Obscenity and the Post Office

Tags: , , ,

Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

Several years ago, I had an argument with my step father regarding the Ginsberg obscenity trial. He thought the trial occurred in the 1960s in Pennsylvania. I was sure the trial took place in San Francisco in 1957. Turns out we were both right. There were two obscenity trials dealing with two different Ginsberg / Ginzburgs. The Howl trial is the better known of the two. Ralph Ginzburg edited Eros magazine which ran afoul of the government. After a brief trial in June, 1963, Ginzburg was convicted in Philadelphia by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the conviction in 1964, and two years later the U.S Supreme Court announced its decision, also affirming the conviction, in Ginzburg v. United States, 383 U.S. 463 (March 21, 1966). Interestingly, Allen Ginsberg supported Ralph Ginzburg in his legal battles by picketing the Supreme Court. (For more on Ginzburg see Wikipedia.)

Recently, I returned to the issue of Ralph Ginzburg and Philadelphia in an attempt to get information on the little magazine scene in Pennsylvania in the mid-1960s. I found no relationship, but I turned up some other information relating to literary magazines and William Burroughs. My searches led me to the United States Postal Service website and the judicial branch of that service. I rediscovered the role the Post Office has in censorship. I was more aware of the role played by the US Customs Department as evidenced in the case of Howl and Ulysses, but the Post Office for over a hundred years has been just as active on this front. See this link for a detailed account of the role of the Post Office in censorship for over 100 years.

I found Postal Service Decisions concerning the availability of second class mailing privileges for three literary magazines: Eros, Big Table and Aspen. According to the Postal Service, second class mail (now called Periodicals) is “a class of mail consisting of magazines, newspapers, or other publications formed of printed sheets that are issued at least four times a year at regular, specified intervals (frequency) from a known office of publication.” Periodicals usually must have a legitimate list of subscribers and requesters. (See this PDF.) Periodical status grants special privileges such as reduced rates and various delivery services. As a result, periodicals are subject to the most complex regulations of all mail, including regulations concerning obscenity. These Postal Service Decisions provided an interesting springboard to a number of issues related to the little magazine and Naked Lunch.

On July 9, 1959, the Hearing Examiner handed down its initial decision concerning the suitability of second class privileges for Big Table. The Examiner found Big Table nonmailable under 18 US Code 1461 due to obscenity. Big Table (which included the suppressed contents of the Winter issue of Chicago Review) contained episodes of Naked Lunch, Kerouac’s Old Angel Midnight, a piece by Edward Dahlberg and poetry by Gregory Corso. Maurice Girodias, owner of the Olympia Press, hearing of this decision agreed to publish Naked Lunch. The book hit French bookstores and was available for mail order by the end of that same month. For a comprehensive article on the Chicago Review / Big Table controversy and the role of the Post Office in its censorship, see bigmagic.com.

What interests me in the Post Office decision is the fact that questions of obscenity and censorship dictated the academic and public reception of Naked Lunch even before it was published in book form. I generally viewed the legal defense of Naked Lunch as centering on the Grove Press edition. In that light, the “Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness” and the “Letter from a Master Addict” were added to the Grove edition as ammunition for the inevitable obscenity trial. Yet from its very first publication, most critical discussion revolved around the legal defense of the novel. Thus discussions of the novel were couched around morality, artistic integrity, satire, and literary tradition. Every effort was made to prove that the novel possesses a positive moral center and contained a valid social message. Much later criticism of Naked Lunch stems from the ideas Burroughs attached to the novel in the “Deposition.” I am thinking of Eric Mottram’s Algebra of Need and similar studies. Many of these arguments were presented before the Postal Service Examiner in June 1959. Today, most readers do not view the novel as obscene and in fact view it as a protest against governmental control, bureaucracy, drug addiction, or a host of other societal ills.

I think this was and is unfortunate. In “Welcoming Howl into the Canon,” David Gates writes of what is lost due to the mainstream acceptance of Howl and due to the view of the poem as “the straightforward work of social protest that its defenders presented in court.” These arguments are on one level true and necessary in a legal sense, but Gates writes, “Ginsberg meant the poem to be obscene: not merely offensive in its forbidden words describing forbidden acts but offensive to the intellect, to common sense, to all our consensual realities, to all the boundaries we believe necessary to civilized life. This is not, at bottom, a poem holding up liberal, or libertarian, pieties against conservative pieties… It’s a radically offensive poem, or used to be — offensive even to received notions of what poetry is, and it needs offended readers whose fear and outrage bring it most fully to life.”

These thoughts hold true for Naked Lunch as well. The wild, exuberant offensiveness of the novel fades in the face of all the legal arguments and the process of canonization. I think much of the Keystone Kops insanity, silliness, carnival aspects, physical humor, physicality and sloppiness of Naked Lunch get pigeonholed into social satire, literary tradition and black humor. The experience of reading Naked Lunch for me is still like no other novel. The book spills out in all directions threatening to schlupp you like Bradley the Buyer. While the four letter words and sexual description are less shocking than when I first read it, the shocking beauty of its dark poetry remains. Even after Gravity’s Rainbow and other postmodern classics, the novel’s narrative structure (or lack thereof) creates a profound derangement of the senses. The directness of the first line and the nostalgia and loss of the last lines maintain their power and even grow. For me, Naked Lunch reads like it was written tomorrow. It is still fresh, and if not truly offensive, it still surprises me with every reading. I wonder if the book holds the same allure for most of today’s new readers.

