Joseph Mitchell (1908-1996) was an outstanding essayist whose subjects ranged from McSorley’s Old Ale House to the variety of rats entering New York City through the harbor to the Mohawks from Quebec who worked construction way up there where buildings scrape the sky. He specialized in profiles of unusual people, for instance, Joe Gould, the blue-blooded Yankee bohemian cadger who claimed to be writing “An Oral History of Our Time” — at a preliminary 9 million words perhaps “the lengthiest unpublished work in existence” — and to speak the language of sea gulls, which, arms flapping, he demonstrated publicly. Readers were drawn by the apparent oddity of Mitchell’s subjects but learned, as Mitchell intended, a broader humanity from reading about them.
Among the unusuals was Arthur Samuel Colborne, who founded the Anti-Profanity League in 1901 and was still its president on 26 April 1941, when Mitchell’s profile of him, titled “Mr. Colborne’s Profanity-Exterminators,” was published in The New Yorker. (It was re-titled “The Don’t-Swear Man” for Mitchell’s anthology Up in the Old Hotel .) When Mitchell meets him in “Shannon’s, an Irish saloon on the southeast corner of Third Avenue and Seventy-sixth Street,” Colborne is “a portly old man …. over six feet tall,” whose “eyes, behind steel-rimmed glasses, were clear and utterly honest.” The headquarters of the Anti-Profanity League and Colborne’s apartment — as with many a zealot, one and the same — were just around the corner, at 185 East Seventy-sixth. We know this because Mitchell visits him there — “‘If you’re looking for the don’t-swear man, he lives down in the basement,” a woman with a poodle explains — but also because the office address was included on every “profanity exterminator.”
The exterminators were “small, pale-pink” cards inscribed with the following message: “NEW HOPE FOR THE WORLD. GOD BLESS AMERICA AND OUR HOMES. HAVE NO SWEARING. BOYCOTT PROFANITY! PLEASE DO NOT SWEAR, NOR USE OBSCENE OR PROFANE LANGUAGE. THESE CARDS ARE FOR DISTRIBUTION. SEND FOR SOME — THEY ARE FREE.” And then the address. Colborne handed an exterminator to anyone he heard swear. He made up a large percentage of the league’s membership himself, though he did recruit others to distribute cards and help with “‘cleaning up profanity conditions,’” as he put it. When Mitchell asks whether Colborne “believed that there is less profanity now than in 1901,” Colborne replies enthusiastically: “‘Oh, my goodness, yes! … Sooner or later we’ll have it all eradicated.’” Looking back over the last 75 years — a period promiscuous with profanity — it seems unlikely.
In fact, Colborne’s optimism is reckless: he hopes to eradicate, not just the shit you’d expect, but also mild oaths and pretty much all euphemisms, too. When they first meet, Colborne hands Mitchell an exterminator because Mitchell, commenting on the weather, remarks to the bartender, “‘it’s one hell of a day.’” Colborne objects, Mitchell apologizes but asks, “‘only what makes you think “hell” is a profane word?’” Colborne agrees “‘it might not be one-hundred-per-cent profanity, but it’s a leader-on.’” Other leaders-on include devil take it, dad burn it, gee whiz, and doggone. And there you have it: “Profanity! Blasphemy! Evil tongues a-wagging and a-wagging! That’s why the world is headed for wrack and ruin.” Armed with exterminators, the Anti-Profanity League strove to save the world from bad language.
But if Colborne can’t control himself in the face of everyday adversity, how can he save the rest of us? Towards the end of the profile, he tells this story on himself:
I had written a whole lot of letters and I went to mail them. On the way I stopped at a grocery for a box of eggs, and I got to talking to the clerk about profanity. After a while I left the grocery, and I was crossing the street when I heard a cabdriver a-cussing at a truck-driver. I got out an exterminator and started over to the cabdriver, and just then the lights changed and he drove off, still a-cussing. He drove right past me and splashed some muddy water on my britches. It was very provoking! And when I got back to my door I found I had forgotten to mail my letters, and when I looked in my pocket for my keys I remembered I had left them on my desk. Well, I got so vexed I stomped my foot on the floor and the eggs fell down and broke all to pieces, and then I came right out and said it!
A classic moment of existential frustration, the kind that provokes son of a bitch or motherfucker from the usually mild-mannered and clean-spoken. “‘What did you say?’” Mitchell asks. “‘I said, the dickens!’” He was hoist on his own semi-expletive petard. Hand yourself an exterminator, Mr. Colborne!
Colborne thinks we should exterminate pesty speech, including words that remind us of the very possibility of profanity. But he’s not through and through anti-vice, just anti-profanity. Mitchell is amused because Colborne “was the first beer-drinking reformer [he] had ever encountered” — he finishes his beer with “a resounding smack of the lips” — and though the profile never addresses parallels between Prohibition and the extermination of profanity directly, they’re in the background.
The differences between Prohibition and Colborne’s extermination are morally important. We may agree that it’s in our interests when government says we can’t put certain substances in our bodies — heroin comes to mind, alcohol in the American 1920s. But what goes into Americans is quite different from what comes out of them, and the Constitution indirectly addresses the difference. Prohibition was stupid but it wasn’t unconstitutional, whereas speech — even profanity — is protected. Pass laws against the legal sale of alcoholic beverages, and I’ll tell you to fuck off as I drink bathtub gin. Infringe on my Constitution-given right to free expression, and I’ll just tell you to fuck off. We need profanity to speak our minds and express ourselves when other language won’t rise to the occasion. As Colborne repeats throughout the profile — it seems to be his rhetorical tic — “think it over.”
Attempts to eradicate profanity are probably futile. One doubts that handing out pale-pink cards to inveterate swearers will save the day, though handing them out insistently over decades is a bit heroic. At the end of the profile, Colborne tells Mitchell a joke. Two big turtles and a little turtle are drinking in a bar. It starts to rain, the big turtles want the little turtle to fetch their umbrellas, but the little turtle won’t do it unless the big turtles agree not to drink his beer. The big turtles agree, but a couple of months later, one says to the other, “‘If that little turtle doesn’t come back soon, I’m going to drink his beer.’ And just then, at the end of the bar, a tiny voice said, ‘If you do, I won’t go get your umbrellas.’” Mitchell doesn’t get the connection between the joke and exterminating profanity. “‘Slow but sure!’ Mr. Colborne said, laughing heartily and giving me a poke in the ribs with an index finger. ‘Slow but sure!’”
Anyway, it’s sure been slow.