Obscenity trials are obscene in and of themselves, especially when it comes to books. The idea of narrowing the scope of literature is absurd. It typically refuses to invite in anything ugly, but the ugly is part of living and that’s often what books teach us.
Plus, it’s like, come on, man: You really think some kid will pick up Ulysses, have any idea what the hell is going on and just start destroying everything around him? Out of anger and confusion over the impossibly complex syntax, possibly — but not because there’s a jerk-off scene in chapter 13.
While this list isn’t comprehensive, here are 10 standout books that stood trial:
1. Naked Lunch
Excerpts from Naked Lunch by William Burroughs first appeared in two literary journals, including the Chicago Review. When the journal made its way through the mail, a U.S.P.S. Judicial Officer seized all copies, remarking that Burroughs’s work was “undisciplined prose, far more akin to the early work of experimental adolescents than to anything of literary merit.” (What is an experimental adolescent? A pre-teen who performs experiments or an adolescent that magically appears as the result of an experiment? I hope the latter.)
This led to an obscenity trial in 1962 that confirmed the book’s offensiveness on the grounds that it discussed pedophilia and child murder. That decision was overturned four years later in an appeal that included testimony from Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg.
2. The Song of the Red Ruby
Few writers on this list had their careers ruined due to obscenity trials, except for Agnar Mykle, a Norwegian novelist and journalist. Mykle’s third novel The Song of the Red Ruby did him in. The narrative follows protagonist Ask Burlefoot through his first year of study at the Bergen School of Economics and occasionally details his sexual exploits, which was enough to put Mykle and his publisher on trial.
When all was said and done, both parties were acquitted, but Mykle suffered long-term damage. Publishers across Norway didn’t want to touch Mykle’s subsequent manuscripts, and in 1966, he filed for bankruptcy. Perhaps it was a bit of cosmic punishment for Mykle’s famous arrogance, as he claimed himself to be “the greatest writer in the world” upon his acquittal.
In 1921, a young girl had gotten her hands on a copy of The Little Review, a literary magazine that was in the midst of serializing Joyce’s masterwork. The issue in question featured Episode 13 of Ulysses, otherwise known as “Nausicaa,” in which the book’s protagonist, Leopold Bloom, masturbates. This scene scandalized the girl, and her parents filed a complaint with the Manhattan D.A. The court ruled in the girl’s favor, and The Little Review publishers were each fined $50.
In 1933, Random House acquired the rights to the novel, and when it made its way across the pond, it was seized by customs. Random House’s lawyer, Morris Ernst, pulled some strings to get the case heard by Judge John Woolsey, a known bibliophile. Woolsey ruled that the book was not obscene but actually “sincere and honest.” This case is significant as it set some precedents — most importantly that a work cannot be dubbed obscene based solely on an excerpt and must be considered in its full context.
4. God’s Little Acre
For nearly 50 years, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice stayed busy attempting to keep sexually explicit artwork out of the mainstream. They were successful early on, forcing Theodore Dreiser’s The Genius off of bookshelves. They also convinced the N.Y.P.D. to arrest Mae West for her Broadway show, Sex; West spent 10 days in jail.
One of the society’s less successful efforts regarded Erskine Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre. While the book deals mainly with the struggles of the southern proletariat, a few stray sex scenes were enough to bring the novel to trial. Caldwell won out in the end, and when he was questioned during the proceedings about the book’s obscenity, he said God’s Little Acre was “no more obscene than the truth.”
5. Slaughterhouse-Five, The Naked Ape, Down These Mean Streets, Go Ask Alice, Black Boy, A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich, Soul on Ice, Best Short Stories of Negro Writers and The Fixer
In 1976, all of these titles were pulled from library shelves across schools in the Island Trees School District in Long Island, and in response, Steven Pico, then a senior at Island Trees High School, filed a lawsuit with four other classmates against the Board of Education. Pico made the official lawsuit announcement with his classmates in baller fashion: a press conference with Kurt Vonnegut sitting beside them in solidarity (and chain smoking). The county Board of Education had claimed that the books in question were “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy.” The suit dragged on for nearly six years, but in 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Pico’s favor.
