Lawrence, Chatterley, America

December 20: On this day in 1929 D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover was banned in the United States. This was only one of a string of bannings dating from its first publication the year before until the landmark obscenity trials in 1959 (U.S.) and 1960 (Britain), but for Lawrence personally it may have been the most devastating.

 

Lawrence expected, wanted, and got a fuss over the book, and knew from the start that no mainstream publisher would touch it—though he was disappointed that even Sylvia Beach, who had become Joyce's champion with her first edition of Ulysses a decade earlier, had declined the opportunity to publish Chatterley, which she called a "sermon-on-the-mount of Venus." Undeterred, Lawrence published the book himself, in a series of signed, private editions sold by quiet subscription. These were banned in many countries, but sales were brisk, even with the many other pirate editions. As a result, though besieged by "policemen, prudes and swindlers," Lawrence made a good profit, much of which he invested on Wall Street. He could now confidently give up his half-hearted attempt to prepare an emasculated version for wider distribution: "I somehow didn't get on very well with the expurgation," he wrote Knopf Publishing, "I somehow went quite colourblind, and couldn't tell purple from pink." He could now also finance his long-contemplated, permanent return to his ranch in New Mexico, the climate there seen as almost a last resort for his ever-worsening tuberculosis.

 

Lawrence attributed the collapse of this hope, and then his health, to the U.S. ban. His subscription orders to America had been disappearing in the mails for some time; he now believed that his unwelcome novel had made its author persona non grata, his application for immigration buried permanently at the bottom of the pile. Even as he finally agreed to a sanatorium in Italy he was studying ship's timetables for Atlantic crossings. One of the last photographs of him, taken on the day of his death, March 2, 1930, shows the "Phoenix" come to final ground: he is 85 lbs, in bed, reading a book about the voyage of Columbus to the New World.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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