“I was ready if necessary to face being called a profiteer from smut.”

Barney Rosset’s fight for the unexpurgated publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover pushed back against 30 years of censorship and set the contemporary standard for free literary expression in the United States.




On this day in 1929, the United States officially declared D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscene and banned its publication and distribution domestically. It would be 30 years before Barney Rosset and the fledgling Grove Press would take on the Post Office and distribute an unexpurgated edition, arguing for Lawrence’s book on the strength of its artistic merit and paving the way for the publication of Henry Miller and scores of other literary voices that would have been otherwise suppressed:

In 1954, when Grove Press was still in its infancy, Mark Schorer, the distinguished literary scholar and professor of English at Berkeley, wrote to me suggesting that we publish an unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. D. H. Lawrence’s last major work had long been banned in England and put on the “proscribed” list by the United States Post Office Department. Now, Professor Schorer, whom I had never met in person, had placed the Lady on our doorstep. Here she was, waiting for her liberator. If we could prove to the satisfaction of the US courts our claims for the artistry of Lawrence as a writer and the specific merits of Lady Chatterley’s Lover as literature, the victory for freedom of speech would be tremendous. It would be a savage kick in the face to Death and a lovely kiss to Life. What was more, it could afford me the opportunity to publish the novel I really had wanted to put out into the public sphere since my college days at Swarthmore: Tropic of Cancer. This was clearly a Trojan horse for Grove. If I could get Lawrence through, then Henry Miller might surely follow.

Lawrence, with Italian publisher Giuseppe Orioli in Florence, had privately issued a 1,000-copy signed limited edition of the third and final manuscript version of Lady Chatterley in 1928, despite the disapproval of his British agent, Curtis Brown, and his publisher in English, Martin Secker. Orioli’s efforts were largely in vain. Though a number of copies of this edition of the book, in mulberry-colored paper boards, got out, others were seized and banned in both England and the United States.

After Lawrence’s death in 1930 at the age of forty-four, the truly obscene result for Lady Chatterley’s Lover came in the form of the 1932 publication of an “expurgated” version by Secker in England and Alfred A. Knopf in the United States.

What was it that these publishers hoped to accomplish with this cleansing process? Were clean living and clean reading synonymous and equally meritorious? And who on earth did Knopf and his British equivalent choose to do the dirty work of purging our Lady of her dirty thoughts? How did these unnamed designated hitters choose which words, phrases, and paragraphs to swat out of the book? Any competent, “decent” publisher would have had a hand in choosing his home-team purifier. After all, it was his (in this case, read Knopf’s) team. And what possibly did “expurgating” mean if not cutting out something already made illegal by our government, something supposedly dangerous, like absinthe. So, the Knopf “expurgated” Chatterley was deconstructed from the original to something along the lines of the de-sexed versions of Ovid given out to prep school Latin students, a kind of methadone before its time. It angers me to this day.

—from Rosset: My Life in Publishing and How I Fought Censorship



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