Of the Ache to Just Get Down and Lick Something, Ache to Get Down and Lick Something, Just Get Down and Lick Something: Erskine Caldwell, Smut, and the Paperbacking of Obscenity

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 [1929]), 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 [1926]), and the homosexual family (heavy weather is made of the all-male family in Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady [1923]).

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).

Figure 1

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.

Naturalism and the American Novel

Caldwell

In 1953 Erskine Caldwell recorded a feisty audio lecture (or “Sound Seminar”) entitled “Naturalism and the American Novel,” which I draw on at length in the first chapter of Literary Obscenities. As the recording itself is awfully hard to track down, I submit for your review a sizeable selection of choice quotes from it here.

It has been brought to my attention that in some quarters I am looked upon as a writer who, to some extent at least, I suppose, belongs to the naturalistic school of the American novelist. Well, this sounds interesting. It had sound [sic] interesting now and it has sound [sic] interesting when I first heard of this. And so I have gone to some length to try to found out what the meaning of this can be.


As I would put it, there are discussions of this nature should [sic] belong wholly to the critical man of letters, who, by reason of heritage, birth, and environment, is a man far superior in mind and morals, and a man who can outtalk a mere writer of fiction anytime, anywhere.


Some critics have called me a realist, and I came to believe them. Other critics have called me a romanticist, and I came to believe them too. Now, if I am to be called a naturalist, I shall no doubt believe that as well, but I can’t be all things, and until the question is resolved for once and for all, I would be content to remain just what I thought I was: a writer of fiction, a storyteller from Georgia.


[Caldwell is attempting to determine] the meaning of such a term as naturalistic fiction.


[Caldwell was] somewhat surprised and well-taken-back too [at being among the] “Undisputed Naturalists” [in Floyd Stovall’s American Idealism (1943):] I find that all comfort and peace of mind has been taken from me.


I do not agree in full with some of the definitions of naturalism, many of which I think are pessimistic to an extreme.


[Caldwell quotes one source as defining naturalism as] the depiction of the violent and the ugly, of poverty and class conflicts. [He himself  sees not only the violent and the ugly, poverty and class conflicts in life, but also] spasms of laughter, the horseplay of humor, and the enjoyment of living.


I’m not happy when catalogued and categoried and pigeon-holed and told I must subscribe to, and stay within the bounds of, any school of writing. I think I’d rather play hooky.


[Caldwell with respect to the effect of naturalism on the American novel:] I would like to be dogmatic and opinionated about this, if I may: I think the effect has been a good one. The proof of this is outstandingly evident in the works of the authors as listed by Mr. Stovall.


[Caldwell defends naturalism so strongly because he feels] that all creative writing, regardless of schools and categories, leads to understanding and tolerance in an intolerant world. [Therefore, he would] defend all schools of writing. Life itself is many-sided, and storytelling should be as many-sided as life if it is to reflect and interpret the living of this life. The gloom of naturalism is every bit as important in literature as the glow of romance and the chuckle of humor.


[According to Caldwell, critics would do well] to give up the baleful and unsocial habit of frittering away their lives in making propaganda for their prejudiced points of view. [Furthermore, critics would lead happier lives were they to look upon American literature as] an untamed, rampaging creature ranging the land, [instead of as a] laboratory frog to be sliced, pickled in a jar, and labeled this, that, and the other thing.


[Caldwell’s purpose in doing this Sound Seminar:] to prick the minds of the critics, to goad them into looking up from the contemplation of their navels.


Next to a dull novel, I don’t know anything more depressing than a critic who has mewed himself up from the world, and especially a naturalistic critic.

An Ezraized Little Review Will Have No Appeal to Young America

Here is an early (and, as was the case with the most recent Lillian Smith post, really rather different) introduction to the Wyndham Lewis chapter of Literary Obscenities.

Using his first editorial in The Little Review to settle old scores and foment new antagonisms, the newly appointed Pound both disclaimed his hampered involvement hitherto with Harriet Monroe’s Poetry and intimated that Margaret Anderson’s little magazine would prove to be the more tractable instrument of his peculiar blend of scholarship, enthusiasm, and pedagogy.  Importantly, this tractability was to be understood as extending to ongoing adjustments within the journal of the hierarchies governing the relationship between aesthetics and religiously-inflected notions of morality:  “If any human activity is sacred it is the formulation of thought in clear speech for the use of humanity; any falsification or evasion is evil.  The codes of propriety are all local, parochial, transient; a consideration of them, other than as subject matter, has no place in the arts.”[i]  Pound’s emphasis here is not on the purgation of morality altogether from the pages of The Little Review, but rather on the necessity of interfusing moral codes with compositional principles thereafter capable of guiding one’s discriminative judgments of good and evil, with evil understood as manifesting itself in thoughts that are poorly expressed.  Pound subordinates the moral to the aesthetic, thereby neutralizing one of the era’s more widely-used means to control objectionable cultural objects.  According to Pound’s editorial, immorality and impropriety are not reducible to transgression as such; correlatively, charges like those of obscenity can no longer meaningfully be made, whether in the popular press or in the courthouse, because their grounds are too particular and ephemeral when measured by the universalizable assessments that art properly demands.[ii]

For Pound, therefore, the antagonism to be pursued at all costs is that between The Little Review and those of its readers who would presume to possess their own critical standards.  If up to 1917, as one modernist scholar has recently argued, The Little Review had actively and successfully targeted American youth markets, then the advent of Pound as foreign editor marked a formidable attempt to liquidate whatever hold those markets might have had on the journal from here on out[iii]:  “The shell-fish grows its own shell, the genius creates its own milieu.  You, the public, can kill genius by actual physical starvation, you may perhaps thwart or distort it, but you can in no way create it.”[iv]  Tellingly, Pound turns his back not only on the magazine’s practice of niche marketing but also on the market altogether, at least rhetorically, for the value model Pound evokes is analogous to feudal prestige and obligation rather than capitalist profit.  The artist should, according to his virtue, receive a just tributary reward.  Marketplace competition does not drive the innovative development of the arts; only artists and their own independently pursued creative efforts can do that.  The patron provides the artist with a welcome service rather than the other way round.[v]

