Reading the Obscene
Transgressive Editors and the Class Politics of US Literature
Jordan S. Carroll


Contents and Abstracts
Introduction: The Naked Editor
chapter abstract

After analyzing the arrest and obscenity charges against Ed Sanders, lead singer of the Fugs and editor of Fuck You / A Magazine of the Arts, this chapter argues that editors were central figures in censorship battles in the twentieth century. By previewing case studies in this book, the introduction presents an alternative theory of editorship that departs in significant ways from those formulated by Pierre Bourdieu and Howard Becker. Influential editors do not merely reflect the existing attitudes and tastes of their readership: they train their audiences how to read their publications. Finally, this introduction suggests that carefully staged encounters with obscenity were central to the self-development of white men in the professional-managerial class in the US during the midcentury period.

1 Shocking the Middle Class
chapter abstract

This chapter explores the relationship between class politics and obscenity law from Rex v. Curll (1727) to Roth v. United States (1957) and Miller v. California (1973), including discussions of Anthony Comstock and the Ulysses trial. Over the course of the twentieth century, the professional-managerial class came to see itself as uniquely capable of reading erotic material in a distanced and detached way. This cerebral attitude toward sex would ultimately coalesce into a middle-class sexual revolution in which affluent men imagined that they could treat sex as a process that could be optimized and controlled using techniques borrowed from management science.

2 An Aristocracy of Smut
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This chapter shows that H. L. Mencken, the editor of the Smart Set and the American Mercury, cultivated an audience of professional-managerial class readers who saw themselves as more advanced than the puritanical censors. According to Mencken, readers who could control their sexual responses and emotions were superior to the unintelligent masses of readers who represented throwbacks to prior evolutionary periods. Mencken promulgated a racially tinged version of modernism that celebrated Fordist managers as well as modern artists as heroic figures who invent the future by imposing their will on the world. Providing close readings of Mencken's published authors, including James Branch Cabell, Willa Cather, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, this chapter argues that the editor's heroes proved themselves to be ahead of their time by showing that they were temporally distanced from obscene feelings, which they cast as emotions or impulses found only in a pre-secular past.

3 Decrypting EC Comics
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This chapter explores the controversy surrounding editors William Gaines and Al Feldstein at EC Comics. Following a reading model that Janice Radway would call "middlebrow personalism," Fredric Wertham targeted EC comics such as Tales from the Crypt and Crime SuspenStories because he believed they would cause young readers to identify with monsters and murderers. Gaines and Feldstein, however, encouraged readers to view even the most horrific of comics as guessing games in which the goal was to detect narrative patterns in order to predict the shock ending. EC's most popular magazine, Mad, expanded this attitude of gamesmanship to popular culture and everyday life. By learning to see things from an abstract and cynical perspective, EC readers prepared themselves to enter the rat race of working in a bureaucratic organization.

4 Reading Playboy for the Science Fiction
chapter abstract

This chapter examines Playboy magazine editor and publisher Hugh Hefner. Playboy was a prolific publisher of science fiction, printing works by major authors such as Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Frederik Pohl, and Ursula K. Le Guin. These speculative narratives helped readers develop an estranged perspective on themselves, seeing themselves from a distanced third-person perspective that allowed them to develop the same cool composure evinced by Playboy's favorite superspy, Ian Fleming's James Bond. This emotionally controlled approach to sexuality led Playboy readers to dream of applying technoscientific knowledge to their intimate lives. The magazine's sexist speculations, however, tended to suggest that skilled playboys could reprogram women like computers or manipulate them like media technology. Playboy thus worked to objectify and silence women.

5 Mad Ones, Mad Men
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This chapter places Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems in the context of the poet's career in advertising and opinion polling. Ginsberg's poetics promised middle-class readers the possibility that they could shock themselves out of an emotionally deadening mass culture and develop a greater sensitivity toward the feelings of others. In this regard, Ginsberg's work follows the same trajectory as advertisers and management experts who came to reject scientific detachment and embrace a more intuitive and emotionally open approach during this period. However, when Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights Books was called upon to defend Ginsberg's book in the 1957 obscenity trial, his defense presented the queer sexuality displayed in Ginsberg's "Howl" as an expression of the paranoia and alienation he hoped to escape.

6 White-Collar Masochism
chapter abstract

This chapter examines the class politics of Grove Press under Barney Rosset. The professional-managerial class readers of Grove Press and its house magazine, Evergreen Review, faced a contradiction in which their radical political ideals conflicted with their affluent material circumstances. Through readings of authors such as Henry Miller and William S. Burroughs, this chapter shows that readers were drawn to narratives of masochistic self-shattering because they allowed them to imagine giving up their power. This aesthetic strategy ultimately failed when the press was forced to contend with labor organizers and feminist occupiers who accused the editorial staff of not living up to their political commitments.

Conclusion: Transgression in the Post-pornographic Era
chapter abstract

This chapter traces new developments in transgression and obscenity after 1973. Obscenity lost its force after liberalization, editors were replaced with algorithms that continued to police borderline obscene publications on platforms such as, and the professional-managerial class largely abandoned transgression as a tool for self-fashioning in the years that followed. Nevertheless, the alt-right emerged when a class faction of dissident or downwardly mobile members of the professional-managerial class took up the rhetoric and posturing of midcentury anti-censorship struggles and turned them toward the service of a right-wing fascist politics. Like the free speech libertarians of the 1950s and 1960s, the new fascists fantasized about building self-control and mastering sex through managerial techniques.