When art is suppressed, liberty is dead

Monday Book Reviews

March 30, 1992|By Frederick Busch



AS THE nation grows, so does the din. There are more of us, there are more of us seeking to speak -- to make art and to protest and to plead our claims. We seem to grow impatient with one another while our government grows impatient with the difficulties of regulating our traditionally irregular conduct.

More and more, the Supreme Court seems to seek simplicities in this terribly complex time. More and more, the Bill of Rights appears endangered. So does our liberty.

"Girls Lean Back Everywhere: The Law of Obscenity and the Assault on Genius" is written by a lawyer who has defended the literary arts against traditional American fretfulness about sex. Edward de Grazia has studied censorship in two other books, and he pours into this one his expertise and his concern for our right to make and to experience art. Justice William J. Brennan Jr., whose absence from the court feels more like a wound to the body politic every day, is the hero of the story that de Grazia seeks to tell. It is to him that the book is dedicated, for Brennan guided the Warren Court -- against the inclinations of Justice Earl Warren's prudishness -- to establish the precedent that books having literary, artistic or other social import ought to be protected by the Constitution against obscenity charges.

"Girls Lean Back Everywhere" studies attempts to suppress writing, to intimidate and bankrupt publishers, to jail nightclub performers and to shut down magazines. It offers fascinating accounts of the jailing of Zola's English publisher, of the machinations of the Watch and Ward Society, the National Vigilance Association and the Cincinnati Citizens for Community Values.

It reminds us that when we protect the genius of Theodore Dreiser and Vladimir Nabokov and James Joyce, we also protect such second-rate fiction as Desmund Wilson's "Memoirs of Hecate County," or the likes of 2 Live Crew's "As Nasty As They Wanna Be." It shows the courage of such non-establishmentarians as Al Boni and Horace Liveright (publishers of Dreiser), Pascal Covici and Donald Friede (publishers of Radclyffe Hall's "The Well of Loneliness") and Random House's Bennett Cerf (publisher of "Ulysses"), and the timidity of most of the publishing houses. And it demonstrates amply the damage -- financial, emotional, artistic -- done to artists and their supporters by the arts vigilantes who would determine what is fit to disseminate to the rest of us.

The "girls" of the title come from Jane Heap, who, along with her friend and partner Margaret Anderson, sought to print part of Joyce's "Ulysses" in "The Little Review" for July-August 1920. John Sumner, one of the anti-vice agents of whom American history is too chock-full (think of Anthony Comstock, secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice; think of Jesse Helms and his assault on the National Endowment for the Arts), )) arrested the women and charged them with publishing obscenity. Jane Heap's wonderful response is well-employed by Grazia: "Mr. Joyce was not teaching early Egyptian perversions nor inventing new ones. Girls lean back everywhere, showing lace and silk stockings; wear low-cut sleeveless blouses, breathless bathing suits; men think thoughts and have emotions about these things everywhere . . . and no one is corrupted."

It is wonderfully ironic that the book's title derives from the remark of a woman who sought to publish some of "Ulysses" after another brave and dedicated woman, Sylvia Beach, published it in France. For the argument against artistically used language has been, in England and the United States and on the Continent, that girls would be endangered, either through direct exposure to the corrupting language itself or to the crazed actions of immature young men who might fall prey to it. Again and again, over so many years, de Grazia shows, the prosecutors -- usually male, WASP -- bemoan the endangered girls.

But now that the novel about lesbian love, "The Well of Loneliness," can be published, now that "Lady Chatterley's Lover" can be published, now that "Lolita" can be published, now that "Howl" can be published, and now that Eddie Murphy can shout scatologies, the "girls" about whom the censors cried have grown up to be powerful women to whom one must listen. And they are demanding censorship for what they call "pornography," a definition of which is offered by Catharine MacKinnon: "the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures or words that also includes women dehumanized as sexual objects . . . "

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