Stephen J. Whitfield on Josh Lambert’s Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture
Have Jewish writers shown a proclivity for transgressions of good taste, for violating community standards of decency? Consider the roll call.
Henry Roth leads the short list that literary scholars have compiled of the major Jewish novelists of the interwar period. Josh Lambert devotes nearly twenty pages to examining how Roth’s first novel, Call It Sleep (1934), pushed the envelope of profanity and expletives, only a year after the ban on Ulysses had been lifted, making permissible description of sexuality such as the soliloquy of Molly Bloom. Call It Sleep was too technically advanced to be popular, and both it and the author vanished for three decades. But Ludwig Lewisohn, whom Lambert considers “by far the most prominent Jewish writer in interwar America,” generated controversy by affiliating himself as well as his fiction with the theme of the primacy of desire over the norms of propriety. The notoriety of Ben Hecht’s second novel, Fantazius Mallare (1922), was assured — even though it was sold only to subscribers — because Hecht was prosecuted, convicted, and fined $1,000 for a work deemed “lewd, obscene and lascivious.” When Norman Mailer published his first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), his cousin, an attorney named Charles Rembar, suggested “fug” as an alternative for a word Mailer could not print, though soldiers commonly used it while fighting the Good War. “Fug” in fact “was phonetically closer than was the classic spelling to the prevailing G.I. gutturals,” Rembar noted. Mailer’s third novel, The Deer Park, was rejected by seven publishers, who feared that it would run afoul of the statutes prohibiting obscenity. The Deer Park nevertheless appeared in 1955.
Few novels in postwar America have run more afoul of censors than J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). An entire monograph — Pamela Hunt Steinle’s In Cold Fear (2000) — has examined the phenomenon, with school librarians and teachers suppressing a work that happens to record teenage lingo rather faithfully. In a way, The Catcher in the Rye promotes an ideal of decency, because Holden Caulfield, a champion of the integrity of innocence, wants to erase a “Fuck you” sign on a staircase. He nevertheless comes to realize how befouled the world already is: “If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘Fuck you’ signs in the world.”
Though Salinger’s own connection to Judaism was severed after his bar mitzvah ceremony, he nonetheless joined Lambert’s queue of novelists of Jewish origin who have managed to incite charges of obscenity. Or take Portnoy’s Complaint. Its episodic structure may well be due to its author’s worry that his novel might not attract a brave, well-insured publisher, so Philip Roth instead published sections of his protagonist’s psychoanalytic sessions separately in periodicals. This literary landmark of comic inventiveness shamelessly presented a cascade of ethnic in-jokes to the general public, offered by a the narrator who admits to knowing only twenty-five Yiddish words, “half of them dirty, and the rest mispronounced!” Roth is on record as admiring Lenny Bruce, the stand-up comedian who broke the sound barrier in all sorts of ways. But in the unleashing of the profane, the novelist believed himself to be funnier than Bruce. (Roth was right.) With Fear of Flying (1973), Erica Jong demonstrated that female novelists were no slouches in violating whatever vestigial standards of prudery remained, when she introduced anonymous sex with unfamiliar men (“the zipless fuck”) into belles-lettres.
No wonder then that writers of Jewish origin have often seemed immune to the codes of gentility. Lambert raises the interpretive stakes by claiming that such delicacy was a way for Gentiles who occupied positions of cultural authority to assert hegemony over what constituted propriety. Anthony Comstock and his Society for the Suppression of Vice made the legal battle against obscenity into an explicitly Christian crusade, which could thus be contrasted with the reputed immorality of Jewish booksellers and authors. Fanaticism made Comstock uniquely dangerous to freedom of speech and press, but his disdain for what Jews were injecting into the arts was shared with other arbiters of taste. For example, when Tin Pan Alley, the capital of popular music, first made Jewish songwriters conspicuous during the Jazz Age, Aldous Huxley responded by condemning “the yammering amorousness and clotted sensuality which have been the characteristic Jewish contributions to modern popular music.”
