Here’s a section of the Erskine Caldwell chapter of Literary Obscenities that I regrettably had to cut down considerably due to the length of initial versions of the manuscript. I’m reproducing it here along with the chapter’s original title, which was itself excised because of concerns expressed by PSUP‘s (excellent) graphic design team regarding its damn awful cumbersome wordiness.
In Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism (1995), Walter Benn Michaels surveys a heterogeneous mix of discourses (modernist prose and poetry, Congressional acts, Presidential addresses, etc.) to tell the story of how Progressive-era logics of naturalization and assimilation all but evaporated in the face of U.S. nativist ambitions in the 1920s to invent cultures in which racial identities and the “fact” of racial difference itself could be put to work in re-determining collective identities more broadly, especially national ones. The commitment to identity and what such a commitment might thereby entail are what link nativism to U.S. modernism in this period, according to Michaels: if the goal of nativism in American life is for the American to be “American,” then the aims of American modernists at this time was to produce “American” modernism.[i]
In both cases, identity is an achievement and not simply a tautological given because, Michaels argues, the issue of American and cultural identity had undergone a double disarticulation by this time. No longer tied either to citizenship or to beliefs and practices, the meanings of “American” and “culture” had become a nationwide project whose solution (the replacement of racial identity with cultural identity) was merely the most ingenious “way of reconceptualizing and thereby preserving the essential contours of racial identity” (13). For Michaels, although the move from racial identity to cultural identity appears to replace essentialist criteria of identity (who we are) with performative criteria (what we do), the commitment to pluralism requires in fact that the question of who we are continues to be understood as prior to questions about what we do. Since, in pluralism, what we do can be justified only by reference to who we are, we must begin by affirming who we are; it is only once we know who we are that we will be able to tell what we should do; it is only when we know which race we are that we can tell which culture is ours (13-15).
Our America thus seeks to disembed and then track the paths through which a naturalized America became a racialized America under the aegis of pluralism. In connection with Erskine Caldwell’s early novella, The Bastard (1929), however, Michaels’ polemics against pluralism are less relevant than his discussions of the faulty formal solutions which nativist modernists tested before “discovering” the provisional solutions offered by culture itself. Early in his book, Michaels foregrounds “the position of the family as bearer of what [he] will call identitarian claims” (6). “The significance of the family,” he contends, “is that it was in terms of familial relations (as opposed, say, to economic relations or regional or even generational relations) that new structures of identity were articulated” (6). Furthermore, “What’s at stake in the desire to keep someone in the family is thus the sense that what is outside the family is also outside the race” (7-8). Essential though the family may be to the project of figuring nativist identities, Michaels is nevertheless quick to delineate its impasses. If the family is in fact the bearer of identitarian claims, and if, moreover, all exogamous or non-incestuous unions necessarily threaten to contaminate those claims, then the only solutions seemingly on offer in the effort to keep the family from producing half-breeds are those of incest, sterility, and homosexuality. The truly all-American family in the nativist imaginary, then, assumes three fundamental forms: the incestuous family (Michaels’ primary examples here are the Compsons from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury ), the solitary castrated male (as one might expect, the discussion here turns in part to Jake Barnes in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises ), and the homosexual family (heavy weather is made of the all-male family in Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady ).
Insofar as it strictly enforces the incestuous imperatives of American nativist modernism as described by Michaels, The Bastard makes its obscene potentials dependent upon collective identitarian projects of the 1920s, something which even the most cursory catalogue of the book’s narrative events amply demonstrates. Implicitly on the trail of his harlot mother, Gene Morgan (the titular bastard) meets a stranger who has a photograph of a scarred prostitute with a nippleless left breast who may or may not be Gene’s mother. This stranger goes on to tell Gene some stories involving a stunted pony, twenty-seven men, and a woman who also may or may not have been Gene’s mother. We learn that Gene remembers having seen his mother only twice before in his life and that during the first such encounter he picked her up “in a burlesque theatre in Philadelphia: in a hotel on Twelfth Street he spent the night with her, but she did not know he was her son, or if she did know she didn’t care.”[ii] After arbitrarily murdering the stranger and disposing of his body in a nearby river, Gene goes on a binge in an undisclosed city. Subsequent chapters follow his return to Lewisville, the not-so-sleepy Southern cotton town of his birth, where Gene gets work at the cottonseed oil mill, sleeps with or rapes a number of local women (black and white), befriends and moves in with the sheriff’s son, aids and abets the sheriff’s son in the murder of an African-American worker at a local sawmill, murders the night watchmen at the cottonseed oil mill while in the midst of bedding that night watchman’s wife, and falls in love with a young woman loitering outside the Lewisville high school. This woman, Myra, shares a last name with Gene, and throughout the novella the narrative refers fleetingly to the possibility that the two are in fact half-siblings. Soon after their first meeting, the pair leaves Lewisville and strikes out for the North. In Philadelphia, Gene settles down and finds work as a truck driver to support his new family. Eventually, they have a son who is physically deformed and developmentally challenged to a monstrous degree: “Little Leon was now nearly two years old, and, while his body had lengthened, his skin was still loose and dry and, most important of all, he could not coordinate the movements of his body. Still he required the same attention from his mother as he did when he was a week old. He was horrible to look upon, even through the eyes of his mother and father” (169-70). Gene and Myra subsist fitfully for a time before The Bastard concludes with Gene drowning their son (although this scene is not directly represented) and abandoning his wife.
