Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture

Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture

Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture

Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture

Synopsis

Jews have played an integral role in the history of obscenity in America. For most of the 20th century, Jewish entrepreneurs and editors led the charge against obscenity laws. Jewish lawyers battled literary censorship even when their non-Jewish counterparts refused to do so, and they won court decisions in favor of texts including Ulysses, A Howl, Lady Chatterley's Lover, and Tropic of Cancer. Jewish literary critics have provided some of the most influential courtroom testimony on behalf of freedom of expression. The anti-Semitic stereotype of the lascivious Jew has made many historians hesitant to draw a direct link between Jewishness and obscenity. In Unclean Lips, Josh Lambert addresses the Jewishness of participants in obscenity controversies in the U.S. directly, exploring the transformative roles played by a host of neglected figures in the development of modern and postmodern American culture. The diversity of American Jewry means that there is no single explanation for Jews' interventions in this field. Rejecting generalizations, this bookoffers case studies that pair cultural histories with close readings of both contested texts and trial transcripts to reveal the ways in which specific engagements with obscenity mattered to particular American Jews at discrete historical moments. Reading American culture from Theodore Dreiser and Henry Miller to Curb Your Enthusiasm and FCC v. Fox, Unclean Lips analyzes the variable historical and cultural factors that account for the central role Jews have played in the struggles over obscenity and censorship in the modern United States. Josh Lambert is Academic Director of the Yiddish Book Center and Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. In The Goldstein-Goren Series in American Jewish History

Excerpt

In late October 1961, the police chief of Mount Prospect, a Chicago suburb, took action against what he perceived to be a disturbing threat to his community: a paperback edition of Henry Miller’s notorious 1934 novel Tropic of Cancer. Visiting six drugstores that sold paperbacks, he succeeded in having all copies of the book pulled from the shelves. He could do this, the First Amendment notwithstanding, because Miller’s novel included what the law regarded as obscenity: obscenity defined, that is, in words with which U.S. Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield characterized Miller’s novel, as “descriptions in minute detail of sexual acts” and the use of “filthy, offensive and degrading words and terms.” By then, a long series of legal precedents had established that obscenity, like libel and “fighting words,” did not merit First Amendment protection.

A few weeks later, a Northwestern University professor named Franklyn Haiman, acting with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the local police for infringing on what he considered his right to read Miller’s novel. The book’s American publisher, Barney Rosset of Grove Press, described the resulting trial as “the most dramatic” of sixty such legal cases nationwide that contested the suppression of Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. Edward de Grazia, a lawyer and legal historian, singles out that Chicago trial as “one of the best examples” of how lawyers and judges together transformed a few statements from a 1957 Supreme Court obscenity decision, Roth v. United States, into a . . .

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