Yet the primary figure evoked here is not economic so much as ecological.  According to Pound, the artist-as-shellfish is the absolutely autonomous creator and master of his environment, save for the small matter of food, for which the mollusky demiurge in no way incurs a debt payable by him to his provider.  If anything, Pound argues, the patron-as-subsistence-provider (and precisely not the provisioned artist) is the parasite in this ecosystem because it is the artist who gives his patron and the world-at-large something neither would have otherwise had.[vi]  Moreover, it is this belief in the improbable self-sufficiency of the artist in his calcareous shell that motivates Pound’s final “humanist” blast against the mob in favor of “detached individuals,” which echoes throughout the complementary prose pieces contributed by T.S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis to the May 1917 issue of The Little Review.[vii]

Although the replacement of a fleshy and pliant epidermis with the dead, hardened exterior of a shell was already a privileged emblem of sorts in his visual and literary work, Lewis’ inaugural contribution to The Little Review focuses instead upon a popular classical intertext, the Circe episodes of The Odyssey, in the first of his “Imaginary Letters” in order to convey the effort required not to yield to the mimetic drift operative in consumerism and mass politics.[viii]  For instance, among the squibs aimed at “the gentleman-animal” and those who would prize happiness above all other worldly pursuits, Lewis has his fictional William Bland Burn write disenchantedly to his wife of their shared Circean circumstances:

I feel that we are obviously in the position of Ulysses’ companions; and there is nothing I resent more than people settling down to become what is sensible for a swine.  I will stalk about with my stumpy legs, and hold my snout high, however absurd it may be.  We must get through this enchantment without too many memories of abasement.  We most need, in the inner fact, changing back into men again!  And I don’t want the “happiness” of the swill-pail, but a perpetual restlessness until the magic is over![ix]

In turn, the first part of Eliot’s agonistic dialogue, “Eeldrop and Appleplex,” also revolves around the problems presented by contemporary liberal and democratic ideologies to those who would obstinately remain individuals.  At one point in their spectatorial and analytic tête-à-tête, Eeldrop even concedes to Appleplex, “The ‘individualist’ is a member of a mob as fully as any other man:  and the mob of individualists is the most unpleasing, because it has the least character. . . . We cannot escape the label, but let it be one which carries no distinction, and arouses no self-consciousness.  Sufficient that we should find simple labels, and not further exploit them.”[x]  Whereas Pound’s editorial appears able to define and defend the humanism of valuing “detached individuals” because it has no trouble presupposing that such a separation from the vulgar rabblement is even possible in the first place, the Lewis and Eliot submissions unveil the tenuousness of such a distinction.

Seldom taken for granted by these three writers, individuality instead remains an ever-unfolding processual project, and consequential first steps toward the development of something like a successful individuation appear to involve the sorts of antagonistic relations instantiated by Pound in his opening editorial.[xi]  Accordingly, the “Ezraized Little Review” soon enough estranged longtime subscribers to Anderson’s little magazine.[xii]  Starting with the June 1917 issue, the pages of “The Reader Critic,” the section of the journal devoted to reprinting letters from readers and responses to those letters by the editorial staff, became the site both for indexing this tense breach between publisher and consumer as well as for staging the journal’s programmatic inflexibility when it came to giving readers what they thought they wanted.  Despite two letters voicing their unwavering support of the new Little Review (including one quick missive from James Joyce in Zurich), the correspondence in the June “Reader Critic” expresses worries about the potentially deleterious effects of Pound’s notions of art on American artistic life and the troubling ramifications for the little magazine of his capriciously Manichean approaches to artistic production.[xiii]  A group of New York subscribers threaten to withdraw their “moral and financial support” unless “The Reader Critic” reappears in future issues of The Little Review (it was excised in the May 1917 issue due to lack of space), presumably because they wish to have a reliable public forum in which to register their increasing dissatisfaction with the journal.[xiv]  In addition to complaining about the mere announcement of Pound’s foreign editorship in the April 1917 issue, the final letter in the June “Reader Critic” attempts to undercut the adversarial poses adopted by The Little Review in apparent collusion with Pound:  a reader from Massachusetts writes, “You see it is a fact that your ‘art for art’s sake’ cannot exist without supporters:  nothing is free from economic conditions which are the creators and destroyers of people’s tendencies and deeds.”[xv]  Contrary to Pound’s shellfish, milieu rather than genius ultimately determines the destruction and creation of art.

These letters, as well as those selectively included in subsequent installments of “The Reader Critic,” only partly reveal what Pound’s inauguration into the pages of The Little Review represented to its editorial staff.[xvi]  In her August 1917 essay, “What the Public Doesn’t Want,” Margaret Anderson takes stock of Poundian influences on the journal by comparing them favorably to the more directly interventionist stances officially assumed by the little magazine in its first three years of publication.[xvii]  In particular, Anderson refers disparagingly to the proletariat and anarchist sympathies voiced in early issues of The Little Review as youthful follies distracting her and the journal from what really matters:  “Art and good talk about Art.”[xviii]  According to Anderson, only these two things are worthy of attention, and in comparison, anarchism and class politics are “ideas [that] were not interesting enough to have bothered about.”[xix]  This differentiates The Little Review from the masses because “the curious thing about America is that while she thinks such insipid and pleasant and harmless ideas [i.e., anarchism and class politics] are abominable and dangerous, she also thinks they are interesting!”[xx]  What the public is presumably incapable of finding interesting are not the actions of an Emma Goldman, but rather the works of a Pound, an Eliot, or a Lewis (Joyce had not yet started serializing Ulysses in her journal).

In effect, Anderson was telling her readers that The Little Review was trading in its social revolutionary pretensions for a more assertive role in projects of cultural revolution extending beyond the provincially localized concerns of the United States into more comparative and cosmopolitan fields.  The Little Review was to be thus transformed from a somewhat fashionably politicized organ within an increasingly fractured liberal public sphere into a more outspoken agent striving to dissolve that multiform sphere and reconstitute it into a more unified totality.[xxi]  Despite what the New York subscribers referred to above might have assumed, therefore, “The Reader Critic” was no longer going to be a place for endless discussion and negotiation.  Instead, it would function as an ad hoc tribunal of sorts, sniffing out unreconstructed elements among its old contributors, subscribers, and readers.  Of these contributors, Maxwell Bodenheim received the brunt of such criticism, even though his essays and creative works continued to appear in The Little Review after May 1917.  For instance, immediately following a letter from Bodenheim in the June 1917 “Reader Critic” chastising Pound for his spurious autocratic propensities, Anderson responds by summarily putting Bodenheim in his place:  “Now it is a fact that one particular kind of brain can put forward this claim and establish its legitimate autocracy.  It is the brain that functions aesthetically rather than emotionally.  Most artists haven’t this kind.  Their work drains their aesthetic reserve—and they usually talk rot about art.  There are thousands of examples—such as Beethoven treasuring the worst poetry he could find.  There are notable exceptions, such as Leonardo, such as Gaudier-Brzeska.  Ezra Pound seems to have this kind of brain.”[xxii]  The implication, of course, is that Bodenheim does not share with Pound, da Vinci, and Brzeska the exceptional kind of brain that is rich in “aesthetic reserves.”  Instead, he is an illegitimate autocrat whose artistic and critical precepts no longer necessarily coincide with those of The Little Review; hence Bodenheim’s criticism appeared in “The Reader Critic” rather than in the body of the journal.  In the final item included in “The Reader Critic” three months later, Bodenheim came in for an even more explicit drubbing, this time in bullying schoolyard doggerel:  “Bury bloody Bodenheim / Bury bloody Bodenheim / Bury bloody Bodenheim / And Johnny Rodker too.”[xxiii]