Effectively, what Caldwell’s novella offers its reader is the critical literalization of at least one of the all-American families (the incestuous family) that nativist modernism tacitly projected by making the family the site for collective identity formations in the 1920s. The Bastard thus “normalizes” sexual relations only through the implied kinship of the two partners involved: Gene Morgan’s propensities for violent intercourse and disregard for racial boundaries in his sexual couplings are made to disappear almost inexplicably once he meets and elopes with Myra Morgan. That the only meaningfully sustained monogamous marriage depicted in the book is incestuous calls attention to the ideal that such a union posed for keeping the American family pure at this time. The only “good” family in the world of The Bastard is that of a brother and sister joined in marriage. What perhaps distinguishes Caldwell’s novella within—if not exactly from—nativist projects of the era, however, is its obstinacy in following the reproductive illogic of incest all the way to its nasty conclusion. Using the incestuous union to keep the Other out of the family nevertheless produces an inassimilable alterity within the family unit itself, with the result that this hideous intruder must be murdered and the incestuous union itself shattered. Incest, therefore, is shown to be a manifestly false solution to nativist identitarian projects. Furthermore, Caldwell’s novella does not succumb to the modernist temptation of The Sound and the Fury to make the word become the thing (as when Quentin Compson declares, “I said I have committed incest, Father I said” [iii], but rather follows the more material logic of making the thing itself be the thing it always promised itself to be. After all, although the novella never comes right out and says Myra and Gene are half-siblings, Leon nevertheless demonstrates that this is indeed the case. Incest cannot help but be a failed means of nativist reproductive futurity, and not so much because your sister will run away from it, as Caddy Compson does in Faulkner’s novel, but rather because your sister and you will necessarily produce dysgenic stock that will not have much chance at reproducing itself thereafter. The Bastard thus presents the incestuous imperatives of nativist modernism as a potentially extinction-level event in the construction of a new American identity.[iv]
Accordingly, in its awkward fascination with gruesome acts of violence and coerced sex pursued by the socially dispossessed, as well as in its feigned neutrality in presenting characters with an apparently innate predisposition for brutality and rapine, The Bastard evinces nothing so much as atavistic naturalism. What differentiates Caldwell’s novella from earlier novels by Frank Norris or Jack London, however, is its studious subtraction of those two hoary old coordinates of literary naturalism, milieu and familial history, from the composition of Gene Morgan’s story. The Bastard instead presents Gene as a hereditary case through the accumulation of increasingly sordid incidents and actions rather than through details pertaining to family background or setting. The frequent violence of Gene’s actions indicates a compulsive predisposition in his character, yet the novella’s narrator obstinately refuses to “explain” Gene through either environmental conditions or hereditary pressures. In fact, so little effort is made to account for Gene and his behavior that the barest intimations of a lurid family history given in the book’s first chapter start to accrue an unsustainable explanatory weight by the middle of the narrative. In short, Caldwell dramatizes adverse hereditary forces by evading direct statements as to their determinate powers as such. The Bastard self-reflexively invites naturalistic explanations for atavistic behaviors even as it reduces them to rumor, hearsay, and intimation. In the course of presenting his readers with a series of character reactions utterly incommensurate with their accompanying stimuli, Caldwell thus composes a naturalistic world shorn free of the discourses and theories that would seek to motivate it causally.
