Literary Ventriloquism At Its Finest!

Robert Brenner

Robert Brenner
New York, New York, USA
March 30
Robert Brenner is a humorist, critic, and ventriloquist. His work has been published in New York Magazine, the Huffington Post, Grin & Tonic, and Happy. He has been interviewed on LeMorningShow, the first Twitter talk show. He is a proud graduate of André Aciman’s Writers’ Institute at the Graduate Center at CUNY. He lives in New York City with his child bride and two (imaginary) cats. Email: rabrenner@prodigy.net


JULY 21, 2009 1:28PM

Who Killed Obscenity? (Not Barney Rosset & Grove Press)

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TODAY is the 50th anniversary of the court ruling that overturned America’s obscenity laws, setting off an explosion of free speech…On July 21, 1959, Judge Bryan ruled in favor of Grove Press and ordered the Post Office to lift all restrictions on sending copies of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” through the mail. This, in effect, marked the end of the Post Office’s authority — which, until then, it held absolutely — to declare a work of literature “obscene” or to impound copies of those works or prosecute their publishers. This wasn’t exactly the end of obscenity as a criminal category. Into the mid-1960s, Barney Rosset would wage battles in various state courts over William Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch” and Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” other Grove novels now widely regarded as classics. But the “Chatterley” case established the principle that allowed free speech its total victory.—Fred Kaplan, Op-Ed Contributor, the New York Times.

The above is true as far as it goes. But it perpetuates the myth that Grove Press and Barney Rosset singlehandedly ended censorship of the novel. It totally overlooks the contributions of Greenleaf Classics and William Hamling. I’d like to do my part to set the record straight:

In April,  1965, a New York City undercover police officer walked into a newsstand at 263 West 48th Street.  The newsstand was, fittingly, located underground on a subway platform. The officer espied and requested by name two paperbacks—Lust Pool and Shame Agent. The newsstand clerk, a young man with the unlikely name of Robert Redrup, sold the officer the books for $1.65. As soon as the money changed hands, the officer arrested Redrup for selling obscene materials.

The officer, perhaps taking his job as public censor a little too personally, asked Redrup “How can you sell such garbage?”

Redrup shrugged—not easy to do in handcuffs—and replied with quintessential New Yorker blasé,  “Eh, there’s  worse stuff out there.”Neither the officer or Redrup knew it at the time, but they were about to make legal history. 

Both Lust Pool and Shame Agent were published by Greenleaf Publications. Never heard of ‘em? I’m not surprised in a family on-line magazine like this. But Greenleaf at one time was the biggest publisher of so-called “adult books” in the United States—as many as five hundred titles a year. These were pulp fictions with sex scenes arriving at regularly scheduled intervals, like the trains at Redrup’s platform.  The sex scenes themselves were tame by today’s standards; authors were forbidden from using either four-letter words or anatomically-correct terms:

Holman clenched his teeth and gripped her shoulders tight, and she cried out three times, a whimper of excitement following, and then they were thundering away together on a tornado of passion, and she dug her fingernails into the skin of his back and gasped out breathlessly, “Oh oh oh oh,” and Holman felt the explosion in his loins, and then they were lying quietly all of a sudden, limp and sweat-soaked, and he could feel the pounding of her heart when he touched her breasts, and the fireworks stopped. It was over.  

Greenleaf was the brainchild of William Hamling. Hamling got his start in the Fifties publishing science fiction. But in 1959 the market for sci-fi collapsed: public tastes changed, and the genre was oversaturated. The same year Hamling came out with Nightstand Books, the first Greenleaf imprint. He had a stable of erstwhile unemployed science fiction writers banging out one-fisted tales for him under pseudonyms, including Harlan Ellison (“Paul Merchant”), Robert Silverberg (“L.T. Woodward”), and Earl Kemp (“Christine Hernandez”).

Nightstand Books, and all of Greenleaf’s subsequent imprints—Adult Books, Candid Reader, Companion Books, Corinth Regency, Corinth Suspense Library, Ember Books, Ember Library, Evening Reader, Greenleaf Classics, Idle Hour, Late Hour Library, Leisure Books, Midnight Reader, Nightstand, Nightstand Reader, Nitime Swapbook, Pillar Books, Pleasure Reader, Sundown Reader—sold well. Hamling became a millionaire. Even the writers got rich: Silverberg estimates at peak production he was banging out a novel a week at $1000 per—big money back in the Sixties.

There was just one catch: it was illegal—sort of. Publishing adult novels occupied a legal gray area, an “erroneous zone.” The boundaries of this zone shifted from month to month as court battles were won and lost. Hamling’s business model was to tiptoe right up to the edge without stepping over. He frantically reissued writers’ guidelines as words, subjects, and physical acts were ruled in and out of bounds. “Nipple,” for example, might be permissible one month, beyond the pale the next.  

Hamling closely—and perhaps enviously—kept abreast of the legal battles of Grove Press and Barney Rosset. Rosset was the class of the field:  he published, and defended in the courts, sexually explicit but incontrovertible literary classics like Lady Chatterley’s  Lover and Tropic of Cancer. Rosset’s background couldn’t have been more different from Hamling’s: the scion of a wealthy family, he took over a failing publishing house in 1951 because, like Charles Foster Cane, he thought it might be fun. But, as significant as Rosset’s legal victories were, they were merely foreplay.

