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Publication Date

Summer 2011

Degree Type

Thesis - Campus Access Only

Degree Name

Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS)


Library and Information Science


Debra Hansen


Moral panics., Obscenity (Law) -- United States., Paperbacks -- Publishing -- United States -- History., Pornography -- United States., Publishers and publishing -- United States -- History -- 20th century., United States -- Politics and government -- 1945-1953.

Subject Areas

American history; American studies; History


Historians of the post-World War II United States usually present obscenity controversies as legal debates over freedom of expression, emphasizing constitutional issues rather than the social and cultural climate in which legal challenges took place. Particularly, historians have overlooked the 1952 Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials (Gathings Committee), which arose out of popular debates over obscenity and mass-market literature but resulted in no legal challenges. Informed by book history, sociology, and cultural studies, this study provides the first book-length analysis of the committee, using archival materials, government documents, and mass media to situate the committee within its historical context.

This thesis examines the three dominant factors that shaped the Gathings Committee's study of supposedly pornographic literature, and the committee's assessment of existing law to regulate obscene material. First, this study reviews book history to demonstrate that the modern paperback book industry destabilized traditional understandings of the book's role in society, precipitating controversies over the paperback's content and covers that ultimately lead to the creation of the committee. Second, this study explores moral crusades that attempted to impose community controls on so-called obscene literature. These crusades influenced the Gathings Committee's politics and its proposed reforms. Finally, this thesis studies postwar political culture, arguing that the politics of consensus and containment defined the committee's political parameters and ultimately limited the committee's ability to reform book publishing.


Winner of the SJSU Outstanding Thesis Award.