Though they tend to elude being codified into hard-and-fast forms, naturalistic texts often remain identifiable as such by the degree to which they thematize tense interrelationships between free will and compulsive determinism, effectively blurring boundaries between text and life.[v] At first glance, then, naturalist texts would appear to resist processes of aesthetic autonomization. For one thing, Zola’s emphasis on determinism as opposed to fatalism in “The Experimental Novel” (1880) had implied that the phenomena acting and acted upon in human life worlds were not only observable but masterable as well. By submitting the naturalistically composed novel to experimental processes of observation and careful modification, “we shall construct a practical sociology,” he argued, “and our work will be a help to political and economic sciences.”[vi] The naturalist novel of Zola’s programmatic essay, then, was to help reduce life to caused effects that legislators and other “men of affairs” could thereafter subordinate, develop, and direct.[vii]
Though the extent to which Zola’s literary practice actually carried out his theory has been the subject of much subsequent debate, that theory nevertheless continued to prove formative in early twentieth-century U.S. naturalist fiction, which sought to thematize—descriptively and prescriptively—the social forces from which readers could not except themselves. The reduction of a character’s will to almost null in a naturalist novel thus tends to assert the determinate and determining powers of human will in general. In keeping with such a vision, Caldwell’s best defense against the county attorney’s charges was to insist on The Bastard’s constitutive relationship to its social contexts, thus confirming the compositional necessity of the “obscenity” in that text itself.
Nor is this emphasis on context simply a self-serving defense made up on the spot. The Bastard in fact already offers a striking version of it in a brief interlude at the Lewisville cottonseed oil mill. Fairly early in the novella, a carnival comes to town, and the men working the night shift at the mill engage a performance by a “hooch dancer” for their midnight lunch hour. When the break whistle blows, Gene hurries along with the other men to a shed on the mill property:
Already a dozen men were perching themselves on the seed oval, already impatient at the delay. Down in the mouth of the crater, where the cotton seed had been scraped from the floor, stood the woman who was to furnish the body for the dance and the body for the men. Standing there in the centre of the circle of men she was the target for handfuls of cotton seed and the vulturous words from their mouths. Over her body she wore a thin cloth of orange silk. Under the garment rose swelling thighs and unstillable breasts. She was talking to one of the several men beside her, her words broken under the pelting shower of flying cotton seed. (52)
After collecting a dollar from each of the gathered men, the woman begins her hip dance on the floor of the cotton seed crater:
Even before she was nude the shed was in an uproar, and by the time she had thrown the garment beside her pocketbook the din was headsplitting. She smiled forcedly around the circle and began her hip dance. The motions and effect were purely sensual, studiously calculated to inflame the lust of the men. The woman was an accomplished dancer it was quite evident, and placed amidst finer surroundings she would no doubt have achieved with the motions of her hips and breasts an effect not quite as crude and obscene. (53)
Following the dance, which climaxes with small photographs of her child falling from an unclasped locket hanging from her necklace, the woman retires to the shed where the men line up to pay her another dollar to sleep with her, and the chapter ends as this “line closed up” (55).
Despite the surprise and disgust feigned by Caldwell in his broadside, the hooch dancer episode in The Bastard already offers a pointed elucidation of her potential for obscenity and the novella’s as well. Characteristically, little effort is made in the passage to represent the woman’s dance beyond direct statements as to its abstract coordination of cause and effect. “The motions and effect [of the hip dance] were purely sensual” because the one is assumed to be capable of fully (i.e., sensually) determining the other; the art of inflaming “the lust of men” is subject to studious calculations that can be embodied in imagined performance, if not by the novella’s text itself. At the very least, The Bastard attempts neither to imitate the hip dance nor to strive for its effects in the formal and syntactical composition of its words. Instead, in keeping with the novella’s critical instantiation of naturalistic methods and premises, the dance itself is merely the occasion for asserting a fairly strong and prescriptive determinism (these motions lead to these effects) without the exhaustive presentation of the causal networks that would make the operations of that determinism possible in the first place.
Moreover, the narrator complicates this assertion as to the strong determinism of obscenity by insisting that it is subject to its milieu. The same dance “placed amidst finer surroundings” than that of a cotton seed pit supporting twenty-five to thirty riotous men “would no doubt have achieved . . . an effect not quite as crude and obscene.” There is no such thing as obscenity in and of itself, it would appear. Instead, there is only potential obscenity, which depends upon milieu and class because obscene effects are not something that can be readily achieved “amidst finer surroundings” than those afforded by a cottonseed oil mill pit.[viii] Contexts of production as well as those of reception are thus vital for recognizing obscenity, a term the narrator of The Bastard defines as the creation “of beauty or rhythm . . . by the actual indulgence of artificially generated lust” (53).
