- The Ends of Obscenity
From the trial of Madame Bovary in 1857 to the landmark case of The United States versus One Book Called “Ulysses” in 1933 to the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s exoneration of Naked Lunch in 1966, the literary history of modernism has been entangled with the legal history of obscenity. When told by lawyers or legal scholars, the story of this struggle tends to appear as a progressive narrative detailing the victory of enlightened cosmopolitanism over Victorian prudery, and counseling vigilance in the face of continued censorship of creative expression. From Charles Rembar’s triumphalist The End of Obscenity (1968), which chronicles his successes in exonerating Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and Fanny Hill, up through Edward de Grazia’s monumental Girls Lean Back Everywhere: The Law of Obscenity and the Assault on Genius (1992), lawyers have helped to make culture heroes out of modern artists, framing them as champions of free expression and avatars of sexual liberation. Literary critics, particularly in the wake of Kate Millett’s feminist assault on the modern canon and Michel Foucault’s devastating critique of the “repressive hypothesis,” have tended to be more circumspect, formulating the increasing sexual explicitness of modern literature as having more to do with cultural distinction than with political liberation. Thus studies such as Adam Parkes’s Modernism and the Theater of Censorship (1996), Allison Pease’s Modernism, Mass Culture, and the Aesthetics of Obscenity (2000), Frances Ferguson’s Pornography, the Theory: What Utilitarianism Did to Action (2004), and Florence Dore’s The Novel and the Obscene: Sexual Subjects in American Modernism (2005) exhibit a post-Foucaultian, post-feminist skepticism of the libertarian suppositions that inform this history when it’s told by the lawyers who participated in it.
All these studies focus on a limited selection of texts, usually within a particular national context, and frequently with a [End Page 869] particular theoretical axe to grind, and therefore none of them has provided a truly comprehensive account of this fascinating story, beginning with the inaugural cases of Madame Bovary and Les Fleurs du Mal in Second Empire France and ending with the trials of Naked Lunch in the postwar US. Elisabeth Ladenson’s Dirt for Art’s Sake: Books on Trial from Madame Bovary to Lolita (2007) is thus a highly welcome arrival in the growing canon of texts on literature and obscenity. With the notable exceptions of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1955) and William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959)—the absence of which I will discuss below in the context of the other title under review—Ladenson’s is the most comprehensive and astute study of the quintessentially modern process whereby books initially condemned as obscene became literary classics taught in college and high school classrooms around the world. Like the literary critics whose company she joins with the publication of this remarkable book, she does not “address the subject from the point of view of a narrative recounting successive stages in a continuing march toward complete freedom of expression” (xvii). Rather, organized logically and chronologically with a chapter each on Madame Bovary, Les Fleurs du Mal, Ulysses, The Well of Loneliness, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and Lolita, Dirt for Art’s Sake not only provides exceptional insight into the sustained historical entanglements of literary and legal culture in the modern era, but also details the comical paradoxes and hypocrisies that make this story both highly entertaining and perennially relevant.
Ladenson starts in France, a national context which, as a Professor of French at Columbia, she is well equipped to analyze. Here she reveals how Napoleon III’s Second Empire provided the cultural and technological contexts—rising literacy rates, cheap printing techniques, an unstable autocratic regime, and a pervasive anxiety over the status of women—within which literary obscenity would emerge as an issue. She then devotes a chapter each to the two texts—Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and...