Cover image for Literary Obscenities: U.S. Case Law and Naturalism after Modernism By Erik M. Bachman

Literary Obscenities

U.S. Case Law and Naturalism after Modernism

Erik M. Bachman


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ISBN: 978-0-271-08005-5

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208 pages
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8 b&w illustrations

Refiguring Modernism

Literary Obscenities

U.S. Case Law and Naturalism after Modernism

Erik M. Bachman

“A profound reassessment not only of American censorship issues, Literary Obscenities joins the current rethinking of modernist studies, particularly in terms of the paperback revolution and its long-term cultural impact. This welcome addition to the ongoing discourse in legal studies, book history, cultural studies, and the philosophy of modernism is cause for celebration. Bachman’s well-researched, acutely insightful, accessibly written study will take its place alongside Marjorie Heins’s Not in Front of the Children as a staple in university courses.”


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An Open Access edition of Literary Obscenities is available through PSU Press Unlocked. To access this free electronic edition click here. Print editions are also available.

This comparative historical study explores the broad sociocultural factors at play in the relationships among U.S. obscenity laws and literary modernism and naturalism in the early twentieth century. Putting obscenity case law’s crisis of legitimation and modernism’s crisis of representation into dialogue, Erik Bachman shows how obscenity trials and other attempts to suppress allegedly vulgar writing in the United States affected a wide-ranging debate about the power of the printed word to incite emotion and shape behavior.

Far from seeking simply to transgress cultural norms or sexual boundaries, Bachman argues, proscribed authors such as Wyndham Lewis, Erskine Caldwell, Lillian Smith, and James T. Farrell refigured the capacity of writing to evoke the obscene so that readers might become aware of the social processes by which they were being turned into mass consumers, voyeurs, and racialized subjects. Through such efforts, these writers participated in debates about the libidinal efficacy of language with a range of contemporaries, from behavioral psychologists and advertising executives to book cover illustrators, magazine publishers, civil rights activists, and judges.

Focusing on case law and the social circumstances informing it, Literary Obscenities provides an alternative conceptual framework for understanding obscenity’s subjugation of human bodies, desires, and identities to abstract social forces. It will appeal especially to scholars of American literature, American studies, and U.S. legal history.

“A profound reassessment not only of American censorship issues, Literary Obscenities joins the current rethinking of modernist studies, particularly in terms of the paperback revolution and its long-term cultural impact. This welcome addition to the ongoing discourse in legal studies, book history, cultural studies, and the philosophy of modernism is cause for celebration. Bachman’s well-researched, acutely insightful, accessibly written study will take its place alongside Marjorie Heins’s Not in Front of the Children as a staple in university courses.”
“Provides a historical framework and literary context for perhaps better understanding modern, printed-words-only obscenity prosecutions and why they are now so rare.”
“[Bachman] offers a historical perspective on modernism and literary naturalism and shrewdly covers the relationship between what is on the page and how readers respond to it.”

Erik M. Bachman is Lecturer of Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz and coeditor of the Lukács Library at Brill.

From the Introduction

During the first half of the twentieth century, the ability of writing to make unruly claims on our bodies preoccupied judges, jurists, authors, and critics involved in debates over ongoing revisions to the definition of and tests for legal obscenity in the United States. At the same time that modernist writing was challenging fiction and poetry as they had been created hitherto, state and appellate courts began undermining the grounds on which books could be prosecuted for their corruptive moral influences and salacious bodily appeals. Putting into dialogue obscenity case law’s crisis of legitimation and modernism’s crisis of representation, Literary Obscenities argues that “obscene modernism” helps us to account for the cultural logic of a period in which the meaning, identity, and very existence of obscene writing itself seemed to be evaporating. “Modernism,” it should be noted, does not refer to fundamentally subversive, shocking, or disruptive texts here. Instead, it encompasses a widely dispersed set of discursive practices that are marked by concerns regarding the conditions of possibility for art as such. At the same time that these practices contributed to major formal innovations and to a further widening of aesthetic sensibilities, long-held certainties about legal obscenity began to wither under closer examination, and efforts to explain how books could be judged obscene appeared to become more and more Sisyphean with each passing year. In short, the expansion of what potentially counted as a text worthy of artistic or literary judgments under modernism coincided with the contraction of what could possibly be deemed proscribably obscene in a U.S. court of law. At issue in these obscenity cases was nothing less than the capacity of mute words to get off the page and affect readers in the world in ways that could not be fully controlled, especially in the formation of their civic comportments and social identities. Depending on which precedents a given judge cited from the case law, however, obscene books either posed too much of a threat or no threat at all. Accordingly, proscribed writers such as Wyndham Lewis, Erskine Caldwell, and Lillian Smith responded to contemporary obscenity trials by interrogating the power of words to take on embodied dimensions even as they continued to grapple with the manner in which human interests, capacities, and self-knowledge nevertheless get fostered or distorted by the affecting appeals made by putatively obscene texts.

