Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex and vital. –Oscar Wilde, excerpted from the preface to ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’.
Through the ages books have been banned for various reasons. One of the main reasons is perceived obscenity. Let us take a look at some of the more well-known books that went on trial for obscenity.
I think at that time, in my teens, my taste in books was rather eclectic. Or shall I say experimental? I was into Harold Robbins (The Carpetbaggers, The Adventurers, A Stone For Danny Fisher), Jacquelline Susan (Valley of The Dolls, Once Is Not Enough, The Love Machine)… if you get the drift.
This is why I was curious when I heard that the book Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D H Lawrence (‘Life is ours to be spent, not to be saved’) had been banned at one time and had gone on an obscenity trial.
I can’t remember how the book fell into my hands but I think I scanned through the book for obvious reasons (and was sorely disappointed)!
So what was it about Lady Chatterley’s Lover that was considered obscene?
It was because somebody felt that the adultery depicted in the book was obscene. Oliver Mellors is the lover in the book’s title. He is aloof, sarcastic, intelligent and noble. He was born near Wragby and worked as a blacksmith until he ran off to the army to escape an unhappy marriage. Was it a case of class distinction in England of those times?
This resulted in the book’s first obscenity trial in the United Kingdom and led to others in America, Australia, Canada, Japan and even India. You’ll be surprised to know that the ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover was lifted in England in 1960. But the book remained banned in India till 2010!
Which brings me to Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller. Tropic of Cancer is a cocktail of Miller’s memoirs and fiction, ‘which chronicles with unapologetic gusto the bawdy adventures of a young expatriate writer, his friends, and the characters they meet in Paris in the 1930s’.
I discovered Miller when I was in college. I can’t remember which was the first book of Miller’s that I read. I think it was Sexus, the first in the Rosy Crucifixion trilogy that included Plexus and Nexus.
Miller had a liberating influence on me in that he could dunk me to the depths of depravity and raise me to heights of spiritual ecstasy.
Tropic of Cancer was banned in the USA as obscene after its first publication in Paris in 1934. The ban was finally lifted in 1964 after a Florida case made its way to the U. S. Supreme Court, which ruled that Tropic of Cancer may be legally sold and distributed throughout the United States. It was a historic court ruling because it changed American censorship standards. It brought in a new era of freedom and frankness in modern literature. Today, the book is considered, as Norman Mailer said, “One of the ten or twenty great novels of our century.”
The obscenity trial came about due to the rawness with lines about people “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy.”
James Joyce’s Ulysses happened to me much later. Joyce was an Irish novelist, short story writer, poet, teacher, and literary critic. He is considered a major contributor to the modernist avant-garde movement in literature. He is best known for Ulysses (1922), a landmark work in which the episodes of Homer’s Odyssey are paralleled in a variety of literary styles, most famously stream of consciousness.
Other well-known works are the short-story collection Dubliners (1914), and the novels, A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man (1916) and Finnegans Wake (1939). (Here I have a confession to make. I managed to read Ulysses. But Finnegan’s Wake was beyond my limited intelligence and unlimited ignorance.) The point is that Ulysses was also banned.
The reason for the ban on Ulysses is interesting.
In 1921, a young girl was reading a copy of The Little Review, a literary magazine, which was serialising Joyce’s masterwork. The issue featured Episode 13 of Ulysses, known as “Nausicaa”. Here, the protagonist of the book, Leopold Bloom, masturbates. The girl was scandalised (remember the movie Veere di Wedding?!). The upshot was that the girl’s parents filed a complaint with the Manhattan D.A. The ruling was in the girl’s favour. The publishers of The Little Review were each fined $50.
In 1933, the rights to the book were acquired by Random House. When it came to the USA it was seized by the customs. Random House’s lawyer, Morris Ernst, managed to get the case heard by Judge John Woolsey, a lover of books. Woolsey ruled that the book was not obscene. In fact, he said the book was “sincere and honest.” This case was significant as it set a precedent: namely that a work cannot be dubbed obscene based only on an excerpt; it had to be considered in its full context.
Then there is the case of Allen Ginsberg’s first book of collected poetry. The book jacket says: “Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems was originally published by City Lights Books in the Fall of 1956. Subsequently seized by U.S. customs and the San Francisco police, it was the subject of a long court trial at which a series of poets and professors persuaded the court that the book was not obscene. Howl and Other Poems is the single most influential poetic work of the post-World War II era, with over 1,000,000 copies now in print.”
Ultimately, City Lights won. The judge observed that words in isolation could not alone be obscene and that the material, as a whole, was neither “erotic nor aphrodisiac.”
The obscenity trial came about due to the rawness with lines about people “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy.” A U.S. Customs seizure of the book led to City Lights Books publishers Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Shigeyosi Murao being arrested by the San Francisco police.
The trial went on for long and got a lot of publicity. Ultimately, City Lights won. The judge observed that words in isolation could not alone be obscene and that the material, as a whole, was neither “erotic nor aphrodisiac.”
Kathleen Winsor’s book, Forever Amber, became another cause celebre. It is a historical romance set in 17th-century England. It is about the protagonist ‘Clare, who makes her way up the ranks of 17th-century English society by sleeping with or marrying, successively, richer and more important men while keeping her love for the one man she can never have.’
Post its publication in 1944, 14 U.S. states wanted to ban the book. The story goes that the Massachusetts Attorney General scanned the book and noted all the so-called illicit scenes and references: 70 sexual intercourse references, 39 pregnancies out of wedlock, 7 abortions and 10 instances of women disrobing in front of guys.
The book was banned initially in spite of testimony from Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic and Harvard University Professor Howard Mumford Jones, who claimed the book didn’t alter his “standards of right and wrong with respect to sexual behaviour.”
Kathleen Winsor was 24 when Forever Amber, her first novel, was published. When she learned the Australian Government had banned the book she retorted, ‘I don’t care whether Senator Keane likes my book or not…Apparently he does not like English history…I don’t make English history. The English did it first. I only wrote about it.’
Three million copies of Forever Amber sold after its publication in November 1944 and the novel became a blockbuster in 16 countries.
Forever Amber was removed from the Commonwealth list of prohibited imports in 1958.
We like to believe that we live in a free and permissive society. Are we really free when it comes to something as basic as a book? I believe books are a reflection of the zeitgeist.
Then again, ‘O tempora o mores.’ (This is a Latin term that literally translates as ‘Oh, the times!’ It is used as an exclamation of despair at prevailing social or political norms.)
(N V Krishnakumar has been an advertising professional for the last four decades. He loves reading and writing. Views are personal.)