.

For a full and comprehensive account of the trial  (freedom of speech, never more crucial) we strongly recommend you read Bill Morgan and Nancy J Peters 2006 book from City Lights, Howl on Trial 

& see also (from some years later) Katherine Duckworth’s review of the book on Abandon All Despair Ye Who Enter Here, the City Lights blog.

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