There was a cheap mass market paperback book on the living room bookshelf in our house in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 1950’s – I would guess it was my mother’s because she was the parent with literary tastes: a collection of short stories by Erskine Caldwell, a Southern writer who wrote about plain, simple people. He had a very simple, down to earth style.
I read one of the stories, “A Swell Looking Girl,” when I was a preadolescent. It astounded me because of its frank content, telling an unvarnished story that – while the language was not crude – seemed to have shocking implications. I did not, however, view it as a bad piece of fiction. Even at that age, I had fairly good taste.
“A Swell Looking Girl” is a very simple story about a young man in some town or other in the South who has just gotten married. He is very proud of his young bride and wants to show her off to his male neighbors. So he has her come out on the porch and then (eventually) lifts up her dress. She is nude underneath and completely exposed. The men all say “that sure is some swell looking girl” and gradually leave. That’s the whole story.
The story seemed remarkable to me at that age because of the thought of complete female nudity. It was kind of understated the way it was written, but very daring.
Another book on my parents’ bookshelf which I became aware of at a later age was James Joyce’s Ulysses. I was intrigued by it without reading it (which would have been quite difficult for me then; it still is now). I asked my mother and father about it once at the dinner table. I doubt they had read much of it, but they did explain to me the use by Joyce of stream of consciousness. This intrigued and interested me very much.
Later, when I was in high school, my church youth group, Liberal Religious Youth (LRY), had a midwinter conference at Proctor Academy in Andover, New Hampshire in which one of the workshops, which I attended, was on sexuality. In the flyer for the conference, in the place where there would be a description of the workshop, instead of a description of the workshop per se, it simply quoted the famous concluding words of Ulysses:
… I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish Wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
This caused quite a stir. Some adults were alarmed. They already thought that these LRY conferences, with adolescents staying together away from home at a conference site with little or no supervision, were a de facto invitation to licentiousness.
My reaction to the Ulysses quote in the flyer was that this was powerful writing of a high order. It did not arouse prurient feelings in me.
Another erotic book that I became slightly acquainted with at around the same time (actually a bit later) was Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I knew of the book but hadn’t read it until my senior year in high school. That year I attended an LRY conference in some town in Massachusetts and was staying over the weekend in someone’s house. There was a paperback of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in my room and, during downtime on a Sunday morning, I read some of it.
I grew to like and admire D. H. Lawrence; yet, I like several of his other novels (particularly The Rainbow and Sons and Lovers) a lot more than Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Nevertheless, when I first read it (parts of it, the “good parts”), I was favorably impressed. It was my first exposure to Lawrence. And, the sexual language and sexual descriptions were new to me. It gave me a desire for sex and got me thinking about it in more explicit terms. Yet, I knew it was not just a “dirty” book.
In my late high school years, I read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn in a recently published Grove Press paperback with a bright red cover, which I found in my father’s bedroom — the obscenity ban had just been lifted by the courts. I had never heard of Miller.
At first, I noticed the sexy parts – there were lots of them. The “good parts” were explicit, more so than other naughty books that I had hitherto peeked at. Besides being erotic, they were well written, amusing, and fun.
Soon — very quickly — I got caught up in the whole book and in Miller’s narrative style and I was no longer interested in the sexy parts alone. And, I found that I enjoyed the sex scenes not only for their explicit erotic content, but also for the humor and the good, zesty writing.
Tropic of Capricorn is one of my favorite books and I think it deserves the status of an American literary classic.
While in college, I also read Miller’s Sexus and Plexus and, later, books such as Quiet Days in Clichy and The World of Sex. I enjoyed them all and came to have admiration for Miller as a writer.
My father’s book collection included Memoirs of Hecate County, a novel by the famous literary critic Edmund Wilson. The book was banned in the US until 1959. I read one graphic sex scene in my father’s copy. I didn’t like it. It was too clinical, like an automaton detached from the protagonist’s persona is engaging in sexual intercourse. I find aspects of Wilson’s personality unappealing and don’t particularly care for his writing.
Peyton Place (1956) was a book that was around in those days. It was a phenomenal best seller and was published in a paperback with a black cover that seemed to promise, here is a BAD book. We didn’t have a copy in our house, but a lot of people did. There were a few naughty scenes, but I am sure the book would seem tame now.
The Carpetbaggers (1961) was a bestseller by Harold Robbins. We didn’t have a copy at home, but several kids I knew in high school called my attention to it. I think that it was one particular scene that caused most of the excitement. A girl is at the top of the stairs in a house, naked; she spills orange soda on herself and carries on in a provocative fashion. It was titillating for an adolescent, but I had no interest in reading the book.
Harold Robbins was a trashy writer who sold out. But, in my adult years, I did read an early novel of his, A Stone for Danny Fisher (1952), written when he still had some integrity as a striving writer. I was able to purchase a rare copy. Surprisingly, it was a pretty good book, a piece of realism about a young Jewish man who struggles to make his way during the Depression.
Another book that I discovered on what used to be the erotic books table in bookstores in the sixties – when I was in my young twenties — was My Life and Loves by Frank Harris. He was a successful editor in New York who had countless sexual conquests. Recently, I saw a handsome paperback reissue of the book on one of the bargain tables at the Strand Bookstore in New York and examined the book again. The book is a frank autobiography that was privately published by the author during the 1920’s and was published thereafter by the Obelisk Press in Paris (Henry Miller’s first publisher) in 1931. It is incredibly explicit and details one sexual encounter after another, with Harris portrayed as being remarkably potent and the women portrayed as ravenous for sex.
I can’t quite account for the fact that I found it, as I did at the later date, to be boring and tedious. After a few pages, you feel compelled to put it down. It’s like the case with pornography. The detail quickly becomes repetitive and mind-numbing.
George Orwell’s 1984 is another book I should mention, although no one nowadays would categorize it as a “dirty” book. When I was in high school in the early 1960’s, however, things were different.
1984 can hold its own not just as a polemic, so to speak, but also as a literary work. It took me several readings to appreciate this. After several readings, I grew to appreciate what I consider to be the brilliant satire more fully. I think that 1984 bears comparison to an even greater work, Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Both works are brilliant pieces of satire.
1984 is not pornographic. But, there are a couple of sex scenes involving the protagonist, Winston Smith, and Julia, “the girl from the fiction department.” The scene (and the line) that I remember best from reading the novel as an adolescent – it seemed to be what all my fellow teenagers noticed — was the scene when they first make love and Winston “felt at the zipper of her overalls.”
Because the book contained two sex scenes, it was banned in our high school (Canton High School in Canton, Massachusetts). I did read it, however, as part of Dr. Erwin Gaines’s reading group. Dr. Gaines was a high ranking librarian in Boston who had instituted an extra-curricular reading group for high school students. We would meet at his home every two weeks or so during the school year to discuss books; it was very enjoyable and stimulating. I am glad that I got to read 1984 then and didn’t have to wait until later.
— Roger W. Smith