restricted access Modernism and the Theater of Censorship (review)
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Reviewed by
Adam Parkes. Modernism and the Theater of Censorship. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. xii + 242 pp.

Modernism and the Theater of Censorship is a study of the encounters of several modernist novels (all written between 1914 and 1928) with official censorship. Beginning with a discussion of the tribulations of Oscar Wilde as background, the book includes individual chapters on D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (with a collateral discussion of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, which did not experience official censorship). These chapters include a number of readings of the texts involved, but they are primarily designed to trace the history of official censorship of these texts and to explore the implications of that history. The book includes a substantial amount of historical information about the charges that were leveled against specific texts as well [End Page 505] as documentation concerning actual legal proceedings. Meanwhile, it attempts to place the censorship of modernist texts within a broader historical context. In so doing, Parkes clearly wants to make a case for modernism as a subversive movement that was perceived as a threat to the status quo by government authorities in both the United States and Great Britain. In particular, Parkes argues that the texts he discusses were perceived as troubling because of the variety of fundamental challenges they posed to prevailing notions concerning gender roles and sexual behavior.

This focus on gender and sexuality, while allowing Parkes to support his arguments with substantial detail, is also a serious limitation. For example, while Parkes characterizes the period 1914–1928 as one of radical transformation in both British and American society, and while he makes occasional nods to World War I as a marker of this transformation, he shows no awareness whatsoever of the important role of economic and class issues in this transformation. There is no discussion of the astonishingly rapid rise of consumer capitalism in this period, no acknowledgment of the concomitant rise in discourses such as advertising, public relations, and popular culture, no exploration of the crucial importance of the threat of communism (except for one passing reference to characterizations of modernism as “literary Bolshevism”) to the mood of anxiety that was so prevalent in capitalist societies in this period. As a result, while Parkes clearly wants to historicize his findings, he leaves a number of crucial questions unanswered in this regard. For example, what was the relationship between anxieties over gender and sexuality and anxieties over the growing threat of working-class political power during this period? In addition, were explorations of new gender roles really subversive, or did they merely act to divert attention (and energy) away from the more genuinely subversive challenge of collective politics?

While Modernism and the Theater of Censorship provides important reminders of the once-embattled cultural position of modernist texts, its failure to engage issues such as class or colonialism seriously limits its usefulness as a contribution to cultural history. For example, Parkes usefully places the censorship campaigns he discusses within the context of early twentieth-century fears of degeneration, but does not seem aware of the central role played by stereotyping of both colonial [End Page 506] subjects and working-class subjects in the development of the discourse of degeneration. Similarly, Parkes frequently notes the traditional British tendency to associate transgressive sexuality (and pornographic representation of that sexuality) with France, but does not explore the important ways in which such associations are linked to the British anti-Jacobin frenzies of the early nineteenth century and ultimately to a general horror of mass political action. Meanwhile, in the case of Irish writers such as Joyce and Oscar Wilde, Parkes does not note the way in which these French connections are associated with a long Irish nationalist tradition of looking to France for support in their campaigns against the British. Indeed, Parkes shows no awareness whatsoever that Joyce is a colonial writer, and his failure to acknowledge trends toward such an awareness in recent Joyce scholarship is a major shortcoming that substantially limits his ability to understand what was truly subversive about...