Top 10 "Obscene" Literary Classics

What Makes a Banned Book?

US Supreme Court
Brittany Hogan/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

When the Supreme Court codified obscenity law in Miller v. California (1972), it established that a work could not be classified as obscene unless it could be demonstrated that "taken as a whole, (it) lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value." But that ruling was hard-won; in the years leading up to ​Miller, countless authors and publishers were prosecuted for distributing works that are now considered literary classics. Here are a few.

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"Ulysses" (1922) by James Joyce

When an excerpt from Ulysses was serialized in a 1920 literary magazine, members of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice were shocked by the novel's masturbation scene and took it upon themselves to block U.S. publication of the full work. A trial court reviewed the novel in 1921, found it to be pornographic, and banned it under obscenity laws. The ruling was overturned 12 years later, allowing a U.S. edition to be published in 1934.

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"Lady Chatterley's Lover" (1928) by D.H. Lawrence

What is now Lawrence's best-known book was just a dirty little secret during his lifetime. Privately printed in 1928 (two years before Lawrence's death), this subversive tale of adultery between a rich woman and her husband's servant went unnoticed until U.S. and UK publishers brought it to press in 1959 and 1960, respectively. Both publications inspired high-profile obscenity trials--and in both cases, the publisher won.

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"Madame Bovary" (1857) by Gustave Flaubert

When excerpts from Flaubert's Madame Bovary were published in 1856 France, law enforcement officials were horrified at Flaubert's (relatively non-explicit) fictional memoir of a physician's adulterous wife. They immediately attempted to block full publication of the novel under France's strict obscenity codes, prompting a lawsuit. Flaubert won, the book went to press in 1857, and the literary world has never been the same since

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"The God of Small Things" (1996) by Arundhati Roy

The God of Small Things earned the young Indian novelist Roy millions of dollars in royalties, international fame, and the 1997 Booker Prize. It also earned her an obscenity trial. In 1997, she was summoned to India's Supreme Court to defend against a claim that the book's brief and occasional sex scenes, involving a Christian woman and a low-caste Hindu servant, corrupted public morals. She successfully fought the charges but has yet to write her second novel.

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"Howl and Other Poems" (1955) by Allen Ginsberg

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness...," begins Ginsberg's poem "Howl," which reads like it could be a reasonably good (if unconventional) commencement speech or the world's worst Easter homily. A profane but fairly non-explicit metaphor involving anal penetration--tame by the standards of South Park--earned Ginsberg an obscenity trial in 1957 ​and transformed him from an obscure Beatnik poet into a revolutionary poet-icon.

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"The Flowers of Evil" (1857) by Charles Baudelaire

Baudelaire didn't believe that poetry has any real didactic value, arguing that its purpose is to be, not to say. But to the extent that Flowers of Evil is didactic, it communicates the very old concept of original sin: that the author is depraved, and the horrified reader even more so. The French government charged Baudelaire with "corrupting public morals" and suppressed six of his poems, but they were published nine years later to critical acclaim.

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"Tropic of Cancer" (1934) by Henry Miller

"I have made a silent compact with myself," Miller begins, "not to change a line of what I write." Judging by the 1961 obscenity trial that followed U.S. publication of his novel, he meant it. But this semi-autobiographical work (which George Orwell called the greatest novel written in English) is more playful than lurid. Imagine what The Unbearable Lightness of Being might be like if Woody Allen wrote it, and you have the right idea.

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"The Well of Loneliness" (1928) by Radclyffe Hall

The Well's semi-autobiographical character of Stephen Gordon is literature's first modern lesbian protagonist. That was enough to get all copies of the novel destroyed following its 1928 U.S. obscenity trial, but the novel has been rediscovered in recent decades. In addition to being a literary classic in its own right, it is a rare time capsule of frank early 20th century attitudes towards sexual orientation and sexual identity.

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"Last Exit to Brooklyn" (1964) by Hubert Selby Jr.

This dark collection of six shockingly contemporary stream-of-consciousness short stories tells of murder, gang rape, and grinding poverty set against the backdrop of the sex trade and Brooklyn's underground gay community. Last Exit spent four years in the British court system before it was finally declared not to be obscene in a landmark 1968 ruling.

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"Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure" (1749) by John Cleland

Fanny Hill holds the distinction of being the ​longest banned book in U.S. history. It was initially declared obscene in 1821, a ruling that was not overturned until the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Memoirs v. Massachusetts (1966) decision. During those 145 years, the book was forbidden fruit--but in recent decades, it has attracted little interest from non-scholars.

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Head, Tom. "Top 10 "Obscene" Literary Classics." ThoughtCo, Jan. 26, 2021, Head, Tom. (2021, January 26). Top 10 "Obscene" Literary Classics. Retrieved from Head, Tom. "Top 10 "Obscene" Literary Classics." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).