Rosset  established that a novel could be both sexually explicit and not obscene—provided a battery of established critics and  marquee-name authors were willing to testify to its literary merit in court.  Zealous District Attorneys, eager to make names for themselves as smut-fighting crusaders, continued to prosecute sexually explicit novels deemed without literary merit. Which brings us back to Lust Pool, Shame Police, and Robert Redrup.

(This is about the midway point of this piece. If this were a Greenleaf novel, it would be time for a sex scene. Do to space constraints, please insert your own fantasy here. When you’re finished, smoke a cigarette if you wish, then continue reading.)

With Hamling’s encouragement, Redrup pleaded not guilty and fought his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Redrup couldn’t afford to defend himself on his measly $75 a week salary; Greenleaf paid all of his legal expenses, eventually shelling out $300,000—an astronomical sum in those days. Hamling’s lawyers made a much broader argument than Rosset’s lawyers ever dreamed of: they proposed that “without literary merit” was an aesthetic judgment, best left up to adult individuals, not the courts. Who was to say some individuals wouldn’t find more literary merit in Lust Pool and Shame Agent than Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer?

On May 8, 1967, in Redrup v. New York, the Supreme Court agreed. The Court ruled 7-2 that written materials not sold to minors or thrust upon unwilling adults were constitutionally protected—and overturned Redrup’s conviction. Henceforth novels—good, bad, or sleazy—could not be banned for sex.  It was Hamling, not Rosset, who ended censorship of the novel. Grove may have put such censorship in the coffin, but Greenleaf banged the lid shut.

Grove and Greenleaf had more in common than may be apparent at first blush. Grove published a line of Victorian novels under its Black Cat imprint—A Man With A Maid, The English Governess, The Pearl, The Lustful Turk, Diary of a Young Rakehell, etc.—to finance its legal battles. Grove called this “literary erotica”; Greenleaf, which published a similar line of Victorian novels, called this “spanking porn.”  Greenleaf also published pioneering novels with homosexual themes like Song of the Loon that legitimate publishers, including Grove, were afraid to touch.

Today Redrup vs. New York is mostly forgotten except by legal scholars, for obvious reasons. Whatever their relative merits, Lust Pool and Shame Agent just aren’t in the same category as Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer—although I would argue they’re more pleasurable to read.  And Hamling can appear crass and commercial when compared with the patrician, quixotic Rosset; he is the skunk at the garden book club party.

But Hamling put his money and, ultimately, his liberty where his mouth was. He went to jail in 1970 for publishing The Illustrated Presidential Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography; he naively believed American citizens should be able to review the same evidence Federal commissions could and judge for themselves. And he provided gainful employment to a generation of science fiction writers who might otherwise have starved or, worse, gotten real jobs.

For better or worse, nobody cares about dirty books anymore. The battleground has shifted over the decades to evermore cutting-edge media: magazines, movies, videogames, the Internet, your iPhone.  But it wouldn’t have gotten there if this early campaign had been lost.  Attention must be paid. Longingly. Achingly. Deeply…It is over.

(We’ve reached the climax of the  piece. Time for another  fantasy. You know the drill.)                    

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Yeah, here's a little fantasy for ya: The silent subway station remained empty of people. The cop led the kid in handcuffs, both of them stopping in the darkness of the narrow hallway where the concrete steps lead to the surface above. The arrester said to the arrestee, "Alright, you runt, get on your knees and suck my....." Well, use your imagination.
A little too rough trade for my tastes, but to each their own.
This is a fascinating post. I was given "The Killer Inside Me" for Christmas and was wondering how prevalent the whole underground taboo noir genre was in the 1950s. (That book is full of violent and salacious sex that is not-quite-between-the-lines, but not quite overt either.) I guess I didn't know about all the kinds of publications that were floating around. Nice work, and thanks for alerting me to it.
Undertow nudged me over here. This was fascinating and had me laughing (I know, I know, I should have been smoking instead. Maybe next time.)
Undertow, Mrs. Michaels: Thank you both for your posts. I've always wanted to read "The Killer Inside Me" too--just haven't gotten around to it yet. As to how prevalent the "whole underground taboo noir genre was," my reading is that publishing standards--like alot of other things--loosened up in the 60s, especially the second half of the decade. By the 70s, you could publish anything, no matter how explicit. By the 80s, the conservative backlash had begun, and restrictions tightened up again, but never returned to what they were in the 50s.
Undertow sent me, too--and I thank both of you! This is fine writing on a subject that, up to now, I knew nothing about! I haven't read your other posts--do you do this kind of thing often? I'll go and read your other stuff soon. Rated for good writing and good content. (And I'm laughing AND smoking!) D
Yarn, Lena: Thanks for the comments. No, I don't do this sort of thing often--usually every couple of weeks. And I usually write social satire, not cultural criticism; but every now and then, when I feel I have some special knowledge to share, I post a relatively straight piece. Glad you enjoyed it.
This is a massively informative post. I really learned a lot.
Actually read and rated this post when it came out. It was so well done that I had no comment that would have added to the ones made by others already. It is a good piece and was informative.
Bobbot, sorry, didn't mean to be a nudge. I didn't realize you had previously read and rated this post. I just read your piece on Banned Book Week and thought you would be interested. The story of William Hamling and co. deserves to be more widely known.