Similarly, Jane Heap used “The Reader Critic” to assail those readers still expecting to find something of the old Little Review in the Ezraized journal.  The June 1917 issue begins with Heap’s “Push-Face,” a diffuse essay critical not only of U.S. involvement in World War I but also seemingly of any political action whatsoever:  “And it’s all right, this game of push-face:  everyone plays it.  When you’re little children you play it and call it push-face; nations call it government; the ‘people’ are playing it now in Russia and call it revolution.”[xxiv]  The response in the pages of “The Reader Critic” was characteristically violent.  A reader from Pennsylvania wrote, “After reading your article ‘Push Face’ [sic] in your June number I have torn the magazine to pieces and burned it in the fire.  You may discontinue my subscription.”[xxv]  A more temperate, but no less critical letter from Illinois raises similar objections:  “Why should one be a Democrat or a Christian or a Militarist or a Mrs. Potter-Palmer or a push-face policeman to believe in our cause for entering the war. [sic] I wish every paper and magazine might inspire the right sort of war enthusiasm. . . . Anyway I would rather give a dollar and a half to the Red Cross than subscribe for The Little Review.  And also I’m not intellectual enough to enjoy it.”[xxvi]  Though Heap’s reply to this letter mechanically repeats the magazine’s motto (“No Compromise with the Public Taste”), her response to an inquiry in the following month’s “Reader Critic” proved to be more expansive with respect to the relationship between The Little Review, World War I, and this Russia business.  A reader from Kansas succinctly observes, “The Little Review is the only magazine I have laid eyes on in months that hasn’t had a word in it about this blasted war.  How do you do it?”[xxvii]  In her rejoinder, Heap boldly asserts the illegitimacy of war as “an interesting subject for Art” because it is not “the focal point of any fundamental emotion for any of the peoples engaged in it.”[xxviii]  Soberly assessed, war comprises little more than a surface disturbance in our affective lives, the depths of which it can hardly plumb.  While she is quick to concede that revolutions and civil wars are perhaps different in this respect, Heap is no less insistent in pessimistically observing that “[t]here never has been a real revolution yet” and civil wars always devolve into “the fight of the self-righteous uncultivated against the cultivated and the suave.”[xxix]

In short, then, this was the context in which Wyndham Lewis discharged his “indecorous” Cantleman at the world in October 1917.[xxx]  In the pages of The Little Review, the project of replacing moral precepts with aesthetic ones was said to be in the process of reducing propriety to a content or mere subject matter like any other.  Moreover, the journal was pursuing (artistic) individuation both by cultivating pro forma right-wing herd animus and asserting artistic self-sufficiency, despite adverse contemporary conditions for the production of art.  This autonomously generative creativity was expressed through the autocratic stances taken in The Little Review’s creative and critical work, both of which were meant to demonstrate to the little magazine’s readers that freedom from historical and economic determinisms was not only possible but also being achieved monthly in its pages.  Finally, the Great War may have been causing a big stir in the mainstream American press of the day, but one could have read The Little Review up to June 1917 and hardly known a World War was then being fought.  When this war finally did appear in The Little Review in the bilious and uncompromising form of Cantleman, however, it presented the occasion for negating almost all of these projects and hopes of Anderson’s journal from within.


[i] Ezra Pound, “Editorial,” The Little Review 4, no. 1 (May 1917):  3-6, here 4.

[ii] In the very next issue, Pound linked his editorial comments to the problem of legal obscenity more explicitly.  See Ezra Pound, “An Anachronism at Chinon,” The Little Review, 4, no. 2 (June 1917): 14-21.  At one point in this dialogue between Rabelais and an early twentieth-century student disgusted with the state of learning in his own era, Pound has the surly young scholar discourse at length about the hypocrisies and category errors made possible by contemporary obscenity law:

Your work is a classic.  They also print Trimalcio’s Supper, and the tales of Suetonius, and red-headed virgins annotate the writings of Martial, but let a novelist mention a privvy, or a poet the rearside of a woman, and the whole town reeks with an uproar.  In England a scientific work was recently censored.  A great discovery was kept secret for three years.  For the rest, I do not speak of obscenity.  Obscene books are sold in the rubber shops, they are doled out with quack medicines, societies for the Suppression of Vice go into all details, and thereby attain circulation.  Masterpieces are decked out with lewd covers to entoil one part of the public, but let an unknown man write clear and clean realism; let a poet use the speech of his predecessors, either being as antiseptic as the instruments of a surgeon, and out of the most debased and ignorant classes they choose him his sieve and his censor. (18)

Pound’s student is more than willing to concede the existence of obscenity, but he grants it little status beyond that of a sordid sort of commodity (“they are doled out with quack medicines”) or an unseemly and predatory promotional tactic (“Masterpieces are decked out with lewd covers to entoil one part of the public”).  In any case, obscenity has little to do with good writing (“clear and clean realism”).  After the student stridently threatens any institution of power that would attempt to interfere with his pleasures (wine, women, and tobacco), the dour and pointedly un-Rabelaisian Rabelais cuts the dialogue short by confessing to the agitated youth, “I am afraid you would have burned in my century” (21).

[iii] For more on the importance of American youth cultures and niche markets during the early years of making and selling The Little Review, see Mark S. Morrisson, The Public Face of Modernism: Little Magazines, Audiences, and Reception, 1905-1920 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001), 133-66.

[iv] Pound, “Editorial,” 6.

[v] For more on Pound, patronage and the market, see the pathbreaking account provided in Lawrence Rainey, Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998).

