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Reviewed by:
Florence Dore. The Novel and the Obscene: Sexual Subjects in American Modernism. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2005. xii + 167 pp.

Conventional wisdom suggests that modernist writers were crusaders against Victorian prudery who took advantage of new legal standards that fortified free speech and relaxed the grip of censorship to write with unprecedented frankness about sexuality and its central place in human affairs. Not so, argues Florence Dore in her study of four canonical American modernist novels. Acknowledging the modernist desire to "represent characters as sexual" (1), Dore nevertheless points to "a resonant silence at the heart of the modernist American novel" (2) that takes the form of "a negative mode of narrative representation" that in effect "reproduces censorship" on sexual matters, "render[ing] it symbolic at the very moment of its legal demise." Widely acclaimed as "inaugural" works exploring "distinct and paradigmatic version[s] of illicit sexual desire: feminine, homosexual, masculine, and interracial" (7), Dreiser's Sister Carrie, Cather's The Professor's House, Faulkner's Sanctuary, and Wright's Native Son actually present protagonists "whose sexuality is censored by virtue of a model of subjectivity that erases that sexuality" and construes desire "as a prohibited, negative aspect of civic identity" (7–8). What is more, the social agenda of these novels, their attack on Victorian mores, is further compromised by their indebtedness to "a phallic sexual logic" that reinscribes domestic gender conventions of "feminine chastity and masculine sexual aggression" (4–5). We applaud these novels for ushering in a new era of openness in literature, but it turns out, according to Dore, that they were only doing the censor in different voices.

As Dore explains, a similar irony pervades obscenity law itself during this period. Between 1868 and 1933, US case laws turned to a British precedent, Queen v. Hicklin, for its model of obscenity. Hicklin defined obscenity as the potential to "corrupt those whose minds are open to . . . immoral influences" (qtd. in Dore 12). Dore [End Page 898] unpacks the phallic logic at work in this definition; obscenity is what results when "immorality," an invasive masculine force, penetrates "minds" feminized as innocent yet susceptible, "open" (25–26). In 1933, however, Judge John M. Woolsey's opinion in U.S. v. One Book Called "Ulysses" introduced a new standard in which a text would be considered obscene only if it incited "lustful thoughts" in a "person of average sex instinct" (qtd. in Dore 12). On the one hand, notes Dore, the new standard represented a "turn toward sexual frankness" in its explicit acknowledgment "that legal subjects are sexual" beings whose "instincts" are an ordinary human endowment rather than the product of corrupting outside influences (12). On the other hand, once aroused by textual provocation, these same ordinary desires and impulses become illicit, flaring up into the "lustful thoughts" that indicate the presence of the obscene. The result, writes Dore, is the classic double-bind of modern obscenity law, "an erasure of sexuality at the moment of its recognition" (13), or as she puts it elsewhere, a "prohibition of the very arousal it recognizes" (32), so that Woolsey's "'average sex instincts' are prohibited from the person who has them" (31). The effect is to "feminiz[e] the guilty reader anew" as vulnerable to the aggressive thrust of obscene representation (32).

The cultural ironies and deconstructive logic at the heart of The Novel and the Obscene will appeal to the current generation of literary critics. I found Dore's thesis intuitively plausible and was ready to be persuaded by it. And indeed I am persuaded by her excellent analysis of Sanctuary, the strongest and most valuable chapter of this study. (Full disclosure: I happen to be a Faulkner scholar.) Here she offers her clearest and most airtight account of the "resonant silence" of American modernism as a specific narrative modality (2), in which "anticipation" serves as the primary means of "narrative disclosure" (71).

Faulkner represents the very term "obscenity," for example, as a judgment that precedes reference, simultaneously censoring and producing that to which it refers. . . . With these unspecified references to obscenity, Faulkner produces the sense of an obliquely obscene world by creating a narrator who judges...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 898-904
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-08
Open Access
No
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