Many novels of the past 50 years or so, including literary ones, have been fairly candid in their references to sexual matters. That’s the case with parts of John Irving’s In One Person, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, and numerous other fiction books. (Fifty Shades of Grey? Haven’t read it.)
But while sexual references were often more coded and subtle in pre-1960s fiction, things could still get relatively frank at times. I was reminded of that last week while reading Marjorie Morningstar, which was published in 1955 and mostly set in the 1930s. (Poster of the movie version above.) There’s plenty of G-rated “necking” in Herman Wouk’s novel, but also adultery, sex with no plans to get married, flashes of naked skin, and more — even as much of the novel has non-romantic things on its mind (show biz, ambition, conformity vs. rebellion, class divisions, obsessive parenting, Jewish culture, the rise of Nazi Germany, etc.). An excellent novel, though the plot turn at the very end was disappointing.
Going further back in time, we have Henry Miller’s sex-heavy Tropic of Cancer (1934), which was banned in the U.S. for many years; Erskine Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre (1933), which contains scenes explicit enough for its time to get the author taken to court and the book banned in some cities; D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913), which was graphic enough to have about 10% of its content edited out before publication — even as some remaining scenes were still pretty risqué for their day; Emile Zola’s Nana (1880), with its blunt depiction of the life of its prostitute protagonist; Herman Melville’s Pierre (1852), which focuses on a possibly incestuous relationship; and Honoré de Balzac’s The Magic Skin (1831), which includes an orgy scene.
Long before that, there’s plenty of amorousness in novels such as Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742) — with characters like the revealingly named Lady Booby.
What are your favorite pre-1960s novels that were more sexually frank than you might have expected? And some of the more candid ’60s and post-’60s fiction you’ve liked?
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about yet another oversized building coming to my town — is here.