Contrary to what, Googling around, you might assume, obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment. “There is a bone in my prick six inches long. I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt.” Those sentences are from the opening pages of Henry Miller’s first novel, “Tropic of Cancer,” which was published in France in 1934. Are they obscene? It took thirty years, but American courts eventually decided that they are not, and therefore the book they appear in cannot be banned. To get to that result, judges had to ignore the usual understanding of “obscene”—most people probably think that if “cunt” isn’t obscene, what is?—and invent a new definition for constitutional purposes. But the decision changed the way books, and, soon afterward, movies and music, are created, sold, and consumed. Depending on your point of view, it either lowered the drawbridge or opened the floodgates.
“Tropic of Cancer” is not a verbal artifact to everyone’s taste, but it made a deep impression on two people in a position to advance its fortunes. The first was Jack Kahane. Kahane was born in 1887 in Manchester, the son of Romanian Jews who had settled in the North of England and made, then lost, a fortune in the textile business. He was a Francophile, and, when the First World War broke out, in 1914, he went off to France to fight for civilization. He was gassed and badly wounded in the trenches at Ypres. But he had fallen in love with a Frenchwoman, Marcelle Girodias, from a well-off family; they married in 1917, and remained in France. In 1929, he decided to go into the book business.
He had plenty of company. Between the wars, Paris was home to many English-language presses. There were two basic types. The first specialized in modernist writers. Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Company, which published James Joyce’s “Ulysses” in 1922, is the most famous, but there were also outfits like Three Mountains Press, which published Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, and Ford Madox Ford; the Black Sun Press, run by the glamorous expats Harry and Caresse Crosby, which published Hart Crane and William Faulkner; Contact Editions, which published Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams; Black Manikin Press, which published D. H. Lawrence; and the Hours Press, which published Samuel Beckett.
The other type of English-language press had a different specialty: pornography. Pornographers are the gypsies of the culture industry. They are sensitive to changes in the legal climate, and they generally find it more convenient to move than to fight. In 1857, the British Parliament passed the Obscene Publications Act, also known as Lord Campbell’s Act, after the justice who described pornography as “poison more deadly than prussic acid, strychnine, or arsenic.” The act authorized the use of search warrants to seize pornographic materials. Subsequent acts of Parliament made it illegal to advertise pornography, send it through the mails, or bring it into the country from abroad.
For pornographers, these laws meant that their main worry was no longer the local constable or anti-vice society. The national government was now on the case. They responded by moving operations offshore. They set up shop first in Amsterdam, but Britain, by putting diplomatic pressure on the Dutch government, managed to make life difficult for them there, so they relocated again, this time to Paris. By 1910, there were virtually no English-language pornography publishers in Britain. They were all in Paris.
Paris was an excellent choice for two reasons. One is that it was hard to prosecute books for obscenity in France. Laws passed in the early years of the Third Republic had established the freedom of the press. They stipulated that expressions “contrary to good morals” remained criminal, but gave books special treatment. A conviction for publishing an immoral book could be obtained only by a jury trial in the nation’s highest court. (The French may have felt embarrassed that, in 1857, the government had prosecuted two of the country’s most famous writers, Gustave Flaubert and Charles Baudelaire. Flaubert got off, but six of Baudelaire’s poems were banned, a prohibition not officially lifted until 1949.) The French were also not terribly concerned about books published in English, since they were bought mostly by foreigners.
Another reason Paris made sense for English-language publishers was that, after 1919, the city was a magnet for British and American writers, artists, tourists, and expatriates. This was not because of some sort of cultural fairy dust, though that is how people have always liked to imagine it. It was because, if you had dollars or pounds, the exchange rate made Paris a ridiculously cheap place to visit or live in. People who could afford little could afford Paris. In 1925, four hundred thousand Americans visited the city. While they were there, they could buy books that were difficult or impossible to get at home. Some were modernist classics, and some were pornography (often, books whose titles were a lot more titillating than their contents).
The Shakespeare & Company edition of “Ulysses” provided the model for the kind of books that Kahane wanted to publish: high-prestige literature with a reputation for salacious bits. “I would start a publishing business that would exist for the convenience of those English writers, English and American, who had something to say that they could not conveniently say in their own countries” was how he explained his thinking. “The next Joyce or Lawrence who came along would find the natural solution of his difficulties in Paris. And, of course, if any book that had reached publication . . . met with disaster, my publishing house would automatically publish it in France. . . . I worked out details, and examined the project on all sides to see if there were any flaws in it. But it seemed to me an impeccably logical conception.”
