That is sort of the question being posed by a book I very much hope to read soon, Josh Lambert’s Unclean Lips. A review by the erudite Stephen Whitfield just went up at the LA Review of Books. An excerpt:
Have Jewish writers shown a proclivity for transgressions of good taste, for violating community standards of decency? Consider the roll call.
Henry Roth leads the short list that literary scholars have compiled of the major Jewish novelists of the interwar period. Josh Lambert devotes nearly twenty pages to examining how Roth’s first novel, Call It Sleep (1934), pushed the envelope of profanity and expletives, only a year after the ban on Ulysses had been lifted, making permissible description of sexuality such as the soliloquy of Molly Bloom. Call It Sleep was too technically advanced to be popular, and both it and the author vanished for three decades. But Ludwig Lewisohn, whom Lambert considers “by far the most prominent Jewish writer in interwar America,” generated controversy by affiliating himself as well as his fiction with the theme of the primacy of desire over the norms of propriety. The notoriety of Ben Hecht’s second novel, Fantazius Mallare (1922), was assured — even though it was sold only to subscribers — because Hecht was prosecuted, convicted, and fined $1,000 for a work deemed “lewd, obscene and lascivious.” When Norman Mailer published his first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), his cousin, an attorney named Charles Rembar, suggested “fug” as an alternative for a word Mailer could not print, though soldiers commonly used it while fighting the Good War. “Fug” in fact “was phonetically closer than was the classic spelling to the prevailing G.I. gutturals,” Rembar noted. Mailer’s third novel, The Deer Park, was rejected by seven publishers, who feared that it would run afoul of the statutes prohibiting obscenity. The Deer Park nevertheless appeared in 1955.
Few novels in postwar America have run more afoul of censors than J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). An entire monograph — Pamela Hunt Steinle’s In Cold Fear (2000) — has examined the phenomenon, with school librarians and teachers suppressing a work that happens to record teenage lingo rather faithfully. In a way, The Catcher in the Rye promotes an ideal of decency, because Holden Caulfield, a champion of the integrity of innocence, wants to erase a “Fuck you” sign on a staircase. He nevertheless comes to realize how befouled the world already is: “If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘Fuck you’ signs in the world.”
Though Salinger’s own connection to Judaism was severed after his bar mitzvah ceremony, he nonetheless joined Lambert’s queue of novelists of Jewish origin who have managed to incite charges of obscenity. Or take Portnoy’s Complaint.