Europe and the United States, 20th Century
The Memoirs of Dolly Morton (1899)
First published in Paris in 1899, The Memoirs of Dolly Morton is a “flagellation novel” commonly attributed to the French writer Hugues Rebell (1867-1905), but probably written by the British publisher of erotica Charles Carrington (1867-1921) The novel takes place in the Southern United States shortly before the Civil War. It depicts the misfortunes of Quaker Dolly Morton who, in an attempt to help free the slaves, is captured by a lynch mob and coerced into becoming the mistress of a plantation owner. The book was condemned by the Criminal Court of the Seine, France, on December 3, 1914. The copy exhibited here was seized by U.S. Customs in New York on March 16, 1951, and released to the Kinsey Institute on March 1, 1958, following the Federal Court case “United States v. 31 Photographs.”
Ulysses by James Joyce and Henri Matisse (1922 and 1935)
In 1914, the Irish novelist James Joyce (1881-1942) started writing Ulysses, the odyssey of a day in the lives of a few Dubliners. After the judicial upheavals he suffered for his collection of stories Dubliners(1914), Joyce had his friend Ezra Pound intervene in the publication of Ulysses, and the New York Little Review began to serialize the text in 1918. Despite these precautions, the U.S. Post Office seized and destroyed several issues of the magazine in 1919 and 1920. In 1921, the publishers of the Little Reviewwere prosecuted for obscenity and subsequently barred from publishing any further episode of Ulysses. Shortly afterwards, Sylvia Beach, the owner of the Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company, had the printer Maurice Darantière produce a first complete edition of the book in Dijon in 1922. The 1000 copies were quickly sold out and later editions started to be smuggled out of France. In the United States, Random House eventually challenged the ban and the case was brought to the New York District Court in November 1933 (United States v. One Book Entitled Ulysses). In this landmark decision, which established a new standard for judging books charged with obscenity, Judge John Woolsey concluded: “Whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac. Ulysses may, therefore, be admitted into the United States.” Soon after, in 1934, Random House issued the first complete U.S. edition of the book. The second edition exhibited here, published in 1,500 copies in New York in 1935, is illustrated with six etchings and several preparatory drawings by Henri Matisse (1869-1954). One of the two copies held at the Lilly Library (no. 1089) is autographed by Matisse and Joyce.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence (1928)
One of most famous and controversial twentieth-century English erotic novels, Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930) revolves around Constance, the eponymous character, whose husband, Sir Clifford Chatterley, became paralyzed from the waist down while fighting in World War I. Feeling neglected by her husband, Constance engages in an extramarital affair, the subject of sexually explicit scenes and language, with their gamekeeper. Probably completed in 1917, the novel was first privately printed in Florence in 1928. In 1931, two years after Lawrence’s death, Seeker produced a bowdlerized edition of the book in England. After publishing the first U.S. uncensored edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1959, Grove Press of New York went to court following the seizure of the book by the U.S. Post Office on the basis of obscenity. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York found in Grove’s favor, with Judge Frederick van Pelt Bryan concluding that “if a work is found to be of literary stature, and not ‘hard core’ pornography, it is a fortiori within the protections of the First Amendment” (Grove Press, Inc. v. Christenberry, 175 F. Supp. 488 [S.D.N.Y. 1959]). Also in 1959, Penguin issued the first unexpurgated edition of the novel in England and was taken to court under the Obscene Publications Act. The jury concluded that the book was not pornography, as it did not deprave its readership. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was also banned and/or legally challenged in Australia, Canada, Japan, and India.
Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller (1934)
Written in the first person, Tropic of Cancer is a fictionalized autobiographical treatment of Henry Miller’s struggle as an author in his early years in Paris. The novel, which contains many passages that graphically delineate the narrator’s sexual encounters in the French capital, was published by Jack Kahane’s Obelisk Press in Paris in 1934, prefaced and financed by Anaïs Nin with money borrowed from the psychoanalyst Otto Rank. As indicated on the front cover, illustrated by the publisher’s son Maurice Kahane, this edition could not be legally “imported into Great Britain or U.S.A.” Miller consistently objected to having expurgated versions of the novel issued in the United States. The publication of an uncensored U.S. edition by Grove Press in June 1961 sparked a string of litigation across the country, involving the American Civil Liberties Union, with several vendors of Tropic of Cancer arrested by police officials. In 1964, the Supreme Court eventually cleared the novel of obscenity charges and allowed its sale on the strength of the First Amendment (Grove Press v. Gerstein, 378 U.S. 577). The copy exhibited here bears an autograph dedication by Henry Miller to his fellow-American writer and political activist Max Eastman (1883-1969).
Lolita by Vladimr Nabokov (1955)
One of the most famous and controversial novels of the twentieth-century, Lolita by the Russian-born American writer Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) is presented as prison confession of the protagonist Humbert Humbert, who recounts his pedophilic attraction for twelve-year old Lolita and their subsequent “affair.” First published in Paris by Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press in 1955, the book was banned by the French government a year later, on December 10, 1956. The first U.S. edition of the novel, published by Putnam in August 1958, ranked it among the bestselling novels of all time, with 100,000 copies sold in the first three weeks, and more than 50 million copies sold worldwide since then. Despite its lasting impact on popular culture (the word “Lolita” has turned into a common noun, listed in most dictionaries to designate “a precociously seductive girl” [Merriam-Webster]), the novel has become more controversial than ever in recent years because of its subject matter.
The Naked Lunch by William Burroughs (1959)
In The Naked Lunch by William Seward Burroughs (1914-97), the narrator William Lee crosses the United States into Mexico, where he regularly meets his drug dealers, and then travels to Tangier. In the course of his journey, he explores his drug addiction, homosexuality, and various sexual deviances in lurid violent vignettes. The first excerpts of the novel were issued in a student magazine at the University of Chicago in 1958. In Paris, Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press brought out the first complete edition of the novel in July 1959. The U.S. Customs seized several copies of the book that Girodias had tried to distribute in the United States, since the work was considered contraband material. The first U.S. edition of Naked Lunch was published by Grove Press in 1962. The book was brought to trial on obscenity charges after a Boston bookseller was arrested for selling copies of it. The case was handled by the Massachusetts Supreme Court, but the hearing was delayed until after the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Memoirs v. Massachusetts in March 1966, which confirmed that a “book cannot be held to be obscene in view of substantial evidence showing that it has literary, historical, and social importance” (383 U.S. 413). Following this decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Court cleared Naked Lunch of obscenity charges (see Attorney General vs. A Book Named “Naked Lunch”, 351 Mass. 298). At a 1962 symposium in Edinburgh, Burroughs argued that “Censorship […] is the presumed right of governmental agencies to decide what words and images the citizen is permitted to see. That is precisely thought-control. […] If censorship were removed, perhaps books would be judged more on literary merit, and a dull, poorly written book on a sexual subject would find few readers. Fewer people would be stimulated by the sight of a four-letter word on the printed page. The anxiety and prurience of which censorship is the overt political phenomenon has so far prevented any serious scientific investigation of sexual phenomena.”