Happily for this business model, British and American censorship had become draconian. In 1929, Kahane published “Sleeveless Errand,” by Norah James, a novel that had been banned in Britain solely because its characters lead bohemian lives. There is no sex or obscene language (apart from curses) in it. People just talk, endlessly. In 1933, Kahane published Radclyffe Hall’s “The Well of Loneliness,” which had been banned in a notorious trial, and after its first Paris publisher, Pegasus, went out of business. The most risqué words in that novel are: “And that night they were not divided.” But it is the story of a lesbian relationship, and what made it obscene, according to the presiding magistrate, was that lesbian sex “is described as giving these women extraordinary rest, contentment, and pleasure; and not merely that, but it is actually put forward that it improves their mental balance and capacity.”
Kahane got “Sleeveless Errand” and “The Well of Loneliness” on the rebound from publishers who had to eat their costs in Britain while he made a profit in France. But he yearned for a Joyce of his own, and in 1932 he found one. An American literary agent based in Paris approached Kahane with the manuscript of “Tropic of Cancer.” Kahane had never heard of Miller. Few people had. But he read the book in a day and was blown away. “I had read the most terrible, the most sordid, the most magnificent manuscript that had ever fallen into my hands,” he recorded in his autobiography, “Memoirs of a Booklegger”; “nothing I had yet received was comparable to it for the splendor of its writing, the fathomless depth of its despair, the savor of its portraiture, the boisterousness of its humor.” It was exactly the mix of the ambitious and the scandalous that he was after.
Kahane got the book but delayed publication. He had a cash shortage—the Girodias family had lost its money in the crash—and it was the middle of the Depression. He was rescued by Miller’s friend Anaïs Nin, who, after shopping the manuscript around and finding no one else who was willing to print it, offered to subvent publication. (She got the money from her analyst, Otto Rank, with whom she was having an affair.) In September, 1934, Kahane’s Obelisk Press published “Tropic of Cancer.” The book came with a wrap-around band stating, “Must not be taken into Great Britain or the U.S.A.”—catnip to the tourists. In subsequent printings, Kahane added blurbs from T. S. Eliot (“a very remarkable book”) and Ezra Pound (“at last an unprintable book that is fit to read”). The cover art was a crude rendering of a crab drawn by Kahane’s fifteen-year-old son, Maurice, whose services, since he was a family member, were pro bono.
Miller wasn’t crazy about the cover, but he was thrilled finally to be in print—he was already in his forties—and he published several more books with Obelisk, including “Black Spring” and “Tropic of Capricorn.” You couldn’t buy those books legally in the United States or Britain. You had to go to Paris. By 1939, Obelisk had three thousand copies of “Tropic of Cancer” in print. Kahane died that year, two days after the start of the Second World War; nine months later, the Germans occupied Paris and censorship of a different kind went into effect.
And that’s when “Tropic of Cancer” found its second great champion, a Swarthmore freshman named Barney Rosset. Eleven years later, Rosset became the owner of Grove Press and began the campaign to make Miller’s book legal.
Rosset did this during a period of exceptional prosperity in the American book business. The thirty years after the Second World War was a boom time, and almost everyone who was in publishing back then seems to agree that it was a golden age. Quite a few of those people have written memoirs; “The Time of Their Lives,” “The Best of Times,” and “The Party’s Over Now” are sample titles. In gross numbers: in 1945, around five thousand new titles were published; in 1970, it was well over twenty-four thousand. Paperbacking made the product affordable to millions, and there wasn’t much competition for leisure dollars from movies (which you couldn’t watch at home) or television (which was programmed for the lowest common denominator).
Most important, American laws and customs were becoming more permissive, so that the prospect of reading a book began to seem something more than a promise of genteel diversion. Even popular books might be sexy, gritty, shocking, subversive, morally provocative. Rosset was a rebel, but he would not have been able to accomplish what he did at Grove if the whole industry hadn’t been riding high. It was, possibly, the last hurrah of print.
