This Day (Utterly Obscene Edition)

Published:January 14, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

On this day in 1920, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice declared the novel Jurgen by James Branch Cabell to be obscene. The printing plates were seized and the book banned, turning the novel into a cause célèbre and Cabell, who was born and raised in Richmond, into one of America’s most-discussed novelists.

As the illustration above, taken from a 1921 edition, suggests, Jurgen is not, shall we say, written in the realist mode. Instead, its eponymous hero—a medieval pawnbroker who considers himself to be a “monstrous clever fellow”—sails through a series of sexual liaisons with a female vampire, a fertility goddess, and Arthurian maidens before ultimately reaffirming to himself the sanity of domestic, wedded harmony.

A vampire? Too bad Cabell was stuck in the ’20s. These days, Jurgen could be a huge hit for HBO. Not that people aren’t still finding stuff obscene today. Take Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for example, which apparently uses certain names in vain and cows in other ways.

Perhaps Morrison could follow in Cabell’s footsteps. A few months after Jurgen‘s ban in New York, he published a short addendum, The Judging of Jurgen, which featured a hand-printed note from Cabell in the front (see above). It read:

In this, as in every other fable I have written about Jurgen, I have endeavored to write that wherein each man will find what his nature enables him to see.

Cabell expanded on that theme right away. On the book’s first page, the prosecutor—who is a bug, by the way—confronts our hero, Jurgen:

“You are offensive,” the bug replied, “because you carry a sword, which I choose to say is not a sword. You are lewd, because you carry a staff, which I prefer to think is not a staff. You are lascivious, because you carry a lance, which I elect to declare is not a lance. And, finally, you are indecent for reasons of which a description would be objectionable to me, and which, therefore, I must decline to reveal to anybody.”

That is so typical. Maybe Cabell was being realistic after all!

IMAGES: Top: Cabell hard at work on Jurgen in Virginia Beach, August 1918 (Virginia Commonwealth University); bottom left: “Thus it came about that Jurgen clambered merrily from heaven to hell” (Virginia Commonwealth University); bottom right (top): note in The Judging of Jurgen; bottom right (bottom): Cabell photographed by Carl Van Vechten, April 30, 1935 (Library of Congress)