- The End of Pornography:The Story of Story of O
In 1966, Grove Press published a translation of Histoire d’O, which was first published in France in 1954 under the pseudonym Pauline Réage, later identified as Dominique Aury (b. Anne Desclos). Forty years after the book’s initial publication, Aury was publicly unmasked in a New Yorker article by John de St. Jorre in which she disclosed the circumstances surrounding the composition and publication of O: Aury stated that she wrote the book in order to keep the interest of her longtime lover, the prominent French critic Jean Paulhan, who helped her to publish it with Parisian editor Jean-Jacques Pauvert. The book tells the story of the eponymous Parisian fashion photographer who becomes a sexual slave at the behest of her lover, René, and is willingly subjected to a series of degrading and painful sexual tortures (whipping, branding, assaults by multiple men) initially at his command and later at the command of his friend, Sir Stephen, in a château on the outskirts of Paris. Although Aury claimed not to have read Sade until after she had written O, she knew of Paulhan’s interest in the author.1 A number of parallels can be drawn between the book and Sade’s works, particularly Les 120 Journées de Sodome, with one important difference: O designated the first modern work of sadomasochistic literature written by a woman. Understandably, critical reaction was mixed: while the work was recognized for its [End Page 980] literary merit and received the prestigious Prix des Deux Magots, it was banned by French authorities and subject to an investigation by the French government; further, it was fiercely attacked by those who saw the author as pandering to extreme male fantasies.
Twelve years later, the publication of the Grove Press translation in the U.S. was no less controversial. Beginning in the 1950s, Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset set out to challenge censorship and obscenity laws with the publication of a series of provocative works. Although Rosset and his managing editor, Richard Seaver, had plans to publish O in the early 1960s, concerns about legal prosecution held them back. As Seaver wrote to Pauvert (from whom Grove had secured translation rights), the Press had to prepare the terrain “very carefully” with the publication of works such as Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1961) and William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1962), which were successfully defended against obscenity charges in a series of court battles spanning from 1961 to 1966.2 Although it wasn’t originally intended to be the case, the Grove translation of O also appeared after the Press’s publication of the first of three volumes it would produce of Sade’s works, The Complete Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom, and Other Writings (1965), translated by Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse. Grove’s edition of Sade’s works, which provoked scandal but ultimately was not banned, undoubtedly helped to pave the way for the publication of Story of O as well.3
Given Grove’s publishing program and its track record of successfully defending sexually explicit literature in court, the American critical reaction to O may appear curious. A 2 March 1966 review in the New York Times stated that O ushered in “the end of any coherent restrictive application of the concept of pornography to books.”4 According to critics, the appearance of Aury’s book was a watershed moment in the history of anti-obscenity laws in the U.S., eclipsing in importance Grove’s publication of D. H. Lawrence, Miller, Sade, and even Jean Genet, whose Our Lady of the Flowers (1963) and The Thief’s Journal (1964) shocked American audiences with their graphic portrayals of homosexual sex and masturbation. The fact that O was presented as [End Page 981] being written by a woman and featured a female protagonist complicit in her own sexual exploitation was seen as increasing the work’s stakes and impact. Indeed, historically pornography and gender have gone hand in hand: pornography first emerged as a regulatory category in the early nineteenth century, when it ceased to be exclusively associated with the...