[vi] Much as it was for Pound at the time (“the genius creates its own milieu”), it ought to be noted here that the mere ability of the artist to re-make the world around him briefly became an article of faith for Wyndham Lewis as well in the immediate aftermath of World War I.  See esp. Wyndham Lewis, The Caliph’s Design: Architects! Where Is Your Vortex?, ed. Paul Edwards (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1986).

[vii] The May 1917 issue of The Little Review was the first time work by either Eliot or Lewis had ever appeared in the journal.  Pound in fact begins his editorial in this issue by insisting that he took the foreign editor position with The Little Review so as to secure a dependable means of disseminating the work of Eliot, Lewis, and Joyce.  See Pound, “Editorial,” 3.

[viii] Lewis’ first published novel, Tarr (1918), which was serialized in The Egoist from April 1916 to November 1917, anticipates Pound’s artist-as-shellfish at a number of points.  As discussed later in the chapter, Lewis’ preoccupation with carapaces was no passing fancy.  For a suggestive reading of the defensive functions such shells serve in Lewis’ writing, see Tyrus Miller, Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts between the World Wars (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), esp. 49-54.  For a comprehensive discussion of the Cubist-influenced geometrical and armored forms populating many of Lewis’ early paintings and drawings, see Paul Edwards, Wyndham Lewis: Painter and Writer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), esp. 53-137.

[ix] Wyndham Lewis, “Imaginary Letters, I (Six Letters of William Bland Burn to His Wife),” The Little Review 4, no. 1 (May 1917): 19-23, here 21-22.

[x] T.S. Eliot, “Eeldrop and Appleplex,” The Little Review 4, no. 1 (May 1917): 7-11, here 11.

[xi] For a persuasive analysis of the gendered inflections such antagonisms often receive in the critical work of Lewis, Eliot, and Pound, see Peter Nicholls, Modernisms: A Literary Guide (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 185-93.

[xii] “The Reader Critic,” The Little Review 4, no. 5 (September 1917): 32: “An Ezraized Little Review will have no appeal to Young America.” More of this letter is quoted in footnote 16.

[xiii] See “The Reader Critic,” The Little Review 4, no. 2 (June 1917): 27-28.  The Manichean criticism came from Maxwell Bodenheim (a longtime contributor to The Little Review), who asserts that Pound has “too great a longing to separate poets into arbitrary teams, of best and worst:  Poets are either black or white to him—never grey” (28).  For more on Bodenheim’s letters in “The Reader Critic” and the aggressively critical reception they encountered there after the advent of Pound to the foreign editorship, see endnote 23.

[xiv] Ibid., 29.

[xv] Ibid., 32.

[xvi] To be sure, The Little Review had always received, printed, and responded to pan mail.  What differentiates the attacks published in “The Reader Critic” after Pound’s arrival from those printed before it, however, is the degree to which the new Little Review seemed to be alienating precisely those readers who had hitherto been favorably disposed towards the little magazine’s artistic and political tendencies.  For instance, see “The Reader Critic,” The Little Review, 4, no. 5 (September 1917): 32:  “For surely the spirit of the old Little Review is dead.  You seem to be proud of your evolution, of the graves of your old gods that loom in your eyes like stepping-stones to those heights where you bask in the wisdom of Ezras.  I hope your new faith is as sleeve-deep as your former acquired creeds.  For the beauty of the old Little Review, the secret of its magnetism and appeal to Young America, lay in its youthfulness, its spontaneity, in its puerility, if you wish.  For puerility mates with originality.  The Ezras know too much.  Their minds are black, scarcely smouldering logs.”

[xvii] A notorious example (for her contemporaries at least) of Anderson’s suspect political enthusiasms was her conversion-like experience at a lecture given by the anarchist, Emma Goldman, in 1914.  See Margaret Anderson, My Thirty Years’ War: An Autobiography (New York: Covici, Friede, 1930), 54:  “May [1914] . . . and the third number of the Little Review was going to press.  I heard Emma Goldman lecture and had just time to turn anarchist before the presses closed.”  Cf. Margaret Anderson, “The Challenge of Emma Goldman,” The Little Review, 1, no. 3 (May 1914): 5-9, here 9:  “And whatever one believes, of one thing I’m certain:  whoever means to face the world and its problems intelligently must know something about Emma Goldman”

[xviii] Margaret Anderson, “What the Public Doesn’t Want,” The Little Review 4, no. 4 (August 1917): 20-22, here 20.  Exactly one year earlier, Anderson had expressed a homologous self-criticism about the political turn The Little Review had taken.  See Margaret Anderson, “A Real Magazine,” The Little Review, 3, no. 5 (August 1916): 1-2, here 2:  “Now we shall have Art in this magazine or we shall stop publishing it.  I don’t care where it comes from—America or the South Sea Islands.  I don’t care whether it is brought by youth or age.  I only want the miracle!”  Accordingly, the next month’s issue infamously included thirteen blank pages “offered as a Want Ad” for art.  See The Little Review, 3, no. 6 (September 1916): 1-13, here 1.  Within eight months, Pound had answered the ad.

[xix] Anderson, “What the Public Doesn’t Want,” 20.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Cf. Tyrus Miller, Time-Images: Alternative Temporalities in Twentieth-Century Theory, Literature, and Art (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), 84ff.

[xxii] “The Reader Critic,” The Little Review, 4, no. 2 (June 1917): 29.

[xxiii] “The Reader Critic,” The Little Review, 4, no. 5 (September 1917): 34.  Like Bodenheim, Rodker comprised part of the old guard of contributors to the journal.  I would note in passing here that the real end of Bodenheim’s life reads like an impossibly bleaker alternate conclusion to Lewis’ Self-Condemned (1954).  Penniless, forgotten, and living on the streets of New York City at the age of sixty-one, Bodenheim was murdered in 1954, along with his wife, in an apartment not far from the Bowery by a psychopathic dishwasher who had taken them in for the night.  Bodenheim awoke before dawn to find his wife in flagrante delicto with the dishwasher, and during the ensuing altercation their good Samaritan shot Bodenheim multiple times before stabbing his wife to death as well.  At the trial, their murderer requested a medal in exchange for the service he had provided the United States government by slaying two Communists.  He was later sent to a state mental institution.  As it turns out, Ben Hecht (and not Anderson’s Little Review) ended up burying “bloody Bodenheim.”  Also once part of the old guard of contributors at The Little Review, Hecht is said to have paid for Bodenheim’s funeral service in New Jersey.  See Jim Burns, Radicals, Beats, and Beboppers (Preston: Penniless Press Publications, 2011), 173-82.