Robert Gottlieb’s “Avid Reader” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is a spritz of that postwar elixir, the memoir of a man who seems to have loved (with a few amusing exceptions) every author he edited and every book he published. Before he replaced William Shawn as the editor of The New Yorker, in 1987, Gottlieb worked at Simon & Schuster and then at Knopf, at both houses becoming editor-in-chief at a time when fictional cocktails mixed according to a certain recipe—two parts literature to one part entertainment—led the industry. The ambition in publishing those books was not to win the Pulitzer or the Nobel (although one of Gottlieb’s authors, Toni Morrison, won both). It was to get a front-page review in the Times and then go on the best-seller list.
Before the war, book publishing was a business backwater. Distribution channels were meagre; there were not enough bookstores in the United States, and publishers relied on book clubs to sell the product. There were, of course, a few big-name editors, but most editors didn’t actually edit. The practice was to acquire a finished manuscript from the agent; print and market it; and then do it all over again the following year. Publishers didn’t paperback, and most houses did not maintain a back list. They might as well have been selling soap—as they readily conceded. “I sell books, I don’t read them,” said Nelson Doubleday, Jr. Doubleday was founded in 1897 and by the late forties was the largest publisher in the world.
Simon & Schuster was founded in 1924, and it made its money mostly, and happily, with subliterary fare. Among its biggest sellers were “The First Cross Word Puzzle Book,” the first title it published; “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!,” which sold thirty million copies; Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” which has sold fifteen million copies and is still in print; “Peace of Mind,” by Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman, which was a nonfiction best-seller for three consecutive years, and is also still in print; “Bambi”; and Walt Kelly’s Pogo comic-strip books.
To say that the founders were unpretentious understates the matter. Richard Simon’s motto was “Give the reader a break”; Max Schuster said that a good book is like a woman’s dress, “long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to be interesting.” This is the house that Gottlieb started out with, in 1955. He caught the wave just as it was beginning to rise.
Gottlieb was the publishing equivalent of a showrunner, a role that, if he did not invent it, he made into an industry model. He shepherded books all the way from the author’s typewriter to the reader’s hands. He not only acquired and edited books; he promoted them. He wrote advertising copy, sent out advance copies, generated word of mouth. “The act of publishing,” he says in his memoir, “is essentially the act of making public one’s own enthusiasm.”
Gottlieb made his name by masterminding one of the biggest success stories in postwar publishing, Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” Heller was a young man working in advertising when, in 1953, he began making notes for his novel. In 1954, he wrote the first chapter of what he was calling “Catch-18” and sent it to an agent, Candida Donadio (herself something of a publishing-industry legend). Donadio began showing around a longer typescript in 1957, and, in 1958, Gottlieb persuaded Simon & Schuster to acquire it. Heller got a fifteen-hundred-dollar advance.
Completion took three years, and, since Heller was incapable of editing himself—he was a compulsive adder and fixer—Gottlieb was heavily involved in shaping the text. Finally, just as the book was about to go to press, it was learned that Leon Uris was scheduled to published a new novel called “Mila 18.” Uris was, in those days, a reliable best-seller, and Heller was an unknown. Many brain cells were burned through pondering alternative titles, until, late one night, Gottlieb came up with “Catch-22.” He excitedly called Heller. “It’s funnier than ‘18’!” he exclaimed. Somehow, it is.
Simon & Schuster published “Catch-22” in the fall of 1961. Gottlieb and the advertising manager at S. & S., Nina Bourne, came up with the campaign. They ran pre-publication teaser ads in the Times and wrote what Bourne called “demented governess” letters—letters expressing crazed enthusiasm for the forthcoming book—to well-known critics and writers. On publication, S. & S. ran a full-page ad in the Times, quoting their responses.
But the book did not do well. It was panned in the Times Book Review (even though Gottlieb and Bourne had tried to influence the editor about the assignment), and it failed to break out of the New York market. It was nominated for a National Book Award, but lost to Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer.” Gottlieb doubled down. S. & S. offered to pay bookstores the shipping expenses for “Catch-22” and to cover the costs of returns. Gottlieb and Bourne ran a six-column ad in the Times, headlined “Report on ‘Catch-22.’ ” By the fall of 1962, there were forty thousand copies in print. But the hardcover edition never made the best-seller list.