Furthermore, ambivalence regarding what constituted obscenity in the first place extended to the realm of social relationships affected by it. Obscenity trials and the texts prosecuted in them were perennial news items and topics of debate in this period, as were the evolving standards for what constituted obscenity, which oftentimes shifted year to year, state to state, and court to court. Just as the definition of obscenity was up for grabs, so too were its broader effects on readers, who were variously depicted in case law at this time as children requiring parental oversight, women in need of male protectors, or adults able to determine what was or was not good for them. However, even those judges who treated readers of obscenity like grown-ups still did not fail to assign them a common social role: that of consumers in a market economy. I contend that all of this was not accidental, as obscenity was a conspicuously contested field through which writers and judges addressed other, even more socially pervasive aspects of writing’s effects. As Literary Obscenities demonstrates, the struggle to account for the libidinal efficacy of writing prominently figured in a number of period disputes, such as those concerning the manipulative use of behaviorist-informed advertising practices, shifts in cultural hierarchies between print and visual materials, and activist strategies for desegregating the Jim Crow South before the 1950s.

Just as lascivious writing carried the weight of some enormously important cultural issues, a survey of the case law on obscene books shows that the more frequent targets of obscenity prosecutions in the early twentieth-century United States were not modernist novels but literary naturalist texts such as those of Caldwell, Smith, and James T. Farrell. In this study I understand “literary naturalism” to refer to fiction that, in the words of György Lukács, “describes” life rather than “narrates” it. That is to say, it is fiction in which expansive descriptions are tacitly organized and fixed in place by the findings and methodologies of contemporary sociology, psychology, physiology, criminology, and evolutionary biology rather than by the (realist) impulse to model typical human characters and nascent forms of dynamic social action. Because early naturalist writing tended to rely heavily on these fields of scientific inquiry, many of its initial critics in the United States claimed it was robbing fiction of its own authentically literary forms, functions, and narratives. Moreover, by putatively adopting some form of determinism to present their characters as the objects of the social and natural forces investigated by these same discourses of human knowledge, naturalist texts were widely believed to have reduced men and women to “human insects,” to use Malcolm Cowley’s expression, insofar as they reliably depicted a world in which people were more “done to” than “doing.”

Notable scholarly work of the past few decades, however, has moved our discussions of U.S. literary naturalism beyond warmed-over debates about the two cultures (literary vs. scientific) or about the coherence of determinism as a philosophy and its broader implications as a worldview. The attention devoted to literary naturalism by many notable critics aligned with New Historicism in the 1980s, for instance, shifted our focus to the ways in which U.S. naturalist fiction called into question the autonomy of literature with respect to the institutions and discourses in or alongside which it circulated. As a result, “co-optation” has increasingly replaced “determinism” as a keyword in studies of literary naturalism, and the result has been greater attention paid to complicitous relationships in naturalist works rather than to determinist subsumption pure and simple. In keeping with this, scholars and critics have since developed more nuanced conceptions of how subjectivity, will, and agency become informed (rather than wholly overmastered) by the tremendous social and natural forces set forth by naturalist fiction.

Emblematic here remains Jennifer Fleissner’s work on compulsion, which has broadened our conception of how U.S. literary naturalist texts exemplify their embodied reception in readers by representing worlds in which embodiment as such reliably takes the form of repetition, habit formation, and failure. For Fleissner, subjectivity and agency are not abolished by the routine behaviors encrusted onto the bodies to which they are attached in naturalist fiction, nor are they canceled out by the conspicuous inability of this fiction to offer shapely narratives of triumph or tragedy. Instead, literary naturalism forces us to situate such subjectivity and such agency ever and always in terms of mundane, nonlinear habits and recurring motions (e.g., those involved with cleaning or lovemaking) that do not eventuate in a sense of mastery or completion so much as they do in bodily experiences of repetition and disappointment that nevertheless constitute the only path available to us in naturalist fiction that can still perhaps lead (beyond the frame of the text itself) to mastery and completion eventually. In short, failure in the present does not foreclose the possibility of different outcomes in the future, though according to Fleissner what distinguishes naturalism from other modes of writing is that it locates this future in our bodies (where self and world interface and become meaningfully entangled), and in women’s bodies in particular.

