Author Jay A. Gertzman‘s book, Samuel Roth, Infamous Modernist, profiles a man whose work broke down many of the censorship laws of the time. In celebration of the paperback release of his book, Jay Gertzman held a party at which he showcased not only his book but also the books in his collection of banned works. In his previous guest post “The Censorship is Never Over,” Gertzman wrote at length about censorship and Samuel Roth’s role in making good contemporary writing accessible.
On August 12, I hosted a book party celebrating the paperback publication of Samuel Roth, Infamous Modernist at the Cornelia Street Café—one of the mainstays of Greenwich Village and a prime example of village décor. It was a chance to have knowledgeable people I am fortunate to know talk with each other, and with me. For example, guests included the co-producer of the great film Taxi to the Dark Side; a young author who has set up his own distribution network; the director of the library at the New York Historical Society; the co-producers of a proposed film about a mural that Barney Rosset—our greatest First Amendment advocate—created on the wall of his apartment; a leading graphic novelist; the man in charge of the American Booksellers Banned Books Week; two publishers; and two lawyers.
At the party, I displayed books with censorship stories from my collection of texts. In honor of Banned Books Week, I’d like to describe some of the stories behind the books in my collection.
Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (1885)
Twain knew the friendship and mutual respect of Jim and Huck, as well as Huck’s rejection of “sivilization,” would cause problems. The book’s “vulgar” language, “low” characters, and scenes of violence did also. Thus the author’s warning: “Persons trying to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted. Persons attempting to find a moral in it will be shot . . . ”
The novel was #14 on the American Library Association’s top 100 banned or challenged books for the first decade of the 21st century. Censorship of Huck Finn in schools and libraries goes back a long way. In the year of its appearance it was banned in Concord, MA (Thoreau’s hometown) as “trash and suitable only for the slums.” In 1930, the Soviet Union decided to confiscate copies at the border.
As Andrew Levy, in his Mark Twain’s America, reports, Twain’s classic elucidates child abuse, illiteracy, race relations, juvenile delinquency, and resentful people’s need to see the poor as the enemy (“they have to go”).Further, Huck Finn is about a culture that preaches godly forbearance and practices Manifest Destiny (endless war against “terrorist redskins”), tar and feathering, and lynching. Huck’s alternative is to “set out for the territory” as a way of keeping innocent of “sivilization.” That is why so many countries have banned or expurgated the book, and still keep it out of schools. As the mayor of Chicago recently put in, in the case of the graphic novel Persepolis (about a girl caught in the Iran-Iraq conflict, in which the United States strongly favored Iraq) it might make “immature” minds behave in “irresponsible” ways.
I taught Huck Finn in high school in the mid-60s. It was too hurtful to African-American students to expose them to a book in which the word “nigger” was used about 200 times. I did not fully know then what a racial slur like that means. Its implications are as deeply pernicious as the Nazis’ “Juden.” I should have, perhaps, had the students read Frederick Douglass’s autobiography first, and discussed that book.
Ulysses, by James Joyce (The Shakespeare and Co. edition, 1925, 7th printing)
This is the edition Sylvia Beach arranged to be printed in France in 1922. The book was considered obscene, of course. U.S. Customs confiscated copies brought into, or sent to, the United States.
It is important to note that there was no reciprocal copyright agreement between England and the United States at this time. Therefore, Samuel Roth did not pirate Ulysses. But he did fail to get Joyce’s permission in 1925 to publish excerpts in his Two Worlds Monthly. In 1929, Roth published an underground unexpurgated edition, which was in the public domain. However, Joyce, his agent, and his supporters in the literary establishment published an International Protest against Roth in 1928. It made him an outcast. Joyce’s major reason was not to ostracize Roth, but to get his notorious novel published legally in the U.S. Random House, with the help of the brilliant lawyer Morris Ernst, did so in 1934. At that point, Joyce had taken back Sylvia Beach’s copyright in the book, much to her dismay.
By the early 1930s, Customs had given up confiscating copies. Ulysses was difficult to read; even the scatology, obscenity, and sado-masochism was hard to find.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D. H. Lawrence (1928)
The material in Lawrence’s “phallic novel” (his words) that was offensive to the guardians of their own moral standards (“willie Wet-Legs,” Lawrence called them) was easy to find. One way to fool customs was to hide the cover of the book, purchasable in Paris (a paperback with which Lawrence wanted to reach a large number of people of average income). One tourist pasted red oilcloth to the cover of the Paris Popular Edition, successfully but not aesthetically. The Lawrence Phoenix in the center of the front cover is unblemished.
In the center of the display table at the party is the Samuel Roth 1932 expurgation of Chatterley. The frontispiece is of a demure Connie Chatterley, a reference to the “barbering.” The illustrator was depicting what he and Roth’s editors dubbed their boss’s “Louisa May Alcott” edition. Roth did it so well that the authorized British and American publishers adopted his expurgations for their similar editions.
Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller (1934)
I displayed the “Medvsa” edition (1940). 1,000 copies were printed in New York, with a false Mexico City imprint. Copies were sold by the most upscale booksellers—such as the Gotham Book Mart in New York—to trusted customers. Sam Roth helped finance the book in exchange for a set of copies that he eventually sold to his most trusted customers. The publisher, Jack Brussel, spent a year in Lewisburg penitentiary. Barney Rosset (Grove Press) got the book published legally in 1961. Several state courts declared it obscene, which a Supreme Court decision overruled in 1968. Meanwhile, Rosset and his Grove Press lawyers gave needed resources and legal help to booksellers forbidden to sell Tropic of Cancer in their states.
Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs (1962)
The first American edition was published in 1962 after Barney Rosset won a court case and thus removed the book from the category of obscene publications to be confiscated if sent to the U.S. The Grove edition was based on a manuscript in Allen Ginsberg’s possession. Neither William Burroughs nor Henry Miller wanted to attend the trials to allow their books First Amendment protection. They did not think a book should be judged acceptable because it had literary and artistic value despite its sexual explicitness and word choice. That would mean that it was part of an elite culture which “excused” its “obscenity.” The latter was too vague a word, and the concept of literary and/or artistic value too tied to a restrictive value syste; thus, not in the service of free creative expression. The borderline between creativity and criminality was one that had to be maintained.
The Secret Life of Walter Winchell, by Lyle Stuart (1953)
The late Lyle Stuart is one of my personal first Amendment heroes. I was especially pleased to welcome to my party Lyle’s widow, Carole, her partner Avery Corman (author of Kramer v Kramer, The Old Neighborhood, and other works), and her son, the leading jazz musician, Rory Stuart. Like Roth, Lyle Stuart had the chutzpah to ignore the contempt of established publishers whose tastes and methods were genteel. He published an edition of Johnny Got His Gun on the cusp of World War II. The book was about a WWI soldier injured so dreadfully he could not move, speak, smell, or do anything else a human can do but think. All he wanted was to tell people how young men suffered living deaths while those who profited–CEOs of military related industries, contractors, politicians seeking re-election funds, Big Oil (yes, back then as well as now)—stayed far from the battlefield.
Permission denied, soldier. (See the two-page spread.)
Lyle published the first, and still valuable, work on American policy in Latin America: Juan José Arévalo’s The Shark and the Sardines. He did so just after the Cuban Revolution. Lyle was a hard case. He could respond with stubborn confidence to the aggression of police raids, and to being a defendant in a lawsuit. The money for his publishing enterprise—Lyle Stuart, Inc., established in 1959—was a result of a libel case he won against Walter Winchell for slandering him five years earlier on his radio program. Winchell’s innuendos could kill reputations, and his personal irritability was deeply resented. In October 1951, Winchell became embroiled in a nasty contretemps with dancer Josephine Baker about her claim that she, as a black woman, had received poor service in the Stork Club. Stuart had started a monthly political newsletter, Exposé, in late 1951. With smoke from the Stork Club firestorm still in the air, Stuart included a story in the tabloid exposing Winchell, and had the staff hand-distribute copies to Times Square newsstands.
According to Stuart, Roth called him and asked if he could expand the articles into a book. The Secret Life of Walter Winchell appeared in 1953. Steam flowed from the ears of the “col-yumnist” [Winchell’s neologism] as he read Stuart’s tell-all: Winchell’s false reporting, thin skin, jealousy of his daughters suitors, vindictive smears, Commie-baiting, and diminishing reputation.
The Secret Life of Walter Winchell was one of foundations upon which was built the enmity that led Samuel Roth for the second time to the gates of federal prison. “[Winchell] repeated,” Roth said, ”every week in his nationally syndicated columns and his weekly TV broadcasts, that I was a publisher of dirty books. He demanded to know why Mr. Hogan [the New York D.A.]. . . did not arrest me and close my business. Finally Mr. Hogan acted.” The harassed publisher (“louse”, “filthy bum”, “public enemy”, “vulture”) was not exaggerating.
In 1956, he was indicted on 24 counts of sending obscenity through the mails and of using fraudulent advertisements, which suggested the material he offered was obscene when it was not. Which was it? Winchell exalted over Roth’s conviction. Stuart and other distributors noted—as did Roth—that the material he advertised and sent was not obscene by standards of the time. Nor was it aimed at adolescents, who could not afford it. Furthermore, the government lawyer based his argument on Beardsley’s Venus and Tannhauser and its illustrations, by Aubrey Beardsley, considered obscene in the 1890s (a young naked angel was depicted) but considered art by the 1950s. The government prosecutor warned the jury that if they did not convict, “the sewers would open.” Roth went to Lewisburg, appealed his conviction in Roth v. US (1957), and in so doing, set the table for Barney Rosset’s successful defense of Lady Chatterley’s Lover two years later. The minority opinion in The Roth Case had stated that a work with proven literary, artistic, political, or social value could not be censored due to the explicit depiction of sexual content (previously, a reason for the subjective, undefinable word “obscene” being applied to it in order to declare it unlawful to distribute).
It is not necessarily true that censors are prudes. They probably are not; they are likely drawn to, and act upon, prurient fascination like most of the rest of us. Some see themselves as, and are accepted as, gender, political, health and social reformers. Some are. They are good networkers, and have either acquired power, or work for those who have. But power requires obedience from those in its orbit. Instead of professing (although they may believe it), “I don’t approve of this and you can’t have it,” they work in the service of vast bureaucracies which cannot tolerate dissent from easily-accepted “truths.” But “truths” cannot grow popular in an atmosphere of compromise. And when dissent and “blow back” comes, the censors—left, right or centrist—see it as an attack on their freedoms.