Dirt for Art's Sake: Books on Trial from Madame Bovary to Lolita

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In Dirt for Art's Sake, Elisabeth Ladenson recounts the most visible of modern obscenity trials involving scandalous books and their authors. What, she asks, do these often-colorful legal histories have to tell us about the works themselves and about a changing cultural climate that first treated them as filth and later celebrated them as masterpieces?

Ladenson's narrative starts with Madame Bovary (Flaubert was tried in France in 1857) and finishes with Fanny Hill (written in the eighteenth century, put on trial in the United States in 1966); she considers, along the way, Les Fleurs du Mal, Ulysses, The Well of Loneliness, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer, Lolita, and the works of the Marquis de Sade. Over the course of roughly a century, Ladenson finds, two ideas that had been circulating in the form of avant-garde heresy gradually became accepted as truisms, and eventually as grounds for legal defense. The first is captured in the formula "art for art's sake"—the notion that a work of art exists in a realm independent of conventional morality. The second is realism, vilified by its critics as "dirt for dirt's sake." In Ladenson's view, the truth of the matter is closer to —dirt for art's sake—"the idea that the work of art may legitimately include the representation of all aspects of life, including the unpleasant and the sordid.

Ladenson also considers cinematic adaptations of these novels, among them Vincente Minnelli's Madame Bovary, Stanley Kubrick's Lolita and the 1997 remake directed by Adrian Lyne, and various attempts to translate de Sade's works and life into film, which faced similar censorship travails. Written with a keen awareness of ongoing debates about free speech, Dirt for Art's Sake traces the legal and social acceptance of controversial works with critical acumen and delightful wit.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In this slim volume on the history of literary censorship, from the work of Gustave Flaubert through that of Henry Miller and with an epilog covering John Cleland's Fanny Hill(a.k.a. Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure) and the Marquis de Sade, Ladenson (French & comparative literature, Columbia Univ.) successfully compacts masses of disparate information. Although acknowledging such full-length works as Sebastian de Grazia's Girls Lean Back Everywhere: The Law of Obscenity and the Assault on Genius(1992), she uses just seven essays and a prolog and epilog to analyze legal and cultural censorship from the Gilded Age to our liberated days. Flaubert, Charles Baudelaire, James Joyce, Radclyffe Hall, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Vladimir Nabokov were formerly censored as pornographers but are now literary classics. Her title, she insists, "is meant to conjure up an image of the author of writings viewed as obscene as a child playing with his excrement and calling it art." Despite the tremendous amount of historical information and original literary criticism included on each author and on the films made from the titles, to consider Ulyssesor Lolitastill as "dirt" is either too old-fashioned or too postmodern for this reviewer. Recommended, with reservations, as a supplementary work.
—Shelley Cox
From the Publisher
"This book is an intellectual tour de force that combines scholarly erudition with wit, analytical insight, and brilliant writing. Focusing specifically on the question of how works once banned as 'obscene' become classics, Elisabeth Ladenson engages the problems of the relationship between aesthetic value and moral content, high versus low culture, the obscenity of ideas versus the obscenity of language, and obscenity as a problem of accessibility. She demonstrates with care and precision the important historical shifts in obscenity law in France, England, and the U.S. as a story about the shifting importance of literature itself. An original and provocative book."—Lynne Huffer, Emory University, author of Maternal Pasts, Feminist Futures: Nostalgia and the Question of Difference

"Elisabeth Ladenson writes with clarity, verve, and considerable wit. Dirt for Art's Sake explores changes in attitudes that not only reflect on social transformations but also raise questions about the changing role of literature. Comparisons with cases against movies add to the dimensions of this book and strengthen Ladenson's conclusions."—Rosemary Lloyd, author of Shimmering in a Transformed Light: Writing the Still Life

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801474101
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 7/28/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 0.20 (d)

Table of Contents

Preface: Red Hot Chili Peppers     xi
Acknowledgments     xxiii
Prologue: History Repeats Itself     1
Emma Bovary Goes to Hollywood     17
Florist of Evil     47
Leopold Bloom's Trip to the Outhouse     78
The Well of Prussic Acid     107
Sexual Intercourse Begins     131
A Gob of Spit in the Face of Art     157
Lolitigation     187
Epilogue: The Return of the Repressed     221
Notes     237
Bibliography     257
Index     263
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