Then, after a year of disappointment, all the promotion started to pay off. Dell, which had acquired paperback rights for $32,500, brought out its edition in September. A new round of reviews appeared, and by Christmas Dell had sold eight hundred thousand books. “Catch-22” caught on with college students, and it was especially popular during the Vietnam War, whose absurd unwinnability the novel seemed to predict. By 1975, “Catch-22” had passed “The Great Gatsby” on the all-time list, with sales over six million. It is the book that made Gottlieb into an industry superstar.
“Catch-22” is what Gottlieb calls “superior popular fiction,” and that was to be his genre—ambitious, stylish, smart, and not quite canonical. In his career, Gottlieb published all kinds of books, from “Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life” to “The Journals of John Cheever,” but the books he lists as his favorites are all in the “Catch-22” mode: Charles Portis’s “True Grit” (twenty-two weeks on the best-seller list), Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” (six months), and Robert Crichton’s “The Secret of Santa Vittoria” (fifty weeks, eighteen at No. 1). John le Carré, another Gottlieb author, is in that company. These books are not middlebrow; that is, they are not earnest pretenders to art and edification. They are what they appear to be: entertainment, but for educated people.
You did not have to buy John le Carré in a brown wrapper. But the writers of superior fiction were writing more freely, and their publishers were profiting from the results, because people like Rosset were putting pressure on obscenity laws. Looking back, it’s possible to feel that the people who campaigned against those laws were pushing on an open door. It’s hard to imagine that the government would have persisted very long in trying to send people to jail for selling books like “Howl” and “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” The liberalization of obscenity laws followed naturally from the Warren Court’s increasing protections for political speech. Still, someone had to get the courts on the record. It was Rosset who, more than anyone else, did it.
Rosset heard about “Tropic of Cancer” in his first year at Swarthmore, and he took the train in to New York City, where he bought a copy under the counter at the Gotham Book Mart—a store, incongruously located on West Forty-seventh Street, in the diamond district, that was legendary as an outlet for modernist writing. Rosset’s copy was stamped “Printed in Mexico,” possibly an effort at misdirecting the authorities, but also an illustration of one of the problems with publishing banned books, which is that they were not copyrighted. Once a banned book became hot, anyone with a printing press could get into the game.
Like Kahane, Rosset was knocked out. He found the book “truly and beautifully non-conformist,” and he wrote a paper about it, called “Henry Miller Versus ‘Our Way of Life,’ ” for his English class. His professor, Robert Spiller, later on a not unimportant figure in the field of American literature, gave it a B-minus. Rosset left Swarthmore after his freshman year, but he hung on to the paper. Many years later, in a courtroom, he pulled it out and read from it to show that he was not just trying to make money from smut.
Rosset bought Grove Press, a Greenwich Village startup with three titles to its name, for three thousand dollars, in 1951, and he did something with it that is fairly uncommon for American publishing houses, which tend to invest in a diversified portfolio: he made Grove into a brand. The formula was a better-capitalized version of the Obelisk formula: a combination of avant-garde literature, radical politics, and erotica. Grove published Samuel Beckett and Jack Kerouac; it published “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth”; and it published a lot of Victorian-era pornography with titles like “A Man with a Maid” and “Lashed Into Lust.” Grove mainstreamed what used to be called “the underground.”
Grove had some popular best-sellers, like the psychiatrist Eric Berne’s “Games People Play,” which sold more than five million copies, a lucky strike that helped keep the company afloat in the nineteen-sixties. But Rosset wasn’t looking to acquire best-sellers. He published what he liked, and because he liked it. That included the erotica.
He did it because he could afford to. Rosset was born in Chicago in 1922. His father was Jewish and his mother was Irish, and he identified with the Irish side. He saw himself as a scrappy underdog fighting the establishment. In fact, the family was fairly wealthy. Rosset’s father owned a bank, the Metropolitan Trust Company, and, after he died, in 1954, Rosset (an only child) and his mother inherited the bank and merged it with Grove. Until Grove went public, in 1967, they were the owners of the company. This enabled Rosset to place long-term bets on writers. He had no investors to answer to.
A new memoir, “Rosset: My Life in Publishing and How I Fought Censorship” (OR Books), is the work of several hands. Rosset had planned an autobiography, and he enlisted many helpers, but he was never satisfied, and, when he died, in 2012, the book was unfinished. The editors have managed to pull together a memoir using material in Rosset’s papers, and have produced a book that has the charm and some of the truculence of the man himself.
Rosset’s first great accomplishment after acquiring Grove was to become Beckett’s American publisher. Beckett was an elusive and problematic prize. He lived in Paris; he wrote in French; and he was fanatical about the integrity of his art. There are differing accounts of how Rosset heard about Beckett, but it’s undisputed that when they met, in Paris, they hit it off. Maybe it was the Irish ancestry. But it was sound business sense. Rosset recognized Beckett’s potential at a time when he was barely a coterie author. He must also have realized that he had a melodramatically self-abnegating prima donna on his hands, and he patiently walked Beckett through the steps necessary for his books to be published in the United States, starting with persuading him to translate them into English himself, which Beckett did only after making a tremendous fuss.
Rosset kept tabs on the American production of “Waiting for Godot,” to make sure that it met Beckett’s standards. The play was not a hit right away, either in Paris, where it opened, in 1953, or in the United States, where it bombed in Miami in 1956, and then had a Broadway run of just fifty-nine performances. But Rosset stuck with Beckett, and eventually “Waiting for Godot” became an international sensation, and Grove had its Joyce.
“Dear Mr. Beckett” (Opus) is a collection of Beckett and Rosset’s correspondence, but, for reasons presumably involving permissions, none of Beckett’s letters from the first decade of their association are included. Sad, because Beckett was a droll correspondent; fortunately, the letters can be found in the terrific four-volume edition, recently completed, of “The Letters of Samuel Beckett” (Cambridge). In the beginning, Rosset’s letters to Beckett are warm and solicitous, but they are almost all business. There is not much suggesting intimacy. That came later.
In 1954, Rosset received a letter from a Berkeley professor named Mark Schorer (Joan Didion was his student) suggesting that Grove publish “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” then probably the most famous banned work of literature in the world. Lawrence had published it privately, in Florence, in 1928. He tried to get Beach interested, but she called the book a “kind of sermon-on-the-Mount—of Venus,” and turned him down. Lawrence died in 1930. The novel was never copyrighted, and this made it instant carrion for off-shore English-language publishers to feed on. Obelisk’s edition, which came out in 1936, was the third “Lady Chatterley” published in Paris. In the United States, Knopf, with the authorization of Lawrence’s widow, Frieda, put out an expurgated edition.
Rosset actually disliked “Lady Chatterley.” The novel’s class politics about a British aristocrat’s affair with her gamekeeper didn’t interest him, and he found the fact that the hero talks to his penis, and calls it “John Thomas,” silly. Lawrence hated pornography; his views on sex were far too high-minded for Rosset. But none of that mattered, because Rosset realized that “Lady Chatterley” could be the key to the liberation of “Tropic of Cancer”—“a Trojan horse for Grove,” as he puts it in the memoir.
In Grove’s case, the lack of copyright was a problem. The unexpurgated “Lady Chatterley” had always been banned in the United States and Britain. In order to publish it, Rosset needed a court to declare the book not obscene, and that was going to be expensive. If he won his case and the book was not under copyright, any publishers could print it and Grove could do nothing to stop them. So Rosset began an exhausting round of negotiations with Frieda, and with Alfred Knopf, an irascible publishing titan who considered Rosset a peon and who pretended, on no legal grounds whatever, that his company owned the rights to any edition that the courts might allow.
Frieda died; Knopf blustered; and Lawrence’s British agent refused to cooperate. So Rosset decided to go it alone. In 1959, Grove published an unexpurgated “Lady Chatterley,” with a preface by Archibald MacLeish, a former Librarian of Congress, and an introduction by Schorer, plus blurbs from eminent persons of letters, and waited for the government to seize the book, which it did. A trial ensued, the ban was upheld, and Grove appealed.
Rosset had retained Ephraim London, a prominent First Amendment attorney who, in 1952, had won the so-called Miracle case, Burstyn v. Wilson, in which for the first time the Supreme Court gave motion pictures First Amendment protection. (The movie at issue was “The Miracle,” directed by Roberto Rossellini, and deemed sacrilegious by the State of New York.) London made the mistake of dismissing a suggestion from Rosset about how to handle the case, and was fired on the spot. (That was characteristic, as it was that Rosset eventually rehired him.) Rosset knew two lawyers by acquaintance. He called one, and, by an incredible piece of luck, the man was not at home. The second lawyer, whom Rosset knew only from tennis matches in the Hamptons, did pick up. He was Charles Rembar.
