Banned Books Week (September 25-October 1, 2016) is being celebrated by librarians, teachers and readers all across the country. This week represents a time to reflect on issues of censorship and challenges to academic freedom. Visitors to the reading room at Hill Memorial Library are invited to view a selection of materials from the recently processed John Earle Uhler Papers which tell the story of a colorful incident that took place in 1931.
On September 22, 1931, LSU English professor John Earle Uhler published a novel titled Cane Juice: A Story of Southern Louisiana. The book detailed the experiences of Bernard Couvillon, a student hailing from Lafourche Parish, who works in the sugar industry and attends LSU, where he has a difficult time adjusting to an unfamiliar lifestyle and traditions.
The attention surrounding the book quickly expanded beyond its merit after a Catholic priest at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Baton Rouge, F.J. Gassler, publicly attacked it, writing that Uhler’s “whole being seems to be steeped in the miasmas of the crassest materialism,” and describing the novel as “a monstrous slander on the purest womanhood to be found in the United States” and “an insult to the intelligence of Louisiana’s Creole inhabitants.” He sent this criticism to numerous high profile citizens in the state, including Governor Huey Long and LSU President, James Monroe Smith.
Uhler issued a formal statement defending his writing – and his character – and accused Father Gassler of misconstruing his intent. Yet in early October, after denying an announcement by President Smith that he had, in fact, resigned, Uhler was suspended from the faculty at LSU. This decision stood in contrast to earlier reactions to the book, which had included an Advocate headline describing Cane Juice as a “Tribute to [the] University.”
LSU Special Collections also holds a copy of the novel that Uhler had given to Huey Long at the time of publication. Inside, a hand written message reads “with hearty wishes for a successful career in the United States Senate and a still more successful campaign for the Presidency of the United States and with profound admiration for his fighting spirit and ability to achieve.”
Although Governor Long was not directly responsible for Uhler’s suspension, he served as ex-officio chairman of LSU’s executive committee, giving him clear influence over the situation. Newspaper reports at the time suggested that Long was motivated by a desire to increase support among his Catholic constituency, particularly while in the midst of power struggles with Lieutenant Governor Paul Cyr.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the American Association of University Professors quickly took up Uhler’s case, issuing a nationwide call for support. Stories about the case appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country. Other writers, including Sinclair Lewis, sent letters to President Smith on Uhler’s behalf, and the former professor also received vocal support from students on campus who disagreed with both the dismissal and Gassler’s assessment of Cane Juice.
The ACLU proposed a lawsuit against LSU to claim Uhler’s remaining salary for the year. A formal statement from the organization read, in part, “We are concerned only with the issue of academic freedom involved in the right of any professor to publish his views in any form he desires, and at the same time to remain secure in his job. Only that liberty of thought and action can give security and dignity to university teaching.”
The events that followed are less clear, but the lawsuit was dropped after the school agreed to pay Uhler’s salary. Six months later, in April of 1932, he was reinstated to the faculty, with President Smith concluding that, “the period of removal from the faculty has been sufficient and Dr. Uhler’s conduct during that period has been such as to justify his reinstatement.” The entire episode quickly faded from memory, although Professor Uhler would again find himself engaged in controversy when he supported the suspension of The Southern Review in the 1940s.
If you are interested in learning more about this incident or seeing Professor Uhler’s papers, the finding aid can be viewed here.