Freedom from the Press
by Ellis Parker Butler
One naturally expects ten years to make quite a difference in manners and customs, so I was not surprised -- when I returned from my enforced retirement in Patagonia, which had lasted from 1920 to 1930 -- to find alcohol, tobacco, the movies, tea, coffee and dancing prohibited absolutely. Nor was I much amazed to find that the Old Women's Mind-Other-People's-Business Union had succeeded in having amendments to the Constitution passed prohibiting song and music. I well remembered the time when I had a neighbor who thought he was learning to play on a b-flat cornet, and I could see the righteousness of prohibiting instrumental music. I remembered, too, the days when I had a cook who constantly yowled a song that began:
"Me mother was a dear old thing,
But father was a shoat;
His wages home to her he'd bring
But he would not let her vote."
The verse was not so bad, for Bridget would sing it in that tender Irish minor key that is so touchingly sweet. But when she came to the chorus she bore down on the loud pedal, so to speak, and beat time on the kitchen table with the rolling-pin. I remember that the verse ended with a wail of "And she thus to him did say-ya-yay --" and that the chorus was:
"Out -- out -- out o' me house!
Fer this ye kin go t' Hay-dees!"
Me mother to me father said
As she soaked him a good one on th' head:
"What -- what -- what d'ye mean
By refusin' votes to ladies?"
At times Bridget was able to obtain a flask of ripe old rye, and when this was the case she cared little whether the kitchen table was loaded with our best china or not when she beat time on it with the rolling-pin, so I was not, greatly against the prohibition of alcohol and song. The world must move forward.
I had been back in the United States some two weeks, taking my ease with my family connections, and was sojourning with Cousin Bildad Blootz, in New Jersey, when I felt that I had sponged on him long enough and that I must go to work and be self-supporting again.
"I think I have loafed long enough, Bildad," I said. "Tomorrow I mean to go over to New York and buy a typewriter -- if you will lend me the money -- and get to work. During my stop in Patagonia I had time to think up the plots for two or three excellent novels and a couple of hundred short stories. If I can sell these to some magazine and then have them published in book form --"
To my surprise and horror Bildad -- who is usually a gentleman -- leaped at me and grasped my Adam's apple between his thumb and forefinger, choking me until I was blue in the face. Not until I was quite limp and lax did he desist. Then, while I gasped for breath, he closed and locked the door, lowered the window blinds, and stopped the electric fan.
"My goodness gracious!" he brutally exclaimed, when he had taken these precautions against our voices being heard by any one outside the room. "Lands, but you gave me a shock! Don't you know that the Eighty-Eighth Amendment prohibits all writing of fiction, and that the Bullstead Law makes the discussion of the subject a penal offence?"
"No! does it? Do they?" I asked, massaging the front of my neck tenderly. "Why do they?"
He stared at me pityingly, and shook his head.
"All I got to say," he whispered, "is that that there Patagonia where you've been must be a queer sort of place. You don't mean to say they have magazines there still, do you? And books? And -- say! if that's the sort of place it is I'll bet they have newspapers, too."
"They do," I said. "Don't you have them here?"
"My gracious, no!" Cousin Bildad exclaimed in his coarse way. "I should think not! Why -- people used to enjoy newspapers. They used to read them. I tell you, it's mighty lucky you came here before you went around talking books and magazines and newspapers broadcast! Why, do you know what the magazines used to print? Fiction stories! Yes, sir, lies, invented by authors. Tales about things that never happened. Lies, b'gosh! And lyin' is a sin. You remember old Sile Whiggs?"
"Used to be so fond of Jersey lightning?"
"Yes. Used to load up and lay under a tree and just dream and grin. Well, sir, prohibition took his apple-jack from him and what did he do? Took to readin' the Saturday Evening Post, and Century, and Judge, and one thing and another. Fiction stories -- lies. Worse 'n' alcohol. Alcohol turned his brain blue with pink spots. Fiction stories made it soft, like mush 'n' milk. Old Sile got so he never thought of a spade as a spade -- thought of it as the dingus Cap. Kidd used to bury gold with. Got so he never thought of a woman as a votin' animal -- thought of her as some gol-dinged dainty critter to be loved and won and romanced over. Yes, by heck! they caught him gettin' up to give a female his seat in a street car once! He got six months in jail for that, and served him right."