Rembar had never tried a case before, and he was not an expert on the First Amendment (although he was Norman Mailer’s cousin and later claimed that he had helped Mailer come up with the nonword “fug” to use as a perfectly legal substitute for “fuck” in Mailer’s war novel, “The Naked and the Dead”). But he agreed to represent Grove in the legal battle over “Lady Chatterley.” Rembar turned out to be a brilliant lawyer, a quick-witted courtroom tactician with a long-term legal strategy. The strategy was to rewrite the definition of obscenity using concepts that the courts had already committed themselves to.
There was a major obstacle facing Grove in its appeal of the Post Office ban of “Lady Chatterley”: a recent Supreme Court decision, Roth v. United States. Samuel Roth was an American Kahane who had the disadvantage of operating in a country in which censorship laws were enforced. He was, at heart, if not technically, a pirate, a bookaneer. He published and distributed unauthorized versions of modernist classics banned in the United States—one was “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”—and he also sold pornography. One of the classics that Roth printed excerpts from was “Ulysses.” Joyce found out about it, and there was an international outcry.
Roth was frequently in trouble with the law and had even done jail time. In 1957, his conviction for mailing obscene circulars and advertising an obscene book came to the Supreme Court. Roth’s lawyer placed his bets on one argument: that the federal obscenity statute was unconstitutional. The majority held otherwise, and Roth went to prison again, for four years. The Court’s opinion was written by William Brennan, Jr., an observant Catholic who had been appointed a year earlier by President Dwight Eisenhower, and who became one of the most liberal Justices on the Warren Court.
Brennan explained that courts had always carved out exceptions to the First Amendment protection of speech—for instance, libel—and that history showed obscenity to have been one of those exceptions. Brennan was not prepared to challenge that tradition, but he did offer what amounted to a new definition of obscenity, thus unintentionally initiating the almost total unravelling of obscenity jurisprudence.
The term “obscene” is a conundrum. Is an expression obscene because it’s arousing or because it’s gross? Is the relevant affect lust (a pleasurable feeling) or disgust (an unpleasant one)? Brennan tried to split the difference with a new term. “Obscene material is material which deals with sex in a manner appealing to prurient interest,” he wrote.
The Supreme Court had used “prurient” only once before in its history. That was in Mutual v. Ohio, decided in 1915, when the Court held that motion pictures are not protected by the First Amendment—the decision overturned in the Miracle case. In Mutual, the Court noted that “a prurient interest may be excited and appealed to” by movies, but made no more of it. Brennan cited Mutual, but he saw fit to add definitions of “prurient” from other sources as well: a “tendency to excite lustful thoughts,” a “shameful or morbid interest in nudity, sex, or excretion,” and an expression “substantially beyond customary limits of candor.”
Possibly sensing that the scattershot nature of his definitions simply provided prosecutors with more weapons, Brennan tackled the problem from another direction. He defined what would not count as obscenity. “All ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance—unorthodox ideas, controversial ideas, even ideas hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion—have the full protection of the guaranties,” he wrote. “Implicit in the history of the First Amendment is the rejection of obscenity as utterly without redeeming social importance.”
Looked at one way, Brennan’s opinion in Roth was a setback for anticensorship forces. After all, it was the lead opinion in a decision that confirmed the conviction of a notorious pornographer. But, looked at another way, Brennan gave Grove a lot of language to work with. Rembar saw that the path to changing obscenity law was not to get Roth overruled but to get Brennan’s opinion restated as an anti-censorship decision. The task took Rembar and the rest of the legal team at Grove seven years to accomplish.
The first move was easy. In Grove’s case against the Post Office, Rembar got the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York to agree that “Lady Chatterley” was a serious work of literature, since it was published by a reputable press and had impressive scholarly accoutrements (and thus was not “pandering,” the basis for the crime for which most pornographers were convicted). “Chatterley” easily met the “social importance” test in Roth. The charge that the book offended contemporary standards—which is what the “customary limits of candor” test amounted to—was met by the fact that the Grove edition had been well received by the literary establishment.
By the time the opinion overturning the ban was released, in July, 1959, the Grove “Lady Chatterley” had already sold over a hundred thousand copies; by fall, it was No. 2 on the Times best-seller list. It was still uncopyrighted. In the end, Knopf declined to enter the lists, but other publishers were not so punctilious. By the end of the year, there were five paperback editions on the market. Only one, published by Dell, paid royalties to Grove. Ultimately, six million copies of Lawrence’s novel were sold.
As Rembar could see, the “Chatterley” decision was not exactly a ringing call to end censorship. The court basically said, If it’s good enough for Archibald MacLeish, it’s good enough for the United States Constitution. Lawrence may have opened the gate, but it was not obvious that Miller was going to squeeze through it. “Tropic of Cancer” was a much harder case. There were several problems. The first was that Lawrence was a moralist and Miller was an anarchist. Miller didn’t give a damn. “Social importance” was just the kind of cant he deplored.
A second problem was that “Tropic of Cancer” and “Tropic of Capricorn” had been republished in Paris after the war by Maurice Girodias, Kahane’s son, who had taken his mother’s Gentile name during the Occupation, and, afterward, launched a press, Olympia, designed to reproduce Obelisk as a publisher of avant-garde writing and pornography. (Olympia was the first publisher of “Lolita.”) Someone tried to bring copies of the Paris edition of “Tropic of Cancer” into the United States, and the books were seized by Customs. In 1953, a federal court upheld the seizure. “Practically everything that the world loosely regards as sin is detailed in the vivid, lurid, salacious language of smut, prostitution, and dirt,” the judge observed of Miller’s novel. “And all of it is related without the slightest expressed idea of its abandon.” It was “Well of Loneliness” again: it wasn’t that the acts were sinful; it was that the author so clearly didn’t mind.
The worst problem was that the Department of Justice advised Customs and the Post Office not to interfere with the distribution of “Tropic of Cancer.” Rosset had already published the book (it could not be banned in advance of publication, because of the rule against prior restraint) and had agreed to indemnify bookstores for their costs if they faced charges. This meant that the book was subject to any number of local prosecutions. In the end, there were nearly sixty “Cancer” cases across the country. The word went out that all the police had to do was go into a store, pick up a copy, and turn to page 5, where the “ream out every wrinkle” sentences appear, and they could seize all copies. Meanwhile, a Supreme Court decision was looking remote. Rosset had to keep appealing losses in state courts and hope for a grant of certiorari to stop the bleeding. As “Catch-22” was beginning its delayed but spectacular liftoff, Rosset was trying to plug a dike with sixty holes in it, and keep Grove solvent.
In 1962, Grove had a breakthrough, when the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, on a four-to-three vote, reversed a trial-court judgment against the book. It was a big win for Grove, but, to Rembar’s dismay, the state did not appeal, so he could not get a Supreme Court decision out of the result. The litigation slogged on.
Finally, and unexpectedly, in 1964, the Supreme Court reversed, without opinion, a Florida conviction against Grove, and issued, on the same day, an opinion in a case called Jacobellis v. Ohio, reversing the conviction of a movie-theatre manager for showing a French film called “Les Amants.” In his lead opinion, Brennan essentially restated what he had said in Roth, except, this time, to reach an anti-censorship verdict.
Roth, he explained, held that “a work cannot be proscribed unless it is ‘utterly’ without redeeming social importance.” “Les Amants,” and, by implication, Miller’s novel, clearly had some social importance. As for “customary limits of candor,” which could be interpreted as a community-standards test, Brennan said that he could not have meant the standards of local communities, such that each jurisdiction would be free to impose its own bans. The Constitution is a national Constitution, and the First Amendment applies everywhere, so the standard must be a “national standard.” By the time of the Jacobellis decision, “Tropic of Cancer” had already sold more than two million copies. The Justices must have sensed that the market had established that the national-standard test had been met.
Jacobellis retained obscenity as a category of unprotected speech, but it made it virtually impossible to censor serious books for their language or their subject matter. There were two more major tests of obscenity laws: William Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch,” published in Paris by Olympia and in New York by Grove, and “Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure,” otherwise known as “Fanny Hill,” which is the first book known to have been convicted of obscenity in the United States, back in 1821. Rembar argued “Fanny Hill” before the Supreme Court. You can say what you like about Henry Miller, but “Fanny Hill” just is pornography. Rembar persuaded the Justices that, since various scholars and critics had already testified to its “social importance,” they didn’t even need to read it. It passed the test in Roth.
Victories in those cases sealed the deal. By the end of the decade, major American writers were publishing novels—Norman Mailer’s “An American Dream”; John Updike’s “Couples”; Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint”—that contained words and depicted acts that just ten years earlier would have meant prosecution for their publishers. Rosset liberated the industry. He also picked up the check.
But now that formerly taboo books could be sold without legal worries, the Obelisks, the Olympias, and the Groves were no longer needed. The major houses, with their big advances, got into the act. Rosset’s legal successes helped do him in. In 1969, Grove had a revenue of some fourteen million dollars; after that, things went rapidly downhill. Rosset had bought rights to more than four hundred art films, like the sexually explicit Swedish film “I Am Curious (Yellow),” but, with the relaxation of obscenity laws, the nation’s art houses switched to X-rated pornography, and Rosset had no outlet for his movies.
In 1970, Grove’s offices were occupied by feminists who accused Rosset of sexism. That incident was accompanied by an effort at unionization. Rosset found it all incredible—that a left-wing champion of underground writing should be a target for feminists and leftists. He was not the only nonconformist from the nineteen-fifties and sixties who found himself on the wrong side of things in the seventies. Grove was on the edge of bankruptcy.
In 1985, after struggling for a decade to pay off its debts, Rosset sold the company. The new owners, Ann Getty and George Weidenfeld, turned out to be no more financially prudent than Rosset, and, in 1986, they pushed him out. After meeting the new publisher, Beckett, now a Nobel laureate, let it be known that he would never give another book to Grove. Although Rosset persevered with various small-scale publishing enterprises, he lacked the capital to compete for major books, and he died penniless, or close to it. He never got back on the stage. But he had had a great run.
Gottlieb lasted five years at The New Yorker. Far down on his list of accomplishments is that he brought me into the magazine—a huge break for me, anyway. It may be that Gottlieb was not, really, a magazine person. He was a book person. A book is an egg that takes many years to hatch; a magazine is a piece of candy that has to be reconfected every week. To the extent that _The New Yorker _’s financial problems at the end of the Shawn era were caused by a lack of timeliness in its coverage of culture and events, Gottlieb was not the person to solve them. But he expresses no regrets in his book. After he was fired, he picked up right where he left off, editing books. He is still at it. ♦
Each book that is banned or censored is done so for the content within the pages. There are a few common reasons that books have been banned or censored in schools, libraries, and book stores. These include:
Racial Issues: About and/or encouraging racism towards one or more group of people.
Encouragement of "Damaging" Lifestyles: Content of book encourages lifestyle choices that are not of the norm or could be considered dangerous or damaging. This could include drug use, co-habitation without marriage, or homosexuality.
Blasphemous Dialog: The author of the book uses words such as "God" or "Jesus" as profanity. This could also include any use of profanity or swear words within the text that any reader might find offensive.
Sexual Situations or Dialog: Many books with content that include sexual situations or dialog are banned or censored.
Violence or Negativity: Books with content that include violence are often banned or censored. Some books have also been deemed too negative or depressing and have been banned or censored as well.
Presence of Witchcraft: Books that include magic or witchcraft themes. A common example of these types of books are J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter Series.
Religious Affiliations (unpopular religions): Books have been banned or censored due to an unpopular religious views or opinions in the content of the book. This is most commonly related to satanic or witchcraft themes found in the book. Although, many books have also been banned or censored for any religious views in general that might not coincide with the public view.
Political Bias: Most Commonly occurs when books support or examine extreme political parties/philosophies such as: fascism, communism, anarchism, etc.
Age Inappropriate: These books have been banned or censored due to their content and the age level at which they are aimed. In some cases children's books are viewed to have "inappropriate" themes for the age level at which they are written for.
Many books have been banned or censored in one or more of these categories due to a misjudgment or misunderstanding about the books contents and message. Although a book may have been banned or labeled a certain way, it is important that the reader makes his/her own judgements on the book. Many books that have been banned or censored later were dropped from banned books lists and were no longer considered controversial. For this reason, banned books week occurs yearly to give readers a chance to revisit past or recently banned books to encourage a fresh look into the controversies the books faced.
Source: "Common Reasons for Banning Books," Fort Lewis College, John F. Reed Library. Banned Books, Censorship & Free Speech. November 15, 2013. Web. March 19, 2014.