Naked Lunch

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Date: 1959 1961

Region: North America

Subject: Explicit Sexuality Language

Medium: Literature


Artist: William S. Burroughs (1914 - 1997)

Confronting Bodies: United States Postal Service; United States Customs

Dates of Action: 1959, 1961

Location: United States of America

Description of Artwork: Burroughs's novel Naked Lunch was his most controversial for its use of "four-letter words," sexual innuendo, cannibalism, graphic sex and violence.

The Incident: Naked Lunch fought censorship based on its alleged obscene content from 1959, when it was written, until 1966. The book was first challenged by the U.S. Post Office who argued that the novel and exerpts from the novel were prohibited from mailing because of their obscene content. The post office lost the decision in an appeal to the Illinois Federal District Court. In 1959 a French publisher, Olympia Press, purchased the rights to Naked Lunch. When Olympia attempted to send copies into the United States in 1959, the books were intercepted and confiscated by U.S. Customs. Customs claimed jurisdiction under the 1930 Tariff Act to prevent the import of "any obscene book pamphlet, paper, writing, advertisement, circular...or other article which is obscene of immoral." In 1961 the customs bureau decided that Naked Lunch was contraband material.

Results of Incident: In November 1961 the U.S. District Attorney decided that custom's siezure of the book was "neither appropriate or desirable." In 1966 the Massachusetts Supreme Court cleared "Naked Lunch" of obscenity charges.

Source: Censorship, A World Encyclopedia, ed. D. Jones