In many respects, then, what my calling attention to the literary naturalistic qualities of early twentieth-century obscenity in the United States entails is that we reckon more expansively with failure, by which I refer both to the recurrent failure of courts at this time to formulate adequate tests for obscenity and to the ultimate failure of fiction to be deemed proscribably obscene, even though the works by Smith, Caldwell, and Lewis examined here were indeed proscribed in courts of law for their obscenity. I would also note that this preoccupation with failure is already encoded in the title of the first chapter—“Getting Off the Page”—in which the key propositions aimed at by its wordplay are only somewhat felicitously expressed. The salacious implications of the idiomatic “get off ” are easily discernible, but they badly need a preposition to make it clear that it is a prospective reader who is sexually gratifying him- or herself on (or by means of) a book rather than the leaves of the book itself that are somehow being sexually satisfied by the reader. Despite the possibility of conjuring forth bizarre visions of readers clumsily jerking off or going down on or otherwise illicitly stimulating a book somehow, someway, I have nevertheless opted to omit the preposition, not simply because “Getting Off on the Page” is a less euphonious title but more importantly because “Getting Off the Page” nevertheless does indeed succinctly express the core preoccupation of this book, which has to do with how obscenity has more or less ceased to be something readily predicable of written texts of fiction in a court of law in the United States. In this less idiomatic sense, then, obscenity in this period ceased to get off the page in the ways expected by courts hitherto (namely, by having untoward effects on the bodies and behaviors of readers in the world) and started to get off the page entirely by leaving books behind and moving on to other media (primarily visual ones), with which it is more credibly associated now than it is with writing as such. While this is an outcome that did not become codified until the end of the Supreme Court’s repeated efforts to work up a suitable set of new standards for obscenity during the second half of the twentieth century, Literary Obscenities locates formative (and, up to now, largely overlooked) sources for this eventual result in the period, cases, and works of fiction examined here.

This approach thus distinguishes itself from significant critical work on law, literature, and obscenity carried out by both literary critics and jurists, for whom quite different concerns and questions have guided much recent scholarship. On the one hand, obscenity has tended to provide many of those working in the New Modernist Studies an opportunity to reassert the subversive potentials of certain modernist texts that were creatively vivified by the tussles their respective writers had with obscenity laws and the various institutions enforcing them. On the other hand, some have used “obscene modernism” to express a deep and abiding skepticism about these transgressive potentials by drawing our attention to the ways in which such writing nonetheless ended up embodying the very sorts of interdictions and proscriptions it nominally sought to flout. For legal scholars, in contrast, questions of principle (Is obscenity even an instance of speech in the first place? Is obscenity law equipped to address the problem of moral harm that would potentially justify the proscription of obscenity if such a thing were indeed an instance of speech?) and practice (Are obscenity prosecutions a wise use of limited institutional resources? Are the conceptions of art and literature offered in obscenity law really in line with how those two things are actually performed or created today?) have tended to predominate over the more historical and evaluative pursuits of those working in the New Modernist Studies.

The aim of this book is therefore to offer an alternative angle of vision onto early twentieth-century writing and obscenity, one that orients itself more around states of development in the reformulation of legal obscenity in this period than around the retroactive credentialing of literary modernism as either a dependably subversive or regrettably compromised set of innovative texts and compositional practices. Likewise, I am not all that interested in reading law in/as literature or literature in/as law. Instead, my concerns are with assessing the consequences of treating proscribably obscene fiction in the early twentieth century not simply as an object of obscenity case law but more importantly as its respondent, as texts that answer to the conditions and limits placed on literary writing’s efficacy by the disparate accounts and appraisals made by judges themselves in this period. In particular, what this closer attention to case law makes salient about the relationship between writing and obscenity in the United States throughout much of the past century is twofold. First, the proscription of obscenity in this period usefully indexes major shifts in contemporary cultural hierarchies that were then in the midst of slowly but surely prioritizing visual texts over written ones, a point I most fully expound in the chapter on Caldwell. When viewed from afar, the large-scale narrative of U.S. legal obscenity in the twentieth century is decidedly not a story of censorship forces heroically overcome by an elite group of modernist pioneers; instead, the tale forced on us by history is a decidedly more ambivalent one that foregrounds the wholesale neutralization of the claims that books can potentially make on bodies, and it is the U.S. literary naturalist texts of this period (rather than modernist works) that offer us a means of conceptualizing the end of book obscenity not so much as a timely victory over censorship forces but rather as the emergent recognition of the sobering and troubling possibility that reading books can no longer affect us in ways that are worth proscribing. Ever since the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. California (1973), after all, it is always okay not to masturbate when we read.

(Excerpt ends here)