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Rachel Potter. Obscene Modernism: Literary Censorship and Experiment 1900–1940. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013. 231pp.

Literary modernism emerged in a climate of official and unofficial censorship, a fact that served to hamstring and publicize particular works and their authors. In the last two decades, scholarship has documented such censorship and provided nuanced accounts of the aesthetic, political, and cultural impact of bans and suppression. Adam Parkes’s Modernism and the Theater of Censorship, Allison Pease’s Modernism, Mass Culture, and the Aesthetics of Obscenity, Elisabeth Ladenson’s Dirt for Art’s Sake: Books on Trial from Madame Bovary [End Page 176] to Lolita, and many others have complicated what was previously a straightforward tale of suppression and liberation. Rachel Potter’s Obscene Modernism thus enters a crowded field, one in which there might seem little room for fresh insight or room to maneuver.

Potter’s contribution, in her own words, is to argue that the “structure of censorship, a network that was fragmented, widespread, and beyond the reach of the nation state, affected the intellectual and literary response to it” (5). Her study begins by briefly surveying censorship law as well as the many groups and individuals who had a role in banning particular books. This first chapter covers ground familiar to anyone interested in modernism and censorship; while Potter has configured her information differently than other critics (under headings like “Government Officials,” “Circulating Libraries,” and “Printers”), her figuration of censorship as a network offers an apt but not novel assessment of the variety of forces that intercepted and suppressed modernist work. Chapter 2, “Anonymity and Self-Regulation,” traces various intellectual traditions on the obscene, such as psychoanalysis, which located obscenity not in texts but in minds (50). And chapter 3, “Publishers and Journals,” takes up the appearance of modernism in limited, expensive editions (think Ulysses) and in journals. In both formats, Potter notes, modernism was aligned with obscenity: pornography, like modernism, was often issued in expensive limited editions, and modernist manifestos published in little magazines often contained obscene imagery (76–77). At the level of print, then, modernism was consistently aligned with the obscene and even explicitly claimed it as the movement’s territory.

Up to this point, Potter’s most prominent interlocutor is Lawrence Rainey, whose Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture influentially argued that modernism benefitted from and indeed catered to book collectors through the publication of deluxe editions. Potter argues that this account neglects the ways in which such editions placed modernism in proximity to pornography and blurred the line between art and obscenity (69). This insight is important, but Potter’s dialogue with Rainey draws attention to the book’s curious inattention to studies closer to Potter’s immediate subject: modernism, obscenity, and censorship. For example, chapter 4 (“Words and Minds”) devotes most of its energy to James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence, writers who have received perhaps the most extensive attention in scholarship on literature and censorship. When Potter observes that the “category of literature, and the aesthetic terms used to evaluate it, would need to change to accommodate” a book like Ulysses (97), readers will be reminded of Pease, who traces the evolving relationship between literature and pornography and positions modernism—specifically Joyce—as the creator of a unique aesthetic [End Page 177] blend of what had seemed to be opposing styles and contents. Throughout the chapter, when Potter asserts that Ulysses “is obscene because it incorporates blasphemous, sexual, and excremental words into the language of literature” (101), Pease’s argument lurks in the background but is never explicitly cited or engaged—a jarring but all too common omission in Obscene Modernism. Here and elsewhere, Potter’s inattention to the deep archive of studies she mentions in her introduction will make a knowledgeable reader uncomfortable. That same reader may wonder if there is anything genuinely new in this study when the chapter concludes with the critical commonplace, “Joyce and Lawrence both wrote about the obscene, but their work pointed in different directions” (125).

Fortunately, the second half of Obscene Modernism covers less-familiar territory and rewards continued reading. Chapter 5 (“Offense”) looks at how writers of the late 1920s and 1930s—her examples are Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, and Djuna Barnes—positioned literary offense as transformational and even liberatory. While the citation practices in this chapter continue to be troubling—my book British Modernism and Censorship is cited to document a point contained in another publication entirely (131)—Potter argues that these three writers, and others who defended them, connect modernist obscenity with “a liberal language of individual rights” (150). Chapter 6, “International Rights,” traces the opposition between PEN, the worldwide association that advocated for global protection of writers and their works against censorship, and government officials such as Britain’s Home Secretary William Joynson-Hicks, who argued that nations had the right to seal their borders against the rising tide of obscene literature. And chapter 7, “Laughter,” takes up Wyndham Lewis and (again) Barnes, whose novels The Revenge for Love and Nightwood represent an uncontrollable laughter that dismantles rationality altogether. In different ways, Lewis and Barnes figure the obscene in the exposure of humans to violence; in Potter’s view, their novels aren’t interested in obscenity as a sign of transgression but as a symptom of modernity’s moral vacuum and of human suffering (193). This chapter contrasts such late modernist obscenity with earlier incarnations, thus creating a trajectory whereby modernism first took up obscenity as transgressive and later used it in an Adornoesque “negative critique of reason and humanism” (193).

Potter’s conclusion traces obscenity beyond the period boundaries articulated in her title, noting the example of obscene wordplay in Lolita (200) and the new types of transgressive representations that found themselves subject to censorship. By extending her analysis of modernism and obscenity into the 1930s as well as to figures (Lewis and Barnes) not widely taken up by earlier studies, Potter’s [End Page 178] Obscene Modernism offers a convincing argument that the category of obscenity continued to animate modernism long after texts like Ulysses circulated freely. What is less convincing, however, is Potter’s treatment of facts and figures who have been the subject of important scholarship by others. Her dialogue with Rainey demonstrates the care and nuance with which Obscene Modernism might have engaged work that deserves more than a collective (or erroneous) footnote.

Celia Marshik
Stony Brook University