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The Law of Obscenity and the Assault on Genius

by Edward de Grazia

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1991
ISBN: 0-394-57611-X
Publisher: Random House

 A verbose and sprawling, yet well-researched and compelling, narrative history of how literary iconoclasts have run afoul of censors in America. For more than 80 years, beginning with the so-called ``Comstock Act'' of 1873, the federal government and the states cracked down on sexually oriented material, until the Warren Court, led by Justice William Brennan, sought to protect creative expression by taking on the nettlesome issue of defining obscenity (notably through the ``utterly without redeeming social value'' criterion). First Amendment attorney de Grazia (Law/Cardozo Law School; co-author, Banned Films, 1982)--who argued the landmark obscenity cases involving Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch--details the legal and personal reverses and victories experienced in this struggle by authors, publishers, and booksellers. Quoting extensively, even ad nauseam, from the participants, his account is at its most riveting and accessible for nonlawyers in depicting the adversity faced by the likes of Lawrence, Joyce, Dreiser, Edmund Wilson, Henry Miller, Burroughs, and Nabokov. Like many an author whose years of work have left him loath to leave anything out, however, de Grazia could have used an editor less squeamish about reducing his frequent redundancies and tangents (although the book is about American law, foreign cases involving Zola's La Terre and Radclyffe Hall's lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness are covered at length, as are the nonliterary trials of Lenny Bruce). Predictably, the author sees recent imbroglios involving 2 Live Crew, Robert Mapplethorpe, Karen Finley, etc., in the light of past cases, barely acknowledging new concerns about sexual violence, government art-funding, or the need to shield children from ever more explicit material. Despite its flaws, then, an essential reference on how artistic rebels have defied social norms on creative expression-- and on how the judiciary has responded in incremental, sometimes contradictory, ways.