Bildad waggled his straw-colored chin whisker viciously.
"Us that was keen sighted seen long ago that printed stuff would have to be prohibited, sooner or later," he went on. "It's like booze, only worse. Lifts a man out'n hisself when he's blue and keyed low. Gives him wrong ideas of folks and things. Makes weak folks feel happier and all. So we up and prohibited all fiction magazines and fiction books. Then we seen that fast as a fact-book is printed out, some feller comes along with a new fact-book and proves the old one was all lies. So we up and prohibited all fact-books. And the newspapers wa'n't nothing but a pack o' lies anyway, so we up and prohibited them. There ain't none no more."
"But I thought the newspapers were only reporters of facts," I said mildly.
"No such thing!" said Cousin Bildad angrily. "All you had to do was ask the very folks that read them. Any Republican would tell you in a minute that every Demmycrat newspaper was a pack of lies, and every Demmycrat would tell you that every Republican newspaper wa'n't nothin' but a heap o' falsehoods. So we passed a law and prohibited 'em. And we done a good job, too. We prohibited printin' presses whilst we was about it."
This news was quite a blow to me. Being a fiction writer I had counted on the press to supply me with an income for my modest needs. As cousin Bildad went on telling of the splendid work that had been done -- how the libraries had been gutted and the books all burned, how houses had been raided and the old newspapers taken from under the carpets and off the pantry shelves, and how every effort had been made to make the world safe against reading -- I became more and more disheartened.
"This is bad!" I said. "This is awful! How am I to make a living?"
"Well, I don't want to nose into your affairs," Bildad said, "but I don't see what you can do unless you get right to work and start in at the job all the rest of us has took up. Sort of look around for somethin' that ain't been prohibited yet and start a society to have it prohibited. There ain't much left, but you might find somethin' that ain't been prohibited. Just now I'm workin' to have an amendment to the Constitution passed prohibitin' folks from sleepin' on their left sides. It ain't good for the heart. It throws the hull weight of the body on top of the heart, so to speak, and lowers vitality durin' the night. Result is that a pusson feels better when he gets out of bed in the mornin', and it ain't right that a feller should feel better one time than another. He might as well take a cocktail or a snifter or somethin'."
"But, great Scott!" I cried, "the whole world can't exist by running societies to prohibit the rest of the world from doing things!"
"I'd like to know why they can't," said Bildad. "They are."
"And you mean to say that is what you have been doing all these last years?" I asked.
"Sure!" he said. "Everybody's been doin' it. You ain't been 'round much, I guess, or you'd know it. Ain't seen the medal I got for puttin' through the Amendment to the Constitution prohibitin' the use of the letter G -- big G and little g both? Sure I did. Lots of folks calls that Amendment the Blootz Amendment, after me. I started in on it as soon as printin' presses and printin' was prohibited. 'What's the use of the alphabet?' I said to myself: 'What's the use of it if printin' is prohibited? It only incites folks to law-breakin'. So my first notion was to git the hull alphabet prohibited, but that looked like too big a job for me to tackle right then. So I picked on G. I picked on G, seein' I wasn't usin' G much myself. That's the first rule in this prohibition business: prohibit somethin' you don't want to use yourself but that somebody else wants to use."
"And you got G prohibited?" I asked.
"You bet I did!" boasted Bildad. " There was a few that howled that folks ought to be allowed pussonal liberty to use G or not to use it, but we trompled right over them. We prohibited G. And then we went for B. We got B prohibited, too. We've got fifteen of the alphabet letters prohibited now -- B-C-D-F-G-J-K-P-Q-S-V-W-S-Y and Z."
I had jotted these down as Bildad named them. Suddenly a great idea came to me.
"I have it!" I cried eagerly. "I know what I shall do, Bildad! If what you say is true there are still eleven letters of the alphabet not prohibited by amendments to the Constitution of the United States -- A-E-H-I-L-M-N-O-R-T and U. There is my life work! From now on I work to have those letters prohibited."
Bildad, who had looked up eagerly at my first words, shook his head sadly.
"It can't be did," he said. "If them letters could be prohibited I'd have had them all prohibited before now. There ain't no chance to prohibit them letters. Them letters is sacred. Them letters is needed to spell out the new motto of the United Prohibited States of America."
"Which is?" I asked.
"'I am holier than thou.'" said Cousin Bildad.