[xxiv] Jane Heap, “Push-Face.” The Little Review, 4, no. 2 (June 1917): 4-7, here 7.

[xxv] “The Reader Critic,” The Little Review, 4, no. 3 (July 1917): 25.

[xxvi] Ibid., 26.

[xxvii] “The Reader Critic,” The Little Review, 4, no. 4 (August 1917): 25.

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] The adjective is Lewis’.  See Timothy Materer, ed., Pound/Lewis: The Letters of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis (New York: New Directions Book, 1985), 108.

Lillian S.

Here’s an early (and really rather different) version of the introduction to the chapter on Lillian Smith in Literary Obscenities.

Lillian Smith

In the fall of 1965, the Georgia writer and civil rights activist Lillian Smith received a $500 check in the mail from the Artists and Writers Revolving Fund at the National Institute of Arts and Letters.  According to the “most courteous letter” accompanying the check, the Institute was honoring her with this sum in order to express its “appreciation of [her] accomplishments.”[i]  At the time, Smith was approaching the final months of her thirteen-year ordeal with breast cancer, to which she would finally succumb in September 1966.  Regrettably more taxing to her during many of these post-war years, however, had been the efforts of her fellow Southerners, writers, liberals, and—such was Smith’s latent propensity to leapfrog from particular to universal—human beings to stifle both her and her writing.  In a 1956 letter to the American Civil Liberties Union requesting their legal advice regarding the decision of Dell Publishing to recall paperback copies of her essay collection, Now Is the Time (1956), on the landmark civil rights case, Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Smith had confided that “[s]ince the banning of Strange Fruit, the approach to me has been the one of smothering.  It is much more efficient; you can keep a person from being heard much better by not selling her books, never mentioning her in the papers than you can by banning” (HH, 186).  According to Smith, her books—composed in a variety of genres and modes, ranging from occasional essays, fiction, and lyrical memoirs to documentary writing and new journalism—never stopped being suppressed after her first novel was banned in Massachusetts for obscenity in 1944.  All that had changed in the years since were the tactics of her suppression.  Smith’s putative censors, it seems, had conspiratorially begun to opt for a media blackout regarding her work instead of the public notoriety of obscenity proceedings, which as often as not simply made the charged text a hot commodity, as the publishing company of Reynal and Hitchcock well knew and effectively capitalized on in their advertising campaigns for Strange Fruit following its initial proscription by the Boston police commissioner.[ii]  In the mid-century United States, silence was turning out to be a far more effective means of censorship than law had ever been.

Smith thus handled the check from the National Institute of Arts and Letters somewhat doubtfully, for rather than breaking the silence on her writing it appeared to be enforcing it all the more categorically.  In her reply to the Institute regarding the letter and money, she wrote:

The check is obviously not an award; it is essentially “charity.”  A charity given to me by a group whose members have never accorded me recognition for my literary achievements.  No one of my seven books—Strange Fruit, Killers of the Dream [1949/1961], The Journey [1954], One Hour [1959], etc.—has been given award or citation by the National Institute nor have I been invited to become a member because of my general level of writing achievement.  I do not, therefore, “belong.”  How could I then accept aid, an aid I have not asked for, from a group who has in no way acknowledged my worth as a writer?  I just couldn’t.  It would humiliate me on levels where I could not find the strength to deal with the hurt. (HH, 326-27)

Because she interpreted it more as an attempt to keep her in her place than a gesture of institutional recognition, Smith refused to accept the Institute’s check and struggled throughout the remainder of the letter to get across her sense of the tolls this lack of acceptance had taken on her and her work:

You see, what hurts is not having had cancer for thirteen years nor is it the struggle to meet heavy hospital bills etc.; what hurts is that my fellow writers have not read me and have made no serious attempt since Strange Fruit to see what I am trying to say.  A stereotype has formed by both enemies and friends that walled off the view of me as a serious or talented writer.  “Oh, of course, she’s brave,” (actually I’m a scary cat); they said, “it is fine of her to do so much to help Negroes to get their rights.”  They said more—and then came the inevitable:  “So we do not need ever to read her because we know what she is saying.”  It has been a Kafkan experience, all right; I’ve wandered around in a curious labyrinth, and I was condemned without trial. (HH, 327)

Arguably even more Kafkan than Smith’s labyrinthine persecution here is the unlocalizability of the parties responsible for it.  Of course, this is not to say that she was unable or even reluctant to put names to her enemies and friends.  Beyond the obvious examples of white supremacists like Dr. Samuel Green (Georgia Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan) or Southern demagogues in the mold of Georgia Governor Eugene Talmadge, the more formative enmities in Smith’s life are quickly enough discerned in her public and private writings.

These antagonisms tend to run the gamut from popular Southern writers whom she found to be ideologically suspect (e.g., the Agrarians, Erskine Caldwell, and William Faulkner) all the way to Southern journalists and editors who were moderates or gradualists in debates over desegregation.[iii]  As for Smith’s friends, they always ran the risk of turning into enemies, as is perhaps best illustrated by her relationship with Walter White, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1931 to 1955.  A frequent correspondent with and enthusiastic supporter of White in the early 1940s, Smith eventually came to question his loyalty to her after he expressed concerns and criticisms to her in private regarding Strange Fruit and her disastrous adaptation of that novel into a stage play, in which White’s daughter played the lead female role of Nonnie.[iv]  Although in his 1948 autobiography White would convey a more affirmative, if qualified evaluation of both the novel and play, a break between the two nevertheless seems to date from White’s criticism of Smith’s work as a writer.[v]  In response to this putative betrayal, Smith began to treat White as an enemy, continuing to attack him in print even after his death in 1955.  Almost scornful in its critical assessment of White’s posthumous book, How Far the Promised Land? (1955), Smith’s review-essay in The Progressive dwells upon the significance of White’s sins of omission in narrating the story of the civil rights struggle in the South up to Brown v. Board of Education.  Because White was merely “a super salesman,” in the words of Smith, “he wanted to make big sales for his product and he wanted his firm (the NAACP) to get the credit for the sales.”[vi]  Accordingly, in his rush to claim the profits of integration for the NAACP, White is said to have smothered many important African-American (like those of Charles Houston and Charles S. Johnson) and white (such as those of Will W. Alexander and presumably Smith herself) contributions to the struggle for civil rights in the South, to say nothing of his apparent erasure of other important group efforts (especially those of the Congress for Racial Equality) from his evocative retrospective account.[vii]  Consequently, silence was not simply a means of censoring obscene or otherwise objectionable material, but also an exemplary way of writing people out of history altogether, according to the written-off Smith.

