Unclean Lips: Jews, Obscen­i­ty, and Amer­i­can Culture

  • Review
By – December 16, 2013

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.

Read Josh Lam­bert’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

How Did You Come to Write That Book, Anyway?

Can We Print Moth­er­fuck­er” Here?

Is Shmuk” a Dirty Word?

Obscene Rec­om­men­da­tions

Discussion Questions