These days, American readers may legally partake in an unprecedented array of pornographic materials. Works of literature whose racy content made them banned as late as the 1960s—that were in fact thought unpublishable as late as the ’50s—can be purchased, often as proud members of the canon. When filthy literature is excluded from bookstores, it is more commonly on the basis of poor sales than poor taste. And if we leave the realm of literature entirely, if we look toward erotica that makes no almost pretense to quality, this too is legal and common.
It might seem strange to find this noteworthy, but Elisabeth Ladenson’s Dirt for Art’s Sake makes it clear that, as the history of books goes, this current state of untrammeled access is by far the exception. In her study of smutty reads, Ladenson reaches as far back as Fanny Hill, completed in 1749, and she makes clear that at no point in the 250-plus years since has there been anywhere near the publishing freedom seen since the Supreme Court brought about the so-called end of obscenity in 1966. After reading her book, the period thereafter almost looks like historical accident.
Dirt for Art’s Sake covers seven books that were placed on trial, and each went on to enormous popularity and influence as a result of the controversy surrounding them. Though it’s highly doubtful that any of these books represented a danger to society, each was groundbreaking in the ways in which it presented themes and ideas that society had heretofore only wanted to see in a certain light. Tellingly, at least a couple of these books were dull reads that even their defenders couldn’t find much enthusiasm for; it’s likely that these, as well a very difficult novel by an Irishman and one by a then-obscure Russian émigré, wouldn’t have gone on to an immediately wide readership (and perhaps not one at all) without the help of a trial. As a counterpoint to this, Ladenson ends her book with the thought that in our censor-unfriendly times transgressive literature has been largely reduced to a generally applauded gesture, although she leaves open whether this is due to capitalistic co-option or because cultural obscenity is just too common to be interesting.
Dirt for Art’s Sake is arranged into seven chapters, each dealing with one of the following banned books: Madame Bovary, The Flowers of Evil, Ulysses, The Well of Loneliness, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and Lolita. In about 30 pages, Ladenson describes the controversy surrounding each book and the eventual outcome, while also giving a plot overview, a close reading, and situating the book with regard to the six others and prevailing ideas about art and literature at the time of its publication. The result is a mosaic of a 100-year period that concluded with what is more or less equivalent to the end of literary censorship in the United States.
What’s intriguing about this tale as Ladenson tells it is that as censorship falls literary realism rises; in fact, the very items that censors find objectionable are often those that add to the development of realism. For instance, Ladenson argues that Ulysses includes the first non-ironic depiction of defecation in Western literature—another wall knocked over in the name of realism—and it’s exactly this scene that is among the censored. By contrast to Joyce, Flaubert was too realist in that he didn’t instruct the reader how to read his book: Madame Bovary was charged with glorifying adultery despite the fact that most sensible readers would take Emma’s horrible death (and her boredom with adultery) as evidence of the opposite. (Flaubert’s prosecutor, Ernest Pinard, who has the distinction of attempting to ban two of modernism’s key texts in the same year, apparently was either a liar or a very bad reader.) Essentially, Flaubert was tried for not being obvious enough about Emma’s bad morals. In a letter to Flaubert, Baudelaire explains the then-radical theory that underlies Flaubert’s book and that led latter-day realists like Zola to claim him as an influence:
A true work of art has no need for a prosecution speech. The logic of the work suffices for all postulations of morality, and it is left up to the reader to draw conclusions from the conclusion.
Ladenson artfully glosses: “the novel was prosecuted because it lacked an internal prosecution.”
Although Flaubert never attempted to defend Bovary under the argument “art for art’s sake” (as a legal defense, such an argument would have been incoherent at the time), Dirt for Art’s Sake is often the story of how “art for art’s sake” has become the primary safeguard against charges of obscenity. Each book Ladenson covers represents a key point in the journey that has taken freedom of artistic expression from an idea Flaubert wouldn’t have thought to raise at his trial to the very thing that justifies the publication of anything. And as we undertake this journey, Ladenson teases out the connections between the rise of art for art’s sake and the development of literary realism: thus, Flaubert’s dream of a novel that is pure style is realized in Joyce’s notoriously difficult portrayal of a single, banal day; and then, from Ulysses we vault to entirely new territory when the author of a book about “nympholepsy” claims that only philistines would read it as a story with moral content.
Nabokov’s claim that anything other than an aesthetic evaluation of Lolita was immaterial was quite a step away from Flaubert’s day, when a proof that Bovary taught a good moral lesson was essential to its victory. By the time Lolita was published in the U.S. in 1958, it was becoming more and more irrelevant, legally speaking, whether or not an author condoned the activities of her characters. In 1966, with the long-delayed publication of Fanny Hill, John Cleland’s mid 18th-century tale of a prostitute that’s written from her perspective, the Supreme Court finally ruled that an author’s intentions were irrelevant, just so long as the writing was good.1
After Fanny Hill the wheels finally came off; soon came the publication of the Marquis de Sade’s works, as well as the worst that Henry Miller could throw at the world, at which point one might reasonably conclude that literary censorship was done. Probably, but Dirt for Art’s Sake displays a fine lateral reach by pointing out that this by no means meant the end of artistic censorship. At various points Ladenson compares the censorship of literature to that of film, noting that film has largely taken on literature’s mantle of an artform for the masses, thereby meaning that it is the artform censors consider having the most potent potential to corrupt. (She also brings popular music and television in under this rubric.) In fact, as a pleasant bonus Dirt for Art’s Sake gives very serviceable readings of a number of the movies made out of the seven books on trial, in the process showing how these film have slowly pushed the envelop on what’s permissible in theaters.
Dirt for Art’s Sake ends with Lolita, published in the United States in 1958, and the main fault I can find with this well-written, thoughtful study is that it leaves us wondering what has happened since then. Ladenson is primarily interested in the banning of books for sexual content, so she is probably right to end with Lolita, but one wonders what she would make of the case of Salman Rushdie or that of Orham Pamuk, who was prosecuted by his government for “anti-Turkishness” because he wrote honestly about darker periods from his nation’s history. Perhaps she would say that these days sex and violence can’t shock us too much but literary controversies surrounding religion and identity can.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.
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