The hooch dancer comprises more than just a verbally represented emblem of The Bastard as a text that was proscribed on grounds of obscenity. In The Heron Press edition of the novella, Ty Mahon’s illustration of her hip dance at the cottonseed oil mill appears on the leaf facing the title page, highlighting the significance of the scene for those who would read The Bastard for its obscene potentials. Lazily angling bare calves, torso, arms, and head, the hooch dancer in Mahon’s visualization of the dance episode appears at first glance to be more luridly posed than artfully arrested in “purely sensual” motion. Unlike the men whose split-pea eyes leer from the circle around her, she is free of excessive shading. Whereas the cartoonish features of these men gathered about her seem to be seen indistinctly through a curtain of hasty vertical and diagonal marks (perhaps an attempt to visualize Caldwell’s spermatic “shower of flying cotton seed”), the predominant feature of her illustrated version is arguably the virtual absence of features: musculature, jaw, chin, belly button, and digits appear indistinctly on the page. Mahon also excludes not only the dancer’s pubic hair but also her locket, a detail that preoccupies Caldwell enough for him to momentarily violate the novella’s point of view, which until this point has been third-person limited to Gene.[ix] Within the white space expelling the murky torrential shadings of the millhands, the hooch dancer emerges as if from the nub-end of an eraser, and the ultimate effect of Mahon’s illustration is arguably less qualified than the ones pursued by Caldwell’s text.
The surroundings of the hooch dancer do not seem as open to variability in this visual representation of the hip dance as they do in Caldwell’s verbal account, because the halo of white space draping her nude body demarcates not so much a zone of inapproachability as a covering to be punctured, either by the grasping paw of the millhand reaching toward her hips from her right or by the keenly staring man to her left, whose right arm and hand dip suggestively toward his own crotch. Poised literally between rape and the voyeuristically-achieved self-pleasures of ogling men on the leaf facing The Bastard’s title page, the illustrated hooch dancer appears to promise unmixed pleasures that the text itself either estranges or evades altogether. If Caldwell cannot make it through the scene without including digressions as to the mere potential of female bodies, given the right milieu, to promote “the actual indulgence of artificially created lust” in men, Mahon’s illustration seeks instead to interpose no such impediments beyond the depiction of a female body and what that body is to be used for by men (i.e., coerced sex or masturbation). The body for the dance can be nothing other than the body for the men in Mahon’s drawing, and it would seem that viewing this and other illustrations in the novella in this way caused the Cumberland County Attorney to declare the book obscene. Anticipating the infamous pronouncement of Potter Stewart in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964), he quite simply knew obscenity when he saw it.
Yet Mahon’s illustration is arguably as estranging as the coordinated causes and effects described by Caldwell’s narrator in the hooch dancer episode. Though momentarily warding off the imminent threat of a millworker’s hand, the halo of whiteness surrounding the dancer’s nude body also indicates the potential transposability of that body. More than just a tenuous protective covering to her body when surrounded by a crowd of aroused night-laborers, the negative space encircling the woman also implicitly facilitates the provisional cutting and pasting of her body into entirely different scenes and milieu altogether. Consequently, the illustration of the hooch dancer also represents the reduction of her body to an occasion for “the actual indulgence of artificially created lust” in this particular case; despite the fact that the drawing arrests the scene just before the moment this will no longer be the case—another second or two, and the hand of the millworker will seize the body of the woman—milieu, dance, and dancer do not necessarily reinforce each other in Mahon’s drawing. That is to say, the depicted uses of the hooch dancer’s body are contingent and subject to self-reflexive (and possibly self-cancelling) gestures that compliment similar representations in Caldwell’s text.