Even more objectionable to Smith in her review of How Far the Promised Land?, however, is what she perceives to be White’s tendency to essentialize racial difference:

[A] few of us were working for something much bigger than “the Negro Problem”—and Mr. White knew it and feared it.  He was fighting a battle for the Negro group’s civil rights; we were, and still are, engaged in a never-ending war for an open society for all people everywhere. . . . Because we believe this we are as concerned about the segregation of an idea, of a crippled or blind child, of a new dream, or an old or new poem, as we are about segregation of people who are different in color.  We think the act of withdrawal injures the segregator as much as it does the segregated.[viii]

The real harm of segregation, Smith argues, exceeds that inflicted by racial segregation on oppressed and oppressor alike.  If anything, the fight for racial desegregation constitutes a timely, but limited engagement with the much more expansive war on segregation itself, a category which functioned for Smith by the mid-1950s on a more figural and totalizing level than it ever did for White.  Because he was apparently only able to see the need for addressing the type of segregation pertaining to skin color, White is said to be incapable of offering either to the NAACP in particular or to African Americans in general anything more ennobling than the right to turn a profit:  “The urgent question in Mr. White’s mind was, ‘How soon can we get every Negro into a gray flannel suit and traveling down the middle of the road shoulder to shoulder with all the other gray flannel suits?’”[ix]

Two points bear stressing from these encounters between Smith and White.  First, Smith had little time for those who would pose the struggle against segregation simply as a fight for formal equality or civil rights because such approaches offered the segregated-against little more than the opportunity to conform to the way things already were.  Second, uncertainty as to her literary merits seems to have been sufficient cause for her to discern enemies where before there only used to be friends.[x]

Consequently, in Smith’s 1965 letter to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the claim that the people who have prevented the public from viewing her as “a serious and talented writer” are “both enemies and friends” threatens to implicate not so much particular friends and enemies as it does everyone who happens to not be Lillian Smith.  Thus, the fraught matter of the enmities and rivals in Smith’s public life—whether they be white supremacists, black nationalists, or gradualists in the desegregation debate—tells us nothing about what she understood her work to be doing.  Hence the properly Kafkan quality of her silencing:  someone must have been telling lies about Lillian S. because, without her having done anything wrong, a label congealed around her that made her something less than “a serious or talented writer.”  To the public she was, if anything, just another activist.  As a result, if the money from the Artists and Writers Relief Fund did anything, then it surely honored her longstanding work with the civil rights movement in the South, but not her writing, which the members of the National Institute of Arts and Letters had never bothered to read in the first place.

Whereas her friends and enemies assumed her work with the Southern Conference for Human Welfare and with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee univocally dictated what her writing could think to say, Smith simply reversed the direction of this one-way street, attempting instead to reveal to her few readers and even fewer critics the extent to which they had neglected to grasp the novel manner in which her writing had been representing contemporary civil disobedience in the United States as more than a matter of black and white.  In fact, Smith observes in her letter to the National Institute of Arts and Letters that these critics and readers

have failed to see that I am involved—all my creative abilities are involved—in the dehumanization of our times; I am involved with segregation that is symbol and symptom of this dehumanization; but this “segregation” is bigger than race, [sic] (conformity is also a form of segregation); it has to do with numberless relationships that are necessary not only to bind men into one world but necessary for their increasing complexity of mind and spirit as they continue to evolve themselves into human beings.  I am talking about the things Teilhard de Chardin talked about, not the things Walter White talked about in his day or James Baldwin and Le Roi [sic] Jones are talking about now. (HH, 327)

For Smith, “segregation” symptomatically and symbolically refers to a truly sublime set of associations, ranging from the localized and ephemeral matters pertaining to the prospects of desegregation in the mid-century U.S. South all the way up to the cosmic evolutionary destiny of the human being as such.  Perhaps even more strikingly, however, she insists here that if the struggle for racial desegregation has any meaning at all, then that meaning must be understood to derive from the small part it plays in the further integration of man’s species-being.  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man (1955)—but not LeRoi Jones’s Dutchman (1964)—was the key to conceptually reorganizing the repugnant contingencies of racial segregation in the United States into a totalizing and compelling whole because the stakes of Smith’s writing and activism are said to be nothing less than the development or the regression of the entire species.

The racially coded significance of segregation is undeniably present in Smith’s work from the very beginning of her writerly career in 1936 when she founded the regional little magazine Pseudopodia with her partner, Paula Snelling.  The cosmological transcoding of segregation into dehumanization, by contrast, is a relative latecomer in her writing that can be traced back to Smith’s attempts in the 1950s to work her way out of the cul-de-sacs into which her first essays and books on segregation had led her.  Preoccupied with the peculiarities of the Jim Crow South, Smith’s early texts tend to present the “decent” (i.e., middle- and upper-class) Southern liberal as existing in an almost parodically naturalist vision of hell.  As she confesses in her first memoir, Killers of the Dream:

We know [segregation] has woven itself around fantasies at levels difficult for the mind to touch, until it is a part of each man’s internal defense system, embedded like steel in his psychic fortifications.  And, like the little dirty rag or doll that an unhappy child sleeps with, it has acquired inflated values that extend far beyond the rational concerns of economics and government, or the obvious profits and losses accruing from the white-supremacy system, into childhood memories long repressed.[xi]

Throughout Killers of the Dream, racial segregation in the U.S. South appears to be an ineluctable result of malevolent environmental forces that no existing human agency seems capable of ever changing.  Figured initially as a weave impalpably distorting minds, it metamorphoses here into a steely component of Southerners’ mental fortresses and then into an obstinate fetish object threatening to undermine altogether the possibility of the South’s ever getting around to rationally considering race matters.  Mixing an assumptively hard determinism with her enthusiastic readings of Sigmund Freud, Smith’s writing confronts her activism with a vision of segregation that takes the form of a protean puzzle:  how exactly does one go about working through the harmful fetish, dismantling once and for all the steel castle in one’s mind, and untangling the knot of fantasies all sustaining white supremacy?