So stigmatized a cultural position is no accident, as far as Lambert is concerned, and he insists that the enlargement of free expression to include what was once shunned and quashed stems from something deeper than a devotion to civil liberties. He conjectures that the prosecution of so many Jewish authors and publishers for perpetrating various versions of erotica, and the participation of Jewish attorneys in the defense of free expression, cannot be understood as a random collection of individuals trapped in the courts. Instead, Lambert detects a powerful impulse to revise the broader culture itself.
Unclean Lips therefore pushes deeply into territory that requires a critical acuity and a scholarly sophistication that the author exhibits on virtually every page. Lambert goes well beyond the assignment of tabulating the writers who have claimed maximal freedom to appeal to prurience if they wished to do so — to say nothing of the lawyers who have defended their invocations of carnality. Rembar himself argued the landmark cases that permitted D.H. Lawrence’s Constance Chatterley and John Cleland’s Fanny Hill in particular to cavort according to explicit accounts of sexual desire and fulfillment. In defeating conservative efforts to uphold modesty, one surname somehow does keep cropping up, and this book pays wry tribute to a former Zionist poet who became a pornographer: the hapless Samuel Roth lost his 1957 appeal to the Supreme Court, but he did force the jurists to reconsider the definition of obscenity, in ways that would reverberate through the nation’s habits of reading and viewing. Such Jews engaged in the systemic repudiation of what were once Victorian values. (Credit might also be given to two U.S. Presidents: Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. The expletives of the Republican and the sexual misconduct of the Democrat had the effect of making public discourse more pungent.)
Unclean Lips derives its title from Isaiah 6:5 (“I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of people of unclean lips”), a passage that conveys the anxiety that comes from the certainty of divine judgment. In recounting how that fear of moral contamination subsided in twentieth-century America, Lambert’s book is as learned as it is consistently perceptive. Among his many astute observations is the dilemma that censors face in identifying what they seek to erase. They must portray the very actions that offend them. They must repeat the very words that disturb them. Such moralists risk stimulating the very titillating and lustful thoughts that censorship is supposed to prevent. Such rich insights are liberally sprinkled not only throughout the text but in the scholarly apparatus as well. In an endnote in the conclusion, for instance, Lambert rattles off the names of two dozen other American Jews whose careers deserve consideration in a more comprehensive book on the subject of obscenity. Even that list is partial. Lambert is nothing if not ambitious, but the impact that Jews have exerted in the abolition of puritanism (a term that does not appear even in the index) is greater than even so meaty a volume as Unclean Lips can register.
For example, Lambert might have reckoned with the claim, first advanced in 1956 in Lawrence H. Fuchs’s monograph on the political behavior of American Jews, that their liberalism owes much to their secularism, to their sense that satisfaction and security in this world matter more than salvation in the next. The best-seller lists and the court cases suggest that Jews have tended to diverge from Christians in a certain reluctance to be intimidated by accusations of enjoying “Smut” (the gleeful title of Tom Lehrer’s 1966 song). But such a tendency represents part of a larger aim, which is to replace the austere demands of duty with the pursuit of happiness.
Lambert is nevertheless wary of overstating his case. “Jewishness is simply not relevant to every engagement with obscenity by a Jew,” he writes; nor have “motivations for engagement with obscenity … applied uniquely to American Jews.” But in the course of a dramatic transvaluation of values, as repression and reticence have given way to explicitness and expletives, Jews were less likely than others to recoil from the danger of sin. As an ethno-religious minority, they were undoubtedly quicker than others to appreciate the rights of non-conformists and to object to the stifling moralism of the majority. In this respect, a line can be drawn, however sinuously, all the way back to Spinoza, who argued (in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, XX) that “the rights of rulers in sacred, no less than in secular, matters should merely have to do with actions, so that every man should think what he likes and say what he thinks.”
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