By now, you’ve probably heard about Nicholson Baker’s controversial new novel, House of Holes, which is an incredibly dirty, madcap adventure which details the lives of sexual deviants. (If not, find a brief excerpt here.) As you might imagine, the language that Baker uses is pretty colorful — but it’s certainly nothing groundbreaking. To prove our point, we decided to round up a few authors who broke boundaries when swearing wasn’t as common as it is today. So read on, dear readers, and tell us what “vulgar” reads we missed.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1885)
This novel has recently been the subject of much controversy in schools because of the use of the “n-word.” As Publishers Weekly reports, “for decades, [Huckleberry Finn] has been disappearing from grade school curricula across the country, relegated to optional reading lists, or banned outright, appearing again and again on lists of the nation’s most challenged books, and all for its repeated use of a single, singularly offensive word.” An alternate, edited edition by NewSouth Books, replaced “nigger” with “slave” and was published this past February. We wrote about this controversy in our redacted texts post this past May.
Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw (1914)
When this debuted on the London stage in 1914, audiences gasped when Eliza Doolittle exclaimed in Act Three, “Walk? Not bloody likely!” This word was common enough to be heard on the street but never in the theater. In 1972, Richard Huggett wrote a play in homage to George Bernard Shaw’s landmark work, titled, The First Night of Pygmalion.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence (1928)
This was deemed obscene for the love affair between a wealthy woman of the house and the groundskeeper, but people also took umbrage with the amount of swearing in its pages. The publisher originally was after “an unprintable book that is fit to read” and got it in D.H. Lawrence’s magnum opus. We’ve included a passage below that made ladies swoon and gentlemen blush:
“What is cunt,” she said. “‘An doesn’t ter know! Cunt! It’s thee down theer, ‘an what I get when I’m i’side thee; it’s a’ as it is, all on’t.” “‘All on’t,” She teased. “Cunt! It’s like fuck then.”
Sleeveless Errand by Norah C. James (1929)
When it was published in 1929, authorities banned the novel, saying it contained “conversations by persons entirely devoid of decency and morality” and that “blasphemy is freely indulged in by all the characters, and filthy language and indecent situations appear to be the keynote.” This was one of many titles published by Jack Kahane, a prolific publisher of obscene books.
Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller (1934)
Miller’s controversial title was first published in 1934 by the now infamous Jack Kahane. The novel contains the following lines of note, which we wrote about in our Tropic of Cancer post in June: “I am fucking you, Tania, so that you’ll stay fucked. And if you are afraid of being fucked publicly I will fuck you privately. I will tear off a few hairs from your cunt and paste them on Boris’ chin. I will bite into your clitoris and spit out two franc pieces…” Whew.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (1936)
On the American Library Association’s (ALA) website, it says that in 1984: “The Knoxville, Tenn. School Board chairman vowed to have ‘filthy books’ removed from Knoxville’s public schools and picked Steinbeck’s novel as the first target due to ‘its vulgar language.'” In 1929, Steinbeck wrote to his grandmother, saying, “For too long, the language of books was different from the language of men.”
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951)
The list of complaints against the novel on the American Library Association’s (ALA) website is lengthy, so we included a few serious cases. It was removed from school libraries in Manitoba in the 1980s because of “excess vulgar language, sexual scenes, things concerning moral issues, excessive violence, and anything dealing with the occult,” and was banned from English classes in De Funiak Springs, Florida as late as 1985 because the novel was deemed both “unacceptable” and “obscene.” This was one of the first novels in the US to contain the phrase, “fuck you” — seen on a wall by the young protagonist, Holden Caulfield, though never uttered in the book.
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
This book was deemed unacceptable to teach to young minds on a number of grounds. It was “challenged in Eden Valley, Minn. (1977) and temporarily banned due to words ‘damn’ and ‘whore lady’ … Challenged in the Waukegan, III. School District (1984) because the novel uses the word ‘nigger.’ … Challenged at the Park Hill, Mo. Junior High School (1985) because the novel ‘contains profanity and racial slurs.'” Despite these protestations, the novel remains on school lists throughout the country.
Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr. (1964)
Now considered a cult classic, this 1964 novel by Hubert Selby, Jr. gave readers an uncompromising look at the grittier side of life in 1950s Brooklyn (or as The New York Times called it, “a lasting vision of urban hell”). It also ruffled more than a few feathers thanks to Selby’s stream of consciousness style and deliberate defiance of traditional grammar rules. And then there was the language and subject matter (“homosexuality, prostitution, drug-taking, and sexual perversion”), which ultimately led to an obscenity trial in the UK and the book being banned in Italy. As Selby explained to the Times back in 1988, “The events that take place are the way people are. These are not literary characters; these are real people. I knew these people. How can anybody look inside themselves and be surprised at the hatred and violence in the world? It’s inside all of us.”
“TCB” by Sonia Sanchez (1970)
“White mother fucker, white mother fucker, white mother fucker, white mother fucker — pig.”
As late as 1984, the British/American Dictionary deemed “motherfucker” to be “so obscene as to be beyond the bounds of native British speech.” Sonia Sanchez, a poet and civil rights activist, is one of the first to write the term in her work back in 1970, though Norman Mailer came close when he included “motherfugger” in The Naked and the Dead in 1947.