Reviewing and evaluating the anti-Jim Crow campaign begun in 1942 in the pages of Smith and Snelling’s little magazine, South Today (formerly known as North Georgia Review and Pseudopodia), Richard H. King detects a similar pessimistic tendency to overstate the insoluble nature of the South’s problems:  “Nor did Smith and Snelling suggest specific measures or structural reforms which would accompany or bring about change in this situation.  The social, the psychological, and the ethical aspects of the issue were confused with rather than illuminating one another.”[xii]  For these “therapists of the Southern psyche,” the odds against even minor reform in the South were insurmountable given the implacable determinist framing in which Smith presented the region’s most pressing predicament.[xiii]  The problem, as even Smith herself admits later in Killers of the Dream, seemed to admit of no real solution save that of death.  Again, it was downright Kafkan:  “We [Southerners] never knew our crime, we never saw the Authorities face to face, but we knew that we would ascend from court to court to higher court, like Kafka’s Joseph K., and only death would yield up the final verdict” (KD, 94).

Unsettlingly, smothering Smith’s writing and institutionally maintaining white supremacy prove to be comparable Kafkan experiences.  Written threats against her life and fires set at her mountain home in Georgia notwithstanding, the analogy rankles insofar as Smith’s “backdoor treatment” at the hands of the National Institute of Arts and Letters does not on its face appear all that homologous to the violence (both legal and extra-legal) looming over African-Americans in the U.S. South in the inter- and immediate post-war decades.[xiv]  At first view, Smith’s Trial allusion in response to the Institute’s $500 check seems to be crudely self-aggrandizing, insofar as her travails as the writer-who-does-not-belong are made to appear retrospectively commutative with the quasi-totalitarian subjugation of racial difference to Southern white supremacy so forcefully described in Killers of the Dream.[xv]

Though moralizing criticism in this vein is perhaps warranted, such a reading nevertheless misses an essential point insisted upon again and again in Smith’s letter to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, which is that her peers stopped reading her a long time ago.  At a second glance, then, her re-purposing of the Trial analogy is a canny act of self-citation, insofar as it effectively underscores the willful ignorance of her presumptive benefactors, who likely do not know of her writerly preoccupation with casting the South as Kafka-land par excellence.  Furthermore, Smith’s almost compulsive deployment of Joseph K. as symbol for both Southerners in general and one Southerner in particular (Lillian S.) captures the allegorical capacities and transpositions that she increasingly thought had been operative within her writing all along.[xvi]  From her perspective in the mid-1960s looking back over her writerly accomplishments for the benefit of an organization wholly ignorant of them, it became clearer to Smith that in her texts “segregation” really had been a code-word for dehumanization, that race always had stood in for species-being, and that the South was at bottom just herself all over.[xvii]

Against this backdrop of conspiratorial silence said to be surrounding her work as a writer since Strange Fruit and the first edition of Killers of the Dream, Smith insisted to any and all who would listen that it was her essays and books that would really make a difference in the world, if only people would finally getting around to reading them.  In the penultimate paragraph of her 1965 letter to National Institute of Arts and Letters, Smith dramatically declares, “What I need, and yet how can one ask it?—is that this literary committee read my books; read them and let themselves see what I am trying to do.  This understanding I do need desperately, this I would cherish more than a million dollars” (HH, 328).  Inverting a binary she saw traversing her very identity as a writer and activist, Smith attempted in her final speeches and letters to plant the dormant seeds necessary for a salutary reassessment of her writing she was confident would follow her fast approaching death.

Twenty years after Smith died, however, her biographer offered a peremptory demurral to such dreams and hopes.  “Regrettably,” Anne C. Loveland confesses in the epilogue of Lillian Smith: A Southerner Confronting the South (1986), “[Smith’s] philosophical thinking was generally derivative and superficial and her literary effort unexceptional.  Her primary significance lies in the role she played in the southern civil rights movement of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.”[xviii]  This stunning final judgment, for which almost nothing in the 261 pages preceding it quite prepares the reader, effectively out-Smiths Smith.  Approaching the writer/activist binary as if it were in fact the agonistic coupling Smith had assumed it to be all along, Loveland curtly demotes Smith’s writing as unexceptional, superficial, and derivative in order to elevate her activist achievements within the brief history of Southern liberalism.  One need never read any of Smith’s books, therefore, to find out what she was trying to say or do.  Instead, one has merely to peruse Loveland’s to get a proper sense of what actually count as Smith’s accomplishments—namely, her work for civil rights, just as Smith feared.  In effect, her own biographer turns out ultimately to be not at all a friend to Smith, but rather yet another enemy in an already endless list of them.  More troubling still, smothering Smith’s writing is presumably no longer just an effective means of censoring her but also the only way of telling her story in the first place.  Smith, Loveland insists, is someone to be admired, but not read.

Unlike Smith’s biographer, I do not feel quite so cavalier about dismissing her writing tout court.  Over the last twenty-five years, the life’s work of the writer and civil rights activist Lillian Smith has proven to be a generative object of study for scholars of twentieth-century Southern literature and culture, particularly as these relate to ideology, liberalism, whiteness studies, racial conversion narratives, temporality, the grotesque, and same-sex desire.  For the most part, this critical interest has tended to focus on Smith’s two major works of the 1940s, her first novel Strange Fruit and her first memoir Killers of the Dream.  Even in those cases where her later texts—composed in a variety of genres and modes, ranging from occasional essays, fiction, and lyrical memoirs to documentary writing and new journalism—come into consideration, these works have often been treated in isolation from or in pointed contrast to her earlier writings.  My aim here is to use Strange Fruit’s legal troubles with obscenity in the 1940s as an occasion for re-conceiving of all of Smith’s writerly output as a unified whole in order to disclose to sight a body of work that is variously stimulated, provoked, disgusted, and haunted by the unmanageable appeals that words can conceivably make on bodies, appeals that seemingly thwart the efforts of reformers like herself to persuade others that their very lives and their modes of organizing life itself must change.  As they develop between the 1930s and 1960s, Smith’s responses to this power of certain “obscene” words to do rather than to merely mean come not only to inform her later shift in attention from region to cosmos (and from racialist race to the human race) but also to highlight her specific contributions as a significant transitional figure in the history of 20th-century Southern liberalism.

This chapter thus constitutes a first attempt among Smith’s admittedly few literary critics to work through the messier material relationships her early conceptualizations of segregation proposed, long before it came to be blown up by her into the parsecs-sized problem named “dehumanization.”  Prior to becoming cosmically vast, segregation was simply and quite literally obscene for Smith.  In what follows I offer a discursive account of segregation’s and obscenity’s respective—but often overlapping—fortunes in her two major works of the 1940s, Strange Fruit and Killers of the Dream, in order to get a better grasp on just what it is they may be understood to refer to in her post-war Southern milieu.  Instead of simply assuming Smith’s writing is worth all this effort, however, I would like to begin the next section by considering the venerable opinion of perhaps the most attentive, if unlikely critics of her entire career as a writer:  the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.