The mere placement of this particular illustration on the leaf facing the title page, however, is still another turn of the screw regarding the obscene potentials of The Bastard. Though plausibly supporting more complex interpretations than those given or presumed by the Cumberland County Attorney, Mahon’s visual emblem for Caldwell’s novella indicates a different genealogy for its mode of publication than the ones that most studies on modernist publishing practices have tended to offer. In fact, Rachel Potter’s recent work on modernism and the trade in salacious books productively ambiguates the significance of modernist limited editions and subscription lists for readers and state authorities in the 1920s and 1930s by asking us to reconsider what these authorities and readers actually saw when presented with works like Shakespeare & Company’s Ulysses (1922). Rather than follow the influential arguments in Lawrence Rainey’s Institutions of Modernism (1998) regarding the myriad uneven processes of commodification that modernist texts and publishing practices underwent in this period, she stresses instead legal and social features mentioned only in passing in his account. In addition to providing the means by which publishers in the 1920s could present Anglo-American modernist works to wealthy patrons as opportunities for speculative investment, subscription lists and limited editions were also publishing practices long associated with pornography. Since at least the nineteenth century, the use of limited editions and subscription lists had been a common practice in the publishing of pornographic texts that vexed legal distinctions between public and private. By pricing texts beyond the reach of those with low-to-average incomes and making such works available solely to those on a publisher’s mailing list, publishers intended to remove potentially suppressible texts from public domains and resituate them in presumably more private realms, helping to ensure that these texts would be safe from purity groups and nosy customs officials.[x] According to Potter, “If Rainey sees Beach’s use of subscription lists as part of an attempt to create Ulysses as a special, luxury commodity, he downplays the fact that such means of dissemination had a long and complex history. It is only in retrospect that the distinctions between Ulysses and pornographic texts, and the literary market and the pornography trade, are straightforward. It did not look so clear-cut to some lawyers, judges, Vice Crusaders, publishers, customs officials, typists, husbands of typists, daughters of lawyers, or others at the time.”[xi]
Consequently, The Bastard must have seemed a strange object indeed to patrons of Caldwell’s Longfellow Square Bookshop in Portland. Though priced and published in a way potential buyers would have associated with the pornographic book trade, Caldwell’s novella nevertheless appeared for public sale in a bookstore, and not for a more confidential exchange via the supposed privacy of a subscription list. Furthermore, though Caldwell defended the naturalist pretences of its words, The Bastard incurred the censorious attentions of the Cumberland County Attorney because of Ty Mahon’s illustrations of women in various states of undress and arousal. It is these illustrations which confirmed the pornographic implications of the edition’s scarcity and price, neither of which were sufficient in themselves to connote modernist publication practices of the sort commonly associated with either Shakespeare & Company’s Ulysses or the Hogarth Press’s The Waste Land (1922). In short, Caldwell’s public sale of The Bastard frustrated the modernist and pornographic implications of its mode of publication.
[i] Cf. the discussion of William Carlos Williams’ identitarianism in Walter Benn Michaels, Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), 83: “Just as in nativism the goal of the American is to be American, in Williams’ modernism the goal of the American poet is to produce American poetry.” Further references provided parenthetically.
[ii] Erskine Caldwell, The Bastard (New York: Heron, 1929), 15-16. Further references provided parenthetically.
[iii] William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury, ed. David Minter (New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994), 49.
[iv] Michaels also discusses at length the development of the “extinguished” or “vanished” family in the texts of nativist modernism in the 1920s as a marker of authenticity throughout Our America. At the end of the section of the essay discussing principally F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) and Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady, he observes, “The extinguished family is thus added to the incestuous family and the homosexual one as a repository of the ‘American’; the fact that it has ‘vanished’ counts as the proof that it is ‘ours’” (52). Cf. Michaels, 29-52, 63-64.
[v] For more on naturalism as the asymptotic quest for a form both adequate to its theoretical premises as well as assimilable to the novel as an historically bound mode of writing, see the criteria of literary naturalism discussed in Charles Child Walcutt, American Literary Naturalism, A Divided Stream (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956), 20-23. Walcutt also offers a concise account in this book of how “all ‘naturalistic’ texts exist in a tension between determinism and its antithesis” (29). For a dynamic and expansive re-casting of Walcutt’s antithesis into a variety of Greimas semiotic rectangles, see June Howard, Form and History in American Literary Naturalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), esp. 36-69.
[vi] Émile Zola, The Experimental Novel and Other Essays (New York: Cassell Publishing Company, 1893), 26.
[vii] Ibid., 31.
[viii] In effect, Caldwell’s remarks on the hooch dancer’s dance in The Bastard anticipate developments in obscenity jurisprudence in America, Great Britain, and the Commonwealth by almost half a century. See the discussion of variable obscenity in Ian Hunter, David Saunders, and Dugald Williamson, On Pornography: Literature, Sexuality and Obscenity Law (London: Macmillan, 1993), 240.
[ix] It should be noted that in subsequent chapters, the narrator violates the novella’s point of view at least three more times to give the reader access to the interiorities and life histories of John Hunter (the Lewisville Sheriff’s son) and Myra Morgan (59-65, 152-54, 160).
[x] To underscore Potter’s point once more, this time with an example drawn from Caldwell’s career, I would point out that The Viking Press released Caldwell’s Journeyman (1935) in a limited edition of 1,475 copies because it feared obscenity prosecutions of the kind God’s Little Acre had faced in the state of New York upon the release of that book in 1933. Journeyman did not have enough artistic merit in the estimations of Viking’s editors and lawyers to justify a larger initial print-run, like the one afforded God’s Little Acre. For more on this decision by Viking, see Harvey L. Klevar, Erskine Caldwell: A Biography (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993), 147, 153, 157. For the New York City obscenity case involving God’s Little Acre, see People v. Viking Press, Inc., 264 N.Y.S. 534.
[xi] Rachel Potter, Obscene Modernism: Literary Censorship and Experiment, 1900-1940 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 101.