Banned Books Week 2017: Attorney General vs. A Book Named “Naked Lunch”

“The court trials and other actions again Naked Lunch provide a moral benchmark. We cannot fail to recognize, in retrospect, the speed with which we assimilate into the mainstream of American life that which was once unspeakable.”
– Michael Barry Goodman

As stated in our initial post about Banned Books Week, most book challenges occur at local and regional levels – often within school districts as a result of one or a few parents or school authorities objecting to the content in their children’s books. However, some literary expressions make waves on a much grander scale. I wanted to share the court case and final decision of one of my own personal favorite “banned books,” William S. Burroughs novel Naked Lunch.

According to Monstrosity on Trial: The Case of “Naked Lunch,” Frederick Whiting writes:

“Indeed, the initial public response to the US publication of Naked Lunch in 1962 was an almost unanimous interdiction. Interests and authorities as diverse as US Customs, the trustees of the University of Chicago, the US Postal Service, the City of Los Angeles, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and a host of journalists and literary critics were all in agreement that what Burroughs had to say should not be said. Thus the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision that finally cleared Naked Lunch of obscenity charges on appeal in 1966 was a license to speak. In the space of three and a half years the unspeakable had become speakable.”

Declaring it not not obscene, clearing the novel of all charges and finding that it was protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, the highest court of Massachusetts reversed an earlier decision of the Superior Court of Boston and removed the threat of a state-wide ban on the book. In the 1992 edition of Naked Lunch the 26 page supplement titled Naked Lunch on Trial includes the full text of the majority decision of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, followed by excerpts from the testimonies of Mr. Mailer and Mr. Ginsberg, as well as a statement from Mr. de Grazia. From this supplement, the court held that the novel in question was not obscene based on the following three elements:

“…it must be established that: (a) the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to a prurient interest in sex; (b) the material is patently offensive because it affronts contemporary community standards; (c) the material is utterly without redeeming social value.”

The Supreme Court of Massachusetts continued by stating:

“As to whether the book has any redeeming social value, the record contains many reviews and articles in literary and other publications discussing seriously this controversial book portraying the hallucinations of a drug addict. Thus it appears that a substantial and intelligent group in the community believes the book to be of some literary significance.”

Naked Lunch can be checked out from UGA’s main library PS3552.U75 N3 1992. Like the banned books bookmark above? Pick up one for free in at the law library’s DVD display.

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