[i] Lillian Smith, How Am I to Be Heard?: Letters of Lillian Smith, ed. Margaret Rose Gladney (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 326.  Hereafter abbreviated HH; further references provided parenthetically.

[ii] Smith complained of this to her editor, Frank Taylor, at Reynal and Hitchcock in a May 1944 letter:

I think it is very important, Frank, that we create in our advertising a new image of the book and its author.  The banning has received more newspaper publicity than everything else put together.  People say STRANGE FRUIT and nudge each other in the ribs.  [. . .] They aren’t considering the racial problems laid bare in the book, nor the hypocrisy of the church; nor the strains in the family life; they are focussing [sic] entirely on the dirt.  The book is cheap in the eyes of the middle classes—the very people whom we wanted to read the book and take it seriously for these are the very people who can do something about both race and the church in the South—and indeed in our whole country.  We can’t dismiss them as the rabble, the fools.  They are “our people” whether we like it or not; and they are the people who determine the quality of our national life.  I think it is very important that we change their idea of the book. (HH, 83)

As discussed in the body of this chapter, the ascription of political agency here to the middle classes (“‘our people’”)—distinct from “the rabble, the fools” (the poor whites?)—often gets positively valued and coded by Smith under the keyword “decency.”  Therefore, in Smith’s view the charge of obscenity or indecency in Massachusetts threatened to compromise the rhetorical efficacy of her work in motivating consequential reforms in family, religious, and race relations in the South.  Moreover, despite Smith’s later strident insistence that Strange Fruit was not a “problem novel” about race, this 1944 letter to Reynal and Hitchcock urgently expresses her concern that the “dirt” of obscenity would adversely affect the ability of her first novel to address itself to just such problems.

[iii] In the Winter 1939-1940 “Dope with Lime” column of her North Georgia Review, Smith reduces the topography of the contemporary Southern literary scene to eight well-worn ruts, among which she includes “The Manicurists” (Agrarians), the “Dixie Dirt Dobbers” (Caldwell), and the “Finger Painters” (Faulkner).  See Helen White and Redding S. Sugg, Jr., eds., From the Mountain: Selections from Pseudopodia (1936), The North Georgia Review (1937-1941), and South Today (1942-1945) (Memphis: Memphis State University Press, 1972), 11-14.

[iv] See Anne C. Loveland, Lillian Smith: A Southerner Confronting the South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986), 75-76.

[v] In his autobiography, White in fact goes out of his way to praise Smith’s novel and theatrical adaptation over the “minstrel Negro” stereotypes on offer in Countee Cullen and Arna Bontemps’ “sordid moving picture called St. Louis Woman [1946].”  See Walter White, A Man Called White: The Autobiography of Walter White (New York: Viking Press, 1948), 339.

[vi] Lillian Smith, “Negroes in Gray Flannel Suits,” The Progressive 20 (February 1956): 33-35, here 34.

[vii] Ibid., 33-34.

[viii] Ibid., 34.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Smith was quite adept, however, at presenting her resentments toward old friends and present enemies in superficially objective, but nevertheless negatively evaluative terms.  For instance, see HH, 188:  “I did not criticize the NAACP [in the review of How Far the Promised Land?].  I pointed out certain failings, certain philosophical dead-ends of Mr. White’s.  I had only one reason for doing so:  I want the NAACP to live, and to live it must grow, and to grow it must shake off certain small identifications, certain trivial enmities, which I honestly think Mr. White was guilty of.  It must find magnanimity of spirit.  Success can destroy an organization more easily than can failure.”

[xi] Lillian Smith, Killers of the Dream (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963),  65.  Hereafter abbreviated KD; further references provided parenthetically.

[xii] Richard H. King, A Southern Renaissance: The Cultural Awakening of the American South,  1930-1955 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 183.

[xiii] Ibid., 184.

[xiv] For Smith’s analogy of the critical neglect of her writing with the “backdoor treatment” of African Americans in the South, see especially her 1965 letter to George Brockway in HH, 334-36.  Statistically, lynchings gradually declined during the first three decades of the twentieth century, falling to single digits a few years after the onset of the Great Depression.  Of course this is not to say that violence against African Americans ceased by World War II.  If anything, the civil rights movement called forth new forms of institutionally supported violence (like attacks on black protestors with police dogs and fire hoses) to replace those of lynching.  See Amy Louise Wood, Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in American, 1890-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

[xv] In one of Killers of the Dream’s imagined/remembered dialogues with a young camper at Laurel Falls Camp, the Georgia summer camp for girls and young women that she ran for almost twenty-five years, Smith makes the connections between German National Socialism and the Jim Crow South quite explicit.  She even goes so far as to assert that the South’s atrocity exhibitions are not only comparable to but also worse than those of the Holocaust:  “‘Yet [Southern lynching] is different in quantity and quality from the six million Jews killed so quickly in Germany.  Different and in a way more evil.  For we used those lynchings as a symbolic rite to keep alive in men’s minds the idea of white supremacy and we set up a system of avoidance rites that destroyed not bodies but the spirit of men’” (KD, 54).  Later, Smith makes a similar comparison between the South and Stalinism in order to account for the ideological lures of communism for a small segment of Southern youth (KD, 60).  According to Smith, the operative political enmities following World War II are not between fascism and communism with liberalism squeezed to a pulp somewhere in the middle, but rather between liberal democracy and totalitarianism, be it fascist or communist.  She was, in this respect at least, a fairly typical Western liberal ideologue of the Cold War era. 

[xvi] Arguably, the use of Kafka at all already suggests nascent allegorical impulses in Smith’s work.  After all, György Lukács had notoriously excoriated Kafka and other notable modernists for their negation of realism and typicality through allegorical processes of alienation and abstraction.  See esp. Georg Lukács, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, trans. John and Necke Mander (London: Merlin Press, 1963), 17-46.

[xvii] Smith’s prefatory letter to the 1961 re-issue of Killers of the Dream makes this last point indelibly:  “I realize this is a personal memoir, in one sense; in another sense, it is Every Southerner’s memoir” (KD, 11).

[xviii] Loveland, 262.