The book seems much more ambivalent about drugs and drug addiction that commonly read. Naked Lunch‘s dark poetry and air of nostalgia for a lost drug underworld may not fully glamorize drugs but they do cast a seductive aura over them. The book never provides a simple approach to drugs like “Just Say No.” The image of Capital Punishment in Naked Lunch (the spurting hanged man) is also portrayed with ambivalence. For Burroughs, the image was one of tremendous fascination, obsession and fantasy. The manner in which he depicts it (with humor; with monotonous repetition; with frenzied prose-poetry) highlights Burroughs playing with as well as downplaying its power on him. In addition, there are no simple solutions or utopian alternatives to the bleak view of the capitalist system the novel presents.

The postal decision surrounding Aspen Magazine shows another way in which the Post Office censored literary production. In August 1971, the Post Office revoked the second class privileges of Aspen Magazine, not for obscenity, but because Aspen was not a periodical as defined by 39 US Code 4354. The Post Office found that Aspen could not receive government benefits, in part because it was not “formed of printed sheets.” The magazine in some cases was packaged in a box and contained film and audio tape as well as broadsides and postcards. See for a complete collection of Aspen, ubu.com.

One of the goals of Aspen was to challenge the definition of a magazine. Aspen expanded what a magazine contained and how it was packaged. Such experiments do not receive the special privileges of the government. This fact demonstrates how the government restricts artistic expression and experimentation through means other than obscenity. Financially strapped publishers are encouraged to conform the formats of their magazines in order to obtain the cheaper mailing rates necessary for distribution. This might explain why the little magazine boom of the post World War II era did not explore the limitations of the magazine format more aggressively. With its large print run and reliance on the postal system, Evergreen Review could not afford to experiment with its format if it wanted second class mailing benefits. Magazines with small print runs and no commercial interests, like Semina, could explore the boundaries of the magazine more fully.

The relationship between the eligibility for mailing privileges and the restriction of literary and artistic expression in the little magazine is even more direct in 39 US Code 4354(b). This section of the law reads, “the word ‘printed’ does not include reproduction by the stencil, mimeograph, or hectograph processes or reproduction in imitation of typewriting.” Interestingly, the definition of the periodical for mailing purposes was revised in 1960. I have been unable to determine if the language discriminating against mimeo and other similar processes was on the books before then. It would be very telling if this section on mimeo was enacted in 1960 proving that the mimeo revolution was making a large impact on the hearts and minds of the American public despite its small print runs. In any case, the law demonstrates how much of the little magazine revolution operated outside of not only the academy and publishing industry but also the sponsorship of the government. Poor writers who had access to new publishing technologies were restricted in the dissemination of their product by having to pay full mailing rates, while mainstream magazines, often with a mainstream message, received those benefits. Again as with Aspen, the law restricted the means of magazine production encouraging conformity in presentation and thus content. The laws discriminating against mimeo may explain why artists and writers, such as Leroi Jones who dabbled in mimeo in Floating Bear, chose to publish their magazines, like Kulchur or Yugen, using offset printing technology instead of other accessible technologies. For radical, counterculture magazines like Fuck You, the very act of printing in mimeo becomes an act of rebellion and a casting off of the government’s sponsorship.

In the case of Eros, the Hearing Examiner denied second class privileges due to the fact that the magazine was discontinued. Ralph Ginsburg was forced to halt production of the magazine as he conceived it. On March 21, 1966, the Supreme Court affirmed the lower courts’ rulings that Eros violated the Federal obscenity statute 18 U.S. Code 1461: “Every obscene, lewd, lascivious, indecent, filthy, or vile article, matter, thing, device, or substance;*** Is declared to be nonmailable matter and shall not be conveyed in the mails or delivered from any post office or by any letter carrier***” It should be noted that Eros published erotic art, including poetry and painting, and was far from pornography. Evergreen Review in its later issues published material of this type. As a result of the Supreme Court decision, Ginzburg ceased publication of Eros and spent time in jail. I have been able to see a full run of Eros and it is truly shocking that this publication was considered pornographic and obscene in the mid-1960s. During the height of the Summer of Love, sex and the human body were still considered filthy and immoral to a large segment of the population and the government. As Lori Klatt Maurice points out in her article on censorship and the post office, those sentiments are alive and well today.

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 18 May 2006.

2 thoughts on “Obscenity and the Post Office

  1. does anyone know if those old EROS magazines are worth anything? i have four of them, actually, i think there were only four.

  2. They are really common although the prices dealers but on them fluctuate wildly. There are many sets (1-4) available for $100-125.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *