Literary Corner Cafe

Monday, December 20, 2010

Today in Literary History - Lady Chatterley's Lover is Banned in the United States


On December 20, 1929, D.H. Lawrence’s controversial novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned in the United States. Although the US was only one of many countries banning the book until the landmark obscenity trials of 1959 (US) and 1960 (Britain), for Lawrence, the US ban was the most devastating.

From the beginning, of course, Lawrence knew that no mainstream publisher would touch his manuscript. (The first edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published in Florence, Italy in 1928.) The lack of a traditional publisher didn’t bother Lawrence, though he did express disappointment when even Sylvia Beach, who had become the champion of James Joyce with her first edition of Ulysses a decade earlier, declined the opportunity to publish Lady Chatterley’s Lover, even going so far as to declare the book a “sermon on the mount of Venus.”

Lawrence subsequently published the book himself, in a series of private, signed editions that were sold by subscription only, through Inky Stephensen’s Mandrake Press. Though these “subscription only” editions were banned in many countries, the sales were good, and Lawrence made a good profit, which he tuned into more profit through his investments on Wall Street, though he said he was plagued by “policemen, prudes and swindlers.”

With the sales of the “subscription only” edition, Lawrence gave up his half-hearted attempts to sell a watered-down version for traditional publishing and wider distribution. “I somehow didn’t get on very well with the expurgation,” Lawrence wrote to Knopf Publishing. “I somehow went colorblind, and couldn’t tell purple from pink.”

Lawrence also had the money to return permanently to his ranch in New Mexico, which he consider a “last ditch” effort to stem his worsening tuberculosis – though Lawrence would always deny he was afflicted with that particular malady. “I do really and firmly believe, though,” he wrote to a friend, “that it’s Europe that has made me so ill.... Anyhow in New Mexico the sun and air are alive, let man be what he may.”

Despite Lawrence’s view that the New Mexico air would prove so healthful, it was the US ban that dashed all of his hopes and finally caused his health to collapse. For some time, his subscription orders to the US had been mysteriously disappearing in the mail, and finally he, too, came to believe he was not welcome in that country when his application for immigration was buried permanently at the bottom of a stack of others.

Finally, Lawrence agreed to go to a sanatorium in Italy – still refusing to admit to tuberculosis – and still poring over timetables and schedules for Atlantic crossings to the United States and the port of New York.

The last photograph of D.H. Lawrence was taken on March 2, 1930, the day of his death. He weighed eighty-five pounds and is in bed, reading a book about the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World.

In 1930, US Senator Bronson Cutting proposed an amendment to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which was then being debated, ending the practice of having US Customs censor allegedly obscene books imported from other countries to the United States. Senator Reed Smoot vigorously opposed such an amendment, however, and even threatened to read passages of banned and imported books in front of the Senate. Although Smoot never followed through on this threat, he did include Lady Chatterley’s Lover as an example of an obscene book that must not reach the general reading public. Smoot, himself declared, “I’ve not taken ten minutes on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, outside of looking at its opening pages. It is most damnable! It is written by a man with a diseased mind and a soul so black that he would obscure even the darkness of hell!”

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was one of a trio of books (the other two being Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and John Cleland’s Fanny Hill) on which the ban was fought and subsequently overturned in court with the assistance of lawyer Charles Rembar. It was then published in the United States by Grove Press, however prior to that time, it had been published in the US by Frances Steloff at the Gotham Book Mart in defiance of the ban.

When the full, uncensored edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published by Penguin Books in Britain in 1960, the trial of Penguin under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 was a major event, followed closely by the public and a test of Britain’s new obscenity laws. The Act, introduced by Roy Jenkins, had made it possible for publishers to escape conviction if they could show that a controversial work was of literary merit. The main objections to Lady Chatterley’s Lover were to the words used, rather than the adulterous situation.

Various academics, critics, and experts were called as witnesses in the trial, including E.M. Forster, Helen Gardner, Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, and Norman St. John-Stevas. The verdict, delivered on November 2, 1960 was “not guilty” and, when the chief prosecutor, Mervyn Griffith-Jones asked if Lady Chatterley were “the kind of book you would wish your wife or servants to read,” the prosecution was ridiculed for being out of touch with the changing social norms.

The Penguin second edition, published in 1961, contains a publisher’s dedication that reads: “For having published this book, Penguin Books were prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, 1959 at the Old Bailey in London from 20 October to 2 November 1960. This edition is therefore dedicated to the twelve jurors, three women and nine men, who returned a verdict of ‘Not Guilty’ and thus made D.H. Lawrence’s last novel available for the first time to the public in the United Kingdom.”

Of course today, most well read persons have read Lady Chatterley’s Lover and consider it “no big deal” (and certainly not Lawrence’s masterpiece, by any means) and it’s readily available through any bookstore.

If you're new to Lawrence and want to read one of his works, I wouldn't recommend Lady Chatterley's Lover, but Sons and Lovers, instead. Sons and Lovers (or the more exuberant Women in Love) is a vastly superior book, and is generally considered to be Lawrence's masterpiece. Lawrence was also a master of the short story, and you can find many of his short stories online.

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