The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, AUGUST 16, 1936
Old Maids And Satyrs
Or, When Is A Book
Dirty, And Why?--Some Enlightning Remarks
On Miss Lucy Cobb, "Fanny Hill," And The Intentions Of James Joyce.
By W. J. Cash
Site ed. note: This one could have been written aptly today.
ALONG back in 1907, Mildred Lewis Rutherford, who by ordinary spent her time in instructing the young ladies at the Lucy Cobb Institute, in Atlanta, in the mysteries of beautiful letters as they were understood in Dixie in those days, took her pen firmly in hand and held forth as follows for her magnum opus, "The South in History and Literature"--held forth as follows of James Lane Allen who had just published a book called "The Reigned of Law:"
"This (book) and his 'Summer in Arcady' follow lines of scientific thought; and the characters are represented as struggling between spiritual and moral forces, and Mr. Allen tampers with subjects only fit to be discussed in the privacy of one's room or at the dissecting table. Some subjects should not be treated in a popular novel, although true to nature; God never intended that many things which in themselves are not sinful should be exposed to public view. In this James Lane Allen has erred, just as he has erred in presenting in "The Choir Invisible" the love of a married woman for a man who is not her husband."
In all charity, I hope that the fair authoress has passed to the sweet oblivion of the Elysian Fields and the company of golden-haired Rhadamanthus before the horrid Mr. Tom Wolfe got loose in the world with his "Look Homeward, Angel" and "Of Time and the River." For if James Lane Allen, the gentlest, most mincing old gentleman who ever performed in American letters, could thus disturb her with his sentimental effusions, I shudder to think--I dare not even contemplate--what the effect of the shaggy Tom would have been.
Ladies Into Hoydens
But if I smile at the old gentlewoman of other years, do not make the mistake of assuming that I sneer. There are times when I suspect darkly that I prefer her, with all her curious judgments and ambitions, to the kind of aseptic female who holds forth in strident tones on the Freudian meaning of Shelley's poetry in the vast rolling mills which nowadays are devoted to the education of the femmes--times when I suspect that I prefer the laced and furbelowed young ladies of the prim old Lucy Cobb to the metallic young hoydens swarming out of the stamping machines.
No. And I do not sneer at Miss Rutherford. Nor yet again, the South of those times. She was not alone, the South was not alone. For it was only a few years before she wrote that England was standing on its head in announcing Tom Hardy's "Tess" as an immoral book, forsooth because it depicted a woman becoming a mother without benefit of clergy--and though Tom proceeded at great length to prove that the gal was "ruint" thereby, and to get her hanged in the end for a crime that was partly none of her own.
I set down Miss Rutherford's judgment, for one thing, merely by way of directing attention to the extraordinary revolution that has taken place among us. The distance from such a judgment on James Lane Allen to tolerance for Thomas Wolfe is greater than the distance from Chaucer to Walter Pater. Indeed I have read medieval romances of Old France which seemed less quaint and less remote in my ears than does the judgment set down (and universally approved, of course) just 29 years ago.
What's A Dirty Book?
And I set the thing down, too, by way of getting on to wondering, what does make a dirty book? There are plenty of people left, of course, who still subscribe to the standard set forth by Miss Rutherford. But that won't do, manifestly. If one takes such a measure seriously, he'd have to refrain from reading not merely such confessedly dirty fellows as Wycherly and Clelland, but Chaucer and Shakespeare, and Rabelais and Montaigne, and Goethe and Victor Hugo, and Fielding and De Foe and Doystoyevsky [sic]. He'd have, indeed, to keep away from Charles Dickens and the Holy Bible, itself!
The presence of those ribald little words which for a thousand years have been used in popular speech to describe organs of the bodies and physiological processes; presentation of loose ladies about the practice of their most ancient trade, the rendering of illicit love and any of its possible phases; the rendering of homosexuality even--not one of these--not any imaginable moral or immoral situation--can be taken, of itself, to make a dirty book. For, everyone of these is to be found in one or another of the books which we are agreed in revering as the world's greatest and wisest and best, and nearly every one is found in that Book which half of mankind has hailed as The Great Book for two thousand years.
What is the test, then? I venture to think that it is mainly this: does the author's use of these things contribute to the achievement of the proper business of the novelist, which, as I have said before now on this page, is the casting of light upon the human soul on its dark pilgrimage through this strange web we call the world? Is it essential to the rendering of his peculiar vision of human experience?
"Fanny Hill," which, if you don't know, is an account of the experiences of a prostitute, is an exceedingly dirty book. The whole purpose of the thing is to direct attention to the salacious, to set in train a series of lascivious images in the mind of the reader. The book leers. But Zola's "Nana," another account of the experiences of a prostitute, is a perfectly plain and decent book. There are scenes, indeed, which are capable of setting in motion salacious ideas, but taken within the framework of the book generally, taken as a part of the author's purpose and viewpoint, they will do nothing of the sort save in a mind wholly perverted and fixed with abnormal fascination upon this theme of the salacious.
Or again, "The Little Trollop" or "All Dames Are Dynamite" or the many creations of Tiffany Thayer--all to be found in the current circulating libraries--are nothing less than rotten. Yet James Joyce's "Ulysses" has in it infinitely more of the broad and the sexual--and withal remains as decent a book as has ever been penned. The circulating library tomes gloat over their broadness and their sex--they exist purely to exploit these things, to titillate the pruriency of fools. But the broadness and the sex of Joyce's novel--they are an inalienable part of a magnificent portrait of the mind and soul of a woman--an inalienable part of a powerful avocation of the mind and soul of a city, too: of the mind and soul of the lovely, stinking mist and sin-haunted hive which is Dublin.
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