In 1928, when the English author DH Lawrence had Lady Chatterley’s Lover privately printed in Italy and Alfred A. Knopf published a heavily censored abridgement of the novel in the United States, my father was a 21-year-old undergraduate studying philosophy and theology at the University of Latvia.
In 1930, when Lawrence died at age 44 and US Senator Bronson M Cutting proposed amending the Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act to end US Customs censorship of imported books and Senator Reed Smoot opposed it, threatening to read obscene passages from Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the like on the Senate floor, my father was about to start what he believed to be the best job in the world, or at least Latvia: reading books by day–at the beach, if he liked–and screening films by night. That he might have to keep certain ones out of his country seemed incidental. That was how it was in nearly every civilized nation.
In 1959, when my father was 52 and I was 15 and we were living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Grove Press published an unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the US Post Office confiscated copies sent through the mail. Barney Rosset, who had acquired the publishing house in 1951, sued the New York City postmaster and won in New York and, again, on federal appeal. My father bought the book shortly thereafter, probably for 50 cents, curious to see if he would still censor the work as a more circumspect middle-aged man. I don’t recall his conclusion or whether he even cared to share it with me.
What I do remember is him stashing the controversial novel in a small bookcase, one of several pieces of furniture brought over from our former house and stored in the basement. Soon, Lady Chatterley was joined by John Cleland’s Fanny Hill and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, the remainder of the trio whose ban Rosset’s attorney, Charles Rembar, had succeeded in getting overturned. Other tantalizing titles subsequently appeared, most notably Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue, authored by the Marquis de Sade.
Our conservative neighbors in Grand Rapids, home of the man who would become President Gerald Ford and site of what would serve as the starting point of Sarah Palin’s first book tour, would have been appalled had they known that a seemingly decent man was leaving smut out where an inquisitive girl could find it, but that seemed perfectly reasonable to me. My father had made it clear that there was a difference between what I chose to read and think and how I should behave. And left no doubt about the latter.
Still, I approached those basement books haltingly, not knowing whether reading them would be right or wrong. The way that they were sequestered suggested that they weren’t exactly fit for the coffee table, but the fact that they weren’t stored under lock and key indicated that might merely mean caveat lector. In the end, the demand characteristics inherent in any book–Open me! Read me!–prevailed. This allowed me to resume research initiated in childhood with a dictionary, where I’d looked up titillating terms.
Naturally, I ferreted out the raunchy parts of the subterranean novels first. But it wasn’t long before I became entangled in elements of context and style. What teen wouldn’t roll her eyes while reading something similar to the following from Lady Chatterley’s Lover?
Whilst all her womb was open and soft, and softly clamoring, like a sea-anemone under the tide, clamoring for him to come in again and make a fulfillment for her.
And whilst the tone of Tropic of Cancer was more contemporary and realistic, what girl who also read Glamour would want her sex scenes to reference, say, disgusting scabs?
“You’re cancer and delirium,” she said over the phone the other day. She’s got it now, the cancer and delirium, and soon you’ll have to pick the scabs.
In 1964, I left for The University of Michigan, which placed me smack in the middle of a socio-political and sexual revolution. There I read Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus and other erotica, but that was immaterial. With our invasion of Vietnam underway and the Roe v. Wade ruling still nine years in the future, the obscenities concerning me most were those related to war and a woman’s right to control her own body. I now wonder whether that wasn’t also the case with my father. Compared to the death and dislocation brought by the successive invasions of Latvia that he’d experienced during World War II, what did a smattering of salacious literature matter? Best set it aside in a basement bookcase.
Surprisingly, Americans continued to condone censorship. In 1966, Fanny Hill–correctly called Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure–was back in court. Following a favorable ruling (Memoirs v. Massachusetts), it became known as the last book banned in the States. In reality, the ruling merely shifted responsibility for determining what is obscene to local communities. In 2010, the Merriam-Webster dictionary was banned in a California elementary school because it contained a definition of oral sex. Damn straight, I said. The dictionary was where my own depravity began. But that basement bookcase sure helped.
If you support the freedom to read, do your bit to celebrate Banned Books Week, September 30 through October 6. To get you going, here are some suggestions:
- Select something from the Radcliffe Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century list. Even odds your choice has been the target of a ban attempt. According to the American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom, at least 46 of the 100 were.
- If you want the most bang for your buck, read James Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s Number 6 on the above list, has been banned in the United States and elsewhere and is the most massively unread book around. But now there’s an app for that!
- If you’re near Columbia, MD on October 2, join me at the Freedom to Read: The Historic Role of Grove Press in the Publication of Banned Books event, which will feature Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic Michael Dirda and Jeannette Seaver.
- Learn what it was like being Barney Rosset. Check out the 2007 documentary Obscene, available on Netflix, and check with Alqonquin Books for plans to publish his autobiography The Subject Was Left-Handed later this year.
- Read the remarkable transcript excerpts in Charles Rembar’s The End of Obscenity: The Trials of Lady Chatterley, Tropic of Cancer and Fanny Hill.
- Participate in the Banned Books Virtual Read-Out.
- See if you can’t find an unused bookcase in your basement…