This Day In Literary History
On December 20th, 1929, Lady Chatterley's Lover, the classic novel by the legendary English writer D.H. Lawrence, was declared legally obscene and banned in the United States.
Lawrence's novel told the story of Lady Constance Chatterley, whose husband Sir Clifford's war injuries have left him crippled, impotent, and embittered. Lady Chatterley soon finds herself driven to the brink of madness by sexual frustration.
Finally, in desperation, she embarks on a passionate affair with her gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors. The affair leads her to realize that in order to truly live, she (and all human beings) needs to be alive not only intellectually and emotionally, but sexually as well.
Due to the novel's daring philosophy, explicit and erotic depictions of sexual encounters, and use of language considered obscene, including the words fuck and cunt, Lady Chatterley's Lover was declared legally obscene and banned in the United States.
When he wrote the novel, D.H. Lawrence was hoping to create a breakthrough work of literature that would set the literary world alight - a challenging, thought provoking novel that would open people's eyes and minds. He got his wish, though he wouldn't live to see it granted.
The content of Lady Chatterley's Lover made it impossible to publish in Lawrence's native England. The uncensored first edition was published in Italy in June of 1928, in an initial press run of 1,000 copies, all of them signed by the author. It sold out across Europe.
In early 1929, when British Customs agents learned that copies of the novel were being imported into the UK, they quickly began seizing them. As a result of the UK ban, and bans in other European countries, cheap pirated editions of the novel were produced.
Lawrence and his publisher didn't see a penny from the pirate books, which were sold on the black market and under the counter in certain bookshops.
In response to the pirated editions, Lawrence decided to self-publish a new, authorized uncensored second edition. Printed by a publisher friend of his in Paris, the signed second edition was released in a serialized version and sold via subscription.
The subscriptions were sold and shipped discreetly to countries where Lady Chatterley's Lover had been banned. As was typical for banned books, pirated editions were published and sold under the counter, cheating the author and his official publisher out of money.
Despite the continued presence of pirated editions, Lawrence's new official version of Lady Chatterley's Lover sold well and made him a healthy profit. But soon, Customs agents in various countries caught on to the subscription plan, and the novel was banned yet again.
Lawrence had hoped that in the United States, whose constitution's First Amendment guaranteed freedom of expression, he would have an unrestricted market for his novel.
Unfortunately, at the time, there was a federal law on the books called the Comstock Act which prohibited the shipment of obscene materials through the mail, and the conservative courts had long ruled that the First Amendment didn't cover allegedly obscene material.
The Comstock Act, which would remain in effect in various forms until the Supreme Court struck it down completely in 1965, was named after his creator, Postal Inspector Anthony Comstock.
It had a definition of obscenity so vague that its creator even used it to block the shipment of certain medical textbooks to medical students. Years earlier, Comstock used his law to have James Joyce's classic epic novel Ulysses declared obscene due to one brief but controversial chapter.
By December of 1929, U.S. Customs agents had begun seizing all copies of Lady Chatterley's Lover that came into America. D.H. Lawrence bemoaned the fate of his novel at the hands of "policemen, prudes, and swindlers."
He realized that he may have to do what he dreaded most - prepare a bowdlerized version of his novel: "So I begin to be tempted and start to expurgate. But impossible! I might as well try to clip my own nose into shape with scissors. The book bleeds."
D.H. Lawrence was suffering from tuberculosis before Lady Chatterley's Lover became embroiled in a censorship battle. The stress resulting from the persecution of the novel and his vigorous attempts to defend it caused his frail health to deteriorate quickly. He died in March of 1930 at the age of 44.
The United States government's ban of Lady Chatterley's Lover would remain in effect for thirty years. Then, in 1959, the legendary American publisher Barney Rosset of Grove Press decided to publish the original uncensored version of the novel in defiance of the ban.
Rosset wanted to include the novel as part of a republication of the complete works of D.H. Lawrence. He set the stage for a landmark trial where it would be ruled not legally obscene and the ban overturned. The ruling would be upheld by the Second Court of Appeals in March of 1960.
The obscenity trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover was a major victory for Barney Rosset. It gave him the legal ammunition to successfully challenge the bans on two other classic novels that he desperately wanted to publish: Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (1934) and William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch (1959).
Around the same time that Lady Chatterley's Lover was being tried for obscenity in the United States, the legendary British publishing house Penguin Books defied the ban on it in the UK and faced a similar trial.
In November of 1960, the novel was ruled not legally obscene by the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey.
Quote Of The Day
"The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted." - D.H. Lawrence
Today's video features a reading from D.H. Lawrence's famous novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover, performed by Dame Judi Dench. Enjoy!