Unclean Lips

Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture

276 pages

November, 2013

ISBN: 9781479876433

$40

Cloth

Also available in

Author

Josh Lambert is Academic Director of the Yiddish Book Center and Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

All books by Josh Lambert

Winner of the 2014 Jordan Schnitzer Book Award presented by the Association for Jewish Studies

Jews have played an integral role in the history of obscenity in America. For most of the 20th century, Jewish entrepreneurs and editors led the charge against obscenity laws. Jewish lawyers battled literary censorship even when their non-Jewish counterparts refused to do so, and they won court decisions in favor of texts including UlyssesA HowlLady Chatterley’s Lover, and Tropic of Cancer. Jewish literary critics have provided some of the most influential courtroom testimony on behalf of freedom of expression.
  
The anti-Semitic stereotype of the lascivious Jew has made many historians hesitant to draw a direct link between Jewishness and obscenity. In Unclean Lips, Josh Lambert addresses the Jewishness of participants in obscenity controversies in the U.S. directly, exploring the transformative roles played by a host of neglected figures in the development of modern and postmodern American culture.
 
The diversity of American Jewry means that there is no single explanation for Jews' interventions in this field. Rejecting generalizations, this bookoffers case studies that pair cultural histories with close readings of both contested texts and trial transcripts to reveal the ways in which specific engagements with obscenity mattered to particular American Jews at discrete historical moments.
 
Reading American culture from Theodore Dreiser and Henry Miller to Curb Your Enthusiasm and FCC v. FoxUnclean Lips analyzes the variable historical and cultural factors that account for the central role Jews have played in the struggles over obscenity and censorship in the modern United States.
 

Reviews

  • "This is a well-written, at times playful, book and is accessible for readers who are familiar with some but not all of the discussed texts.  Lambert evidently enjoyed reading, thinking, and writing about his source materials...Thoroughly researched and thoughtful volume."

    The American Jewish Archives Journal

  • “[…] Lambert has written a lively account of a little-known history that deserves a wide audience.”

    The Historian

  • "[H]e presents what is engaging material, demonstrating how 'taboo words and explicit representations of sex were meaningful to American Jews during the 20th-century . . . in contingent and historically specific ways.'"

    Publishers Weekly

  • "The strength in his argument is not only in finding social meaning in smut but also in moving beyond the ready cliches of Jewish marginalization to an astute recognition of Jewish power. Lambert discovers in obscene speech, beyond its associations with subversion and marginality, the ability to arouse attention, confer status, and create capital."

    —Naomi Seidman, The Chronicle of Higher Education

  • "Who would have thought that some American Jews at the dawn of this century supported 'smutty' literature as a way of entering exclusive cultural circles, rather than getting thrown out? This is just one of the many surprising, strange and fascinating pieces of literary history found in Josh Lambert's detailed chronicle of Jews and obscenity in America, Unclean Lips."

    —Sarah Seltzer, Lilith

  • "In his study, Lambert, a professor of English, provides new angles on the connection of Jews and obscenity, as well as that connection's surprising relationships to eternal questions about Jewish difference: does it exist? what is it? and wherefore?

    —Rachel Gordan, Religion Dispatches

  • "Reading American culture from Theodore Dreiser and Henry Miller to Curb Your Enthusiasm and FCC v. Fox, Unclean Lips analyzes the variable historical and cultural factors that account for the central role Jews have played in the struggles over obscenity and censorship in the modern United States." 

    —Karen Tani, Legal History Blog

  • "Josh Lambert's Unclean Lips is brilliant not only for its erudition and wit but also for the freshness and originality of its insights into the critical role that Jews have played in the history of American obscenity.  Lambert takes the anti-Semitic canard that Jews are a people of unclean lips with a perverse obsession with obscenity and explores both the harm done to Jews charged with obscenity and the ways Jews in different eras have exploited their relationship with obscenity to gain cultural capital and to advance themselves individually and as a marginalized group."

    The Journal of American History

  • "Lambert is to be congratulated on skillfully steering between the two rocks and producing a detailed and balanced picture that considers both legal and literary questions . . . . This book is an interesting and well-informed study of a fascinating subject."

    Journal of Contemporary Religion

  • "Josh Lambert undermines many cliches about Jews, obscenity, and even 'sexual anti-Semitism' in this engrossing book. He brilliantly navigates us through many episodes of sexual representation, some familiar, some quite unexpected, along with the social and legal conflicts that surrounded them. Lucidly written and arduously researched, this is an exceptional work of cultural history."

    —Morris Dickstein, author of Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression

  • "Josh Lambert breaks new ground in his complex, original, and important work on Jews and obscenity. His story weaves together Jewish publishers, writers, birth control crusaders, Orthodox advocates for modesty, and comedians as well as non Jews writing about Jews. He recenters debates about obscenity on Jewishness, as well as centering them within American Jewish culture. Unclean Lips is a timely and fascinating study of American culture itself."

    —Riv-Ellen Prell, author of Fighting to Become Americans: Jews Gender and the Anxiety of Assimilation