1917 was a bad year for vice in America. The country was pouring its last legal drinks before Prohibition, and a crusade against louche, explicit novels was gaining steam. Critics blamed “a certain element in the publishing business“ and “persons with alien names and frankly alien standards.” By being coy, they made their biases obvious. Some filth could be tolerated, but filth produced by Jews — that crossed the line.
Such is the situation documented in Unclean Lips: Jews, Obscenity, and American Culture, which tells of the risks Jewish writers faced if they dabbled in obscenity. And they were serious. One place you never want to see your name is beside the words v. United States in a court document, yet that was far more likely for Roths, Ginsburgs, and Mishkins than for Smiths, Joneses, and Johnsons. In the 1930s, a stunning 90% of arrests for obscenity involved Jews. Free speech, in other words, was hardly free for these maverick writers and their publishers.
Josh Lambert, a young literature scholar who has taught at NYU, does an excellent job of chronicling their travails. But he’s less adept at divining their motives. “American Jews,” he writes, “often engaged with obscenity for precisely the same reasons” as other Americans: “To make money, to seek sexual gratification, to express antisocial rage.” Yet elsewhere he suggests another reason — the desire for prestige. A single succes de scandale could “transform an unknown publisher into a cultural hero.” And it could elevate a young novelist’s reputation.
One can imagine other reasons to write dirty — for effect; for verisimilitude; for the heck of it. But never mind. Lambert’s short monograph is consistently interesting and well-written, and it shows exactly how these brash and provocative writers, from Henry Roth to Philip Roth, stared down the prudish, puritanical forces of censorship, and chipped away at free speech restrictions. They did it the least sexy way imaginable. Slowly, one four-letter word at a time, line after unquotable line.
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Jesse Tisch is a writer, editor, and researcher. He lives in Manhattan.