6. Invisible Man
The Randolph County Board of Education voted this past September (yep, in 2013) in a 5-2 decision to ban Ralph Ellison’s classic novel of racial and individual identity, Invisible Man. The novel wasn’t even required reading, but a summer reading option for rising high school juniors — in fact, Invisible Man had been on that list at Randolph County’s High School for six years. But a parent filed a complaint, claiming the book wasn’t appropriate for teens and that “School libraries are not public libraries.” (Yes, they are.) Thankfully, a torrent of angry emails and a blitz of widespread coverage prompted the board to reverse their decision just nine days later, in a 6-1 vote.
7. Forever Amber
After its publication in 1944, 14 U.S. states sought to ban Kathleen Winsor’s tale of a woman’s sexual exploits in 17th century England. The Massachusetts Attorney General went through the book and catalogued all the so-called illicit scenes and references, and came up with this fine list: 70 sexual intercourses references, 39 pregnancies out of wedlock, 7 abortions and 10 instances of women disrobing in front of dudes.
The book was banned initially (but later overturned) despite expert 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 behavior.”
8. Lady Chatterly’s Lover
Several countries attempted to ban D.H. Lawrence’s work on the grounds that the adultery depicted in the book was truly obscene. While censored versions had existed publicly since the late 1920s, it wasn’t until 1959 when an uncensored version appeared. This prompted the book’s first obscenity trial in the United Kingdom and led to others in America, Australia, Canada, Japan and India. In most cases, publishers won out — except in Australia, where not only was the novel banned, a book about the U.K. trial called The Trial of Lady Chatterly also became blacklisted.
9. Howl and Other Poems
The obscenity trial for Allen Ginsberg's first book of collected poetry came about due to its unapologetic rawness with lines about people “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy.” After a U.S. Customs seizure, City Lights Books publishers Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Shigeyosi Murao were arrested by the San Francisco police.
The trial was long and highly publicized, but ultimately City Lights won out, the judge remarking that words in isolation could not alone be obscene and that the material as a whole was neither “erotic or aphrodisiac.”
10. Tropic of Cancer
It took 30 years for Henry Miller’s 1934 masterpiece to legally find its way to American bookshelves. The first printing shipped from France was immediately seized by customs. Smuggled copies were then sold stealthily at Gotham Book Mart in midtown Manhattan; the booksellers were eventually found out, which led to another seizure.
In 1961, Grove Press bought the American rights and published Tropic of Cancer — only to be hit with over 60 obscenity lawsuits across 21 states. Finally, the book ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court in Grove Press, Inc. v. Gerstein, from which the ban was overturned.
It might be stating the obvious, but what all these trials share is fear. However, the fear isn’t necessarily of literature having enough power to corrupt impressionable minds. Really, it is a fear of confrontation, of engaging with the darker recesses of our minds and of our histories. But here’s what I have to say to that: Fuck that stupid ass cock-sucking bullshit right in the mouth. Tits.
This coverage of obscene literature is brought to you by Clementine Classics: Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, the first installment in the Clementine Classics e-book series from Black Balloon Publishing.
Sometimes reading the classics is a chore, but not so with the snarky annotations by Clementine the Hedgehog. Having made her debut as a weekly book reviewer of note on Tumblr in 2012, Clem now takes on Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. On each page, she inserts her keen insights, dark sense of humor and cut-the-crap commentary.
Clementine Classics is a new series from Black Balloon Publishing that gives classic works of literature the contemporary annotations they deserve. Obsessed, possessed and thoroughly distressed by the originals, today's writers riff, rant, praise and flay these old books, giving them new life. The series' beautifully designed e-books are both an act of sincere literary criticism and a new, composite form of humor writing.
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