My loving and tolerant wife abetted my addiction by taking me to Grey Matter/Troubadour Books (note that their Fall Sale will be Sept. 28-Oct. 1, and everything in the store will be 35% off — I encourage everyone in the area to take advantage of it); I was thrilled to learn from their website that “Grey Matter is now the proud owner of the remains of that legendary fishing destination of the wise, Gotham Book Mart” (where I spent a substantial amount of time and money in the 1980s), and when I got there I headed straight for the tables devoted to material from Gotham. One of the items I grabbed (for a dollar!) was the Dec. 1936 issue of Contemporary Poetry and Prose, a short-lived periodical edited by Roger Roughton (who apparently committed suicide in 1941, and has left little trace online); it promised poems by St.-J. Perse and Paul Eluard, among others, and a short story by Isaac Babel. Imagine my surprise when I turned to the appropriate page and found “With Our Father Makhno/ An Episode of the Russian Civil War/ by ISAAC BABEL/ (Translated from the Russian by George Reavey)”… followed by a page and a half of blank space. Since among the Announcements (which are an enjoyable read in themselves: “The Notes on Contributors have already been discontinued for some time, as they were usually made up at the last moment and did not contain much information anyway”) was the severe “It is hoped that there will not again be the long list of mistakes which appears in this last year’s numbers,” I thought perhaps it was the mother of all typos, but when I got home Google Books found this editorial in the next issue, which cleared it all up:

                CENSORED !

On page 143 of CONTEMPORARY POETRY AND PROSE NO. 8 (Dec. 1936), there appeared, as announced, the heading of a short story, WITH OUR FATHER MAKHNO, by Isaac Babel, the famous soviet author. But alas, beneath the title and the translator’s name was an alarming, or ridiculous, blank. Two explanations, both somewhat unjust to the editor, were generally offered: one was simply that the text of the story was left out by mistake; the other was that it was just a 1920ish joke. Now there have been one or two rather odd mistakes in past numbers, due perhaps to the blue-eyed view of the paper taken by the stolid, peasant-like printers, but even they could not accept two blank pages without comment. As for the joke theory, Dadaism has never shown its anti-clockwise face in other numbers.

No, the text of Babel’s story had been quite consciously removed, not by order of the Lord Chamberlain or the editor, but by the printers. For perhaps many people do not know that most of the censorship in this country is carried out by the solicitors whom all large printers must keep; and this must be so, as long as the censorship laws are as violent, ignorant, unjust and immoral as they are now. Censorship is not a matter of commonsense; no layman can decide what is likely to meet with disfavour. In this case, after having previously ‘passed’ the story, the lawyer decided, when the whole edition was on the press and nearly due out, that WITH OUR FATHER MAKHNO was ‘doubtful’ and must be removed. There was no time to alter the cover announcement, the contents page or the index, and there was no suitable substitute piece of that length on hand. So the only thing to do was to leave the blank there, and hope that readers would recognise the innocence of the editor and the iniquity of the censorship laws — which very few did!

It goes on to give another example of infuriating censorship, and says “It is very doubtful whether moral censorship is defensible at all: although aimed against pornography, it seems to have had little success there, and otherwise the application of the law has been memorable chiefly for its abuse.” To which one can only heartily agree. It’s hard to remember in these loosey-goosey times what things were like for writers and publishers in the bad old days.


  1. In the UK these are still the bad old days: every publication hires a lawyer to censor it, not for dangerous political speech, but for libel. Things are changing, but not fast enough.

  2. Babel’s story (very short, 520 words) is not political, it’s somewhat graphic. I searched for English translation and found only a copyrighted version and, well, maybe if I have spare 2 hours, I can try myself, later.

  3. This is hardly an adequate job on my part. But you’ll get the gist.

    EDIT: I cannot edit my previous comment anymore. Mentally correct obvious infelicities.

  4. Censored again! Poor old Babel.

  5. Ha!

  6. The Russian, by the way, is «У батьки нашего Махно»; it’s available, for instance, here.

  7. In Peter Constantine’s translation (discussed here previously), it’s “Makhno’s Boys.”

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