The Fifty-Year-Old Fire

by Sarah Weinman

News and Trends

Posted 9.1.08

September/October 2008

Fifty years ago, American readers met a twelve-year-old girl named Dolores Haze—sometimes Dolly, often Lo, and, unforgettably, Lolita. For someone so young, she was already notorious, having provoked a firestorm of controversy and outrage upon her Parisian debut three years earlier. It seemed a fait accompli that Lolita's arrival on American soil would trigger a similar reaction. Instead, Vladimir Nabokov's novelistic account of Humbert Humbert's pedophilic obsession for his stepdaughter-cum-lover met with Gone With the Wind-like success, selling more than a hundred thousand copies in its first three weeks. Lolita was almost immediately anointed a modern American classic. Not a bad fate for a book that, upon its publication in Paris, was called by one editor "the filthiest book I have ever read."

The book's stateside success would have been difficult to foresee while Nabokov was shopping the manuscript of Lolita, which he finished in 1954, to five American publishers. Viking rejected it immediately; Simon & Schuster dubbed the book "pure pornography." Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New Directions, and Nabokov's previous publisher Doubleday also passed. "The major factor preventing Lolita from being published sooner in the United States was fear that it would be banned, which would make advertising and distribution difficult, and enmesh both author and publisher in a lengthy and costly legal battle," explains Nabokov scholar Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, an assistant professor of English at Holy Cross College. "Nabokov wanted to make sure that any publisher would be willing to defend the novel, if necessary; meanwhile, the lawyers at Doubleday, and at Simon & Schuster, urged caution and delay."

Lolita finally found a home with Olympia Press, the Paris-based outfit devoted to publishing books that had run afoul of British and American censorship. Dubious packaging that focused more on titillation and less on the novel's literary themes allowed critics to ignore the novel upon its September 1955 publication, until Graham Greene praised Lolita as one of the best books of that year and opened up a Pandora's box of adulation, excoriation, and potential lawsuits. But the threat of a ban could only deter American publication up to a point, and in 1958 G. P. Putnam's Sons finally snapped up the right to call Lolita its own. Ironically, company president Walter Minton reportedly learned of the book's existence from a former showgirl—who no doubt earned a hefty finder's fee as a result.

While the fiftieth anniversary of Lolita's original publication in 2005 prompted a swell of media coverage and panel discussions of the work, the celebration of its half-century mark in America is more subdued. The New School in New York City will host a one-day symposium, Lolita in America, on September 27, gathering Nabokov experts such as Nina Khrushcheva, author of Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics (Yale University Press, 2007); Ellen Pifer, author of Demon or Doll: Images of the Child in Contemporary Writing and Culture (University Press of Virginia, 2000) and Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita": A Casebook (Oxford University Press, 2003); and Leland de la Durantaye, author of Style Is Matter: The Moral Art of Vladimir Nabokov (Cornell University Press, 2007), to "reflect on the enormous impact this novel has had on American culture and, indeed, on cultures worldwide." Azar Nafisi's international best-seller Reading "Lolita" in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (Random House, 2003) will be reissued in November, though the timing has less to do with the fiftieth anniversary than with the December publication of Nafisi's forthcoming memoir, Things I've Been Silent About (Random House).

Chicago Review Press, however, timed its August launch of Graham Vickers's Chasing Lolita: How Popular Culture Corrupted Nabokov's Little Girl All Over Again to coincide with the anniversary. Vickers's book is less an examination of the novel than an exploration of cultural history using the novel as a focus. "Now that Lolita's name is so often sloppily used to evoke the cliché of the teenage temptress," Vickers writes in an e-mail interview, "it seemed appropriate to demonstrate that the novel did not invent the sort of relationship it describes, and that Nabokov's twelve-year-old little girl did not even vaguely resemble the coarse stereotype she later became in the popular imagination. I suppose really I wanted to bounce a book off Lolita while trying to redress a widespread imbalance of perception surrounding its essentially innocent heroine."

To prove his larger point, Vickers first looks at the novel's forerunners: the Dickensian, waiflike stars of the silent movies of D. W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin, Deanna Durbin and Judy Garland's reactionary teenage wholesomeness in the 1940s, and Carroll Baker's disturbing turn as a child bride in the 1956 movie Baby Doll. "One of the more dispiriting discoveries one makes when seeking recent historical examples of older men obsessed with very young girls is that there is an embarrassment of riches to choose from," Vickers writes, referring not only to examples in culture but in real life. In Chasing Lolita, he also examines what Nabokov's character has inspired both directly (two film versions, a musical by Alan Jay Lerner, and a play by Edward Albee, who offers an unofficial sequel told from Lolita's point of view) and indirectly (the continuing sexualization of teenage girls in contemporary culture, Japanese "lolicon" manga, and public fixation on the murder of JonBenet Ramsey).

By placing Lolita in a larger cultural context, Vickers preserves the book's status as a notorious classic, but he reminds us that the reader should only consider the book on its own terms. "Nabokov always abhorred mixing up art with politics and social messages and I think he was right to do so," he writes. "Art lasts longer."

Sarah Weinman is a freelance writer in New York City. Her Web site is www.sarahweinman.com.

“The threat of a ban could only deter American publication up to a point, and in 1958 G. P. Putnam's Sons finally snapped up the right to call Lolita its own.”