As a member of “The Lost Generation,” Henry Miller was one of many expatriate writers and artists who found solace in Paris during the interwar years. Art and literature became autobiographical, describing the directionless feeling that writers and artists felt from their sobering experiences of surviving World War I. Literature explored the methods the writers used to find their way, such as drinking and engaging in open relationships. In his novel, The Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller draws on his own experiences, weaving a semi-autobiographical tale just as famous for its observations on 1930s expatriate life as it is for its graphic descriptions of his main character’s sexual encounters.
How much of The Tropic of Cancer is factual is up for debate; Miller uses his own experiences and his friends and colleagues as inspiration while some names, dates, and events are entirely fictional. Many of the characters that the protagonist encounters are written as caricatures, making the book a social criticism as much as it is an erotic novel. Using stream-of-consciousness, Miller floats back and forth from the past to the present, making his story seem more like the musings of an impoverished writer frustrated at his situation in this course of his life.
The sexual encounters of Miller’s protagonist were so explicit that it was banned and censored in multiple countries, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Finland. The United States Customs Service banned The Tropic of Cancer after its publication in France in 1934. In the early 1960s, when the American Publisher Grove Press published the novel, more than sixty plaintiffs in twenty-one states filed obscenity suits against retail booksellers. Since the United States Supreme Court ruled that The Tropic of Cancer did not have the characteristics of obscene literature in 1964, it has become one of the most important American novels of the twentieth century for what the New York Times considered the “free speech that we now take for granted in literature.”
When it comes to the most shocking erotic novels, The Story of O is usually at the top of everyone’s list. Playing out like a male dominance fantasy, a Parisian photographer’s lover René initiates her to the BDSM lifestyle by bringing her to a chateau, where a secret club trains her in the art of submission. When they arrive, to prove the strength of their connection, Rene tells O that he is giving her to his stepbrother as a sex slave.
Sir Stephen proves to be stricter than her lover, but that is the point: Rene wants to teach O how to be a submissive lover when there are no personal feelings involved. By summer, Sir Stephen has complete control over O, who sends her to a mansion of dominant female masters for further training. When O returns to Sir Stephen, he presents her to a party as a sex slave, and everyone at the party objectifies her in every possible way.
Written under the pen name Pauline Réage, French novelist Anne Desclos kept her identity a secret for about four decades; finally, before her death in 1998, she revealed that she had written The Story of Oand why she had written it. While she was working for the French publisher Jean Paulham, who was also her boyfriend, he revealed that he was a fan of the Marquis de Sade. When he also told her that no woman could write like the eighteenth-century French nobleman, Desclos took the statement as a challenge, writing The Story of O as a love letter to Paulham.
The Story of O was a huge commercial success, winning the coveted Prix des Deux Magots literature prize in France in February 1955. The French courts brought obscenity charges against the author and the publisher. The charges were eventually thrown out, but the courts won the right to prevent the publisher and the unknown author from publicizing the book for many years. Many Feminists have heavily criticized the novel for its objectification and violence against women. A group of French feminists, Mouvement de liberation des femmes, publicly protested when a film based on the book was released, claiming that the book and the movie were offensive.
The story of a literature professor who marries a woman to manipulate her preteen daughter into having a relationship with him, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita continues to be controversial over sixty years after its publication. Modern scholars have heavily criticized the novel for its use of hebephilia, a sexual attraction to prepubescent or early adolescent children, as an artistic motif and for reducing Lolita as an object of desire without any indication of her thoughts or feelings. Despite the criticism and the uncomfortable subject matter, Lolita has gained classic status, consistently included in “must-read” lists and topping multiple lists in best American literature.
Now that psychologists understand the mental impact of sexual abuse in childhood, Humbert’s manipulations of Lolita are especially troubling. Humbert consummates his lust for her by convincing her to demonstrate what she thinks qualifies as sexual activity. Bribing her for sexual favors, he threatens her that she will end up in an orphanage if she leaves him. Nabokov specifically references a case of child sexual abuse that inspired the novel. In 1948, fifty-year-old mechanic Frank Lasalle kidnapped and sexually assaulted eleven-year-old Florence Horner, posing as her father when they checked into hotels. Lasalle completely brainwashed Horner, threatening to send her to a juvenile facility if she didn’t comply.
“To a Dark Moses” (1973-1974)
Much like The Carnal Prayer Mat, the celebrated poet Lucille Clifton connects religious and erotic themes in her poem “To a Dark Moses,” making an important statement on the power of female sexuality. Using biblical imagery, Clifton represents herself as “the Burning Bush,” referenced in the Book of Exodus as the bush in flames on Mount Horeb, marking the location where God told Moses that he would lead the Israelites to Canaan. Clifton’s description of her lover, representing Moses from the biblical story, is graphic, using words such as “rod” and “serpent” to describe him.
Written in the midst of the feminist movement, a time when women’s sexual empowerment became part of the feminist rhetoric, Clifton uses the burning bush that was not destroyed on Mount Horeb as a metaphor for her sexuality. “To a Dark Moses” is a significant work of literature that celebrates women’s sexual power in general, stating that women do not need men to satisfy them, an idea that would become an essential component of sex-positive feminism that would emerge in the following decade.