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Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.

Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture. By Josh Lambert. (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2014. Pp. xi, 263. $35.00.)

In this book the author cheerfully overturns previous reticence about drawing attention to the variety and significance of the influence American Jews have exerted on the production, dissemination, and even definition of so-called "obscenity." He is hopefully right to believe that the anti-Semitic associations of the past should not bedevil the cultural critics of today. In a series of case studies that combine historical investigation with close readings, Josh Lambert productively explores such topics as the use of obscenity to counter accusations about Jewish sexual deviance, the deployment of literary obscenity as a path toward literary prestige for some American Jewish authors, the impact of American Jewish lawyers on obscenity case law, the escape from censorship by Yiddish literary production in America, and the self-censorship notable in writing by Jewish authors who claim modesty as a traditional Jewish virtue.

The provocative nature of such topics is self-evident, and Lambert brings a nicely dispassionate tone to his analysis. After reading Unclean Lips, no one could deny "the roles played by Jews in the institutional and ideological development of American literature from the late nineteenth century to the present" (23). However, it is less clear how and why Jewishness mattered to all of the players here. Certainly the late twentieth-century authors such as Shmuely Boteach and Wendy Shalit, who proclaim themselves as Orthodox, or at least as traditionally observant, self-consciously steep themselves in Jewish identity in order to denounce the obscenity inherent in modern life and to suggest alternatives. But Lambert is less successful in making such connections for other of his subjects, such as Jewish lawyers Morris Ernst and Harriet Pilpel, who fought to overturn the legal association of contraception and obscenity earlier in the twentieth century. Lambert probably had no way of knowing about scholars' recent work on the American Jewish community and birth control, since much of it was published at the same time as his book. The reviewer is one of the historians who has worked extensively on the subject, but the relative lack of historical context in some areas weakens his arguments about the role of Jewish identity.

From a literary studies perspective, Lambert succeeds handsomely in drawing connections among disparate events and texts. In one chapter, he deals with publishers (Horace Liveright and Samuel Roth), a novelist (Henry Roth), and graphic novelists (Will Eisner and Jules Feiffer) alike by focusing on the perverse prestige that obscenity could bestow upon literature across the twentieth century. Historians might look somewhat more askance on these connections, which are grounded less on evidence and more in textual analysis and implications. This method, which shapes all of Unclean Lips, makes the book an endlessly entertaining read while also leaving some lingering questions about the historical significance of these episodes. Still, there is no doubt that Lambert has written a lively account of a little-known history that deserves a wide audience.

Melissa R. Klapper

Rowan University

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Author:Klapper, Melissa R.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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