Rachel Potter’s Obscene Modernism: Literary Censorship and Experiment 1900–1940 documents the ways that obscenity ramified in modernist texts in the early twentieth century. At the heart of her project is an exploration of the ways that obscenity served as a generative force for cultural production. Potter understands obscenity as an ongoing process. She conceptualizes it as a legal category that changed over time in the Anglo-American and international communities. Although obscenity as a legal concept attempted to constrain the circulation of words, texts, and ideas, the same process generated important responses from artists and international organizations that sought to explain the centrality of obscenity to artistic freedom as part of the modernist project. The very act of censorship generated ideas and texts that defined and extended ideas of obscenity. Potter thus sees it as a rich vein of symbolic words, ideas, acts, and relationships, and she considers the obscene as a touchstone for artistic production in modernist texts. In thinking through how these ideas ramified together, Potter has constructed a sophisticated sense of how modernism and obscenity together defined each other.
Potter begins her exploration with an overview of censorship practices in the Anglo-American community. Her idea of what or who generates censorship demonstrates the ways a number of different actors affected discussions around obscenity. Rather than the state alone acting to control the populace, Potter suggests that circulating libraries, groups like the New England Watch and Ward Committee, postal and customs officials, printers, publishers, writers, anti-censorship groups, and even state officials argued over ideas of obscenity. The model of censorship and anti-censorship networks struggling to define obscenity considers cultural production and regulation as a contested process that changes as a result of a variety of factors.
Potter continues to nuance her model through examinations of how publishers and authors responded to censorship. In a chapter titled “Anonymity and Self-regulation,” Potter details how writers conceptualized censorship, especially after the publication of works by Freud and Nietzsche on the obscene. Writers saw those readers, the state, the busybodies, and the bureaucrats that they associated with censorship as standing between them and the truest expression of the human condition. According to writers’ formulations, literary texts deserved the special freedoms and, for Potter, the articulation of the special merits of literature allowed for their clarification. In chapter 3, “Publishers and Journals,” Potter considers the ways that censorship affected publishing houses and specialized journals as publishers followed in the wake of pornographers who had fled abroad to escape censorship restrictions. These three chapters fit together as a conceptual whole that documents censorship practices and their effects on publishing.
Potter’s account of censorship has much to recommend it. Her model of censorship follows from scholarship done by Adam Parkes, Allison Pease, Elisabeth Ladenson, Celia Marshik, and others. However, some of her facts might be in error: on page 24, Potter implies that in the 1910s the British state began devising new methods to curtail the circulation of obscene matter, for example by compiling files on those who placed orders for indecent books. However, the policy was actually started earlier and then curtailed in 1895, when a young member of Parliament had his mail addressed to a pornographer opened and scrutinized. The date seems less important than the issue of documentation. While historical documentation allows reviewers to work backwards through secondary sources to primary sources upon which claims are based, Potter, coming from the field of literary studies, generally cites sources only when quoting, and her section detailing the history of censorship leaves few traces to follow up. The differences in citation standards for an interdisciplinary field creates a problem. Because literary history lands [End Page 218] squarely between these areas, publishers like Oxford might want to consider who reads these works and what standards the readers might expect.
The second part of the book focuses on the issue of aesthetics in modernist texts. In chapters 4–7, Potter explores a series of modernist texts to see the many ways that writers conceptualized obscenity...