Nabokov’s Lolita: An American Classic That Almost Wasn’t

When Lolita first came out in the US — 52 years ago this month — plenty of publications (like the Christian Science Monitor and the Baltimore Sun) refused to touch it. One critic, Frederic Babcock, editor of the Chicago Tribune‘s Magazine of Books, claimed: “Lolita is pornography, and we do not plan to review it.” Not that their reactions came as any surprise. When Nabokov was shopping around for a US publisher, a rejection letter read: “It is overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian. To the public, it will be revolting. It will not sell, and will do immeasurable harm to a growing reputation…. I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” Another suggested that he turn Lolita into a boy, as it would make the book more morally acceptable to audiences.

In total, five major publishers turned down Lolita: Viking, Simon & Schuster, New Directions, Farrar Straus, and Doubleday. Luckily Putnam stepped up to the plate after the book was banned in France and Graham Greene gave it an enthusiastic shout out in the London Times — both huge buzz generators.

After the jump, find snippets from a few critics who did decide to review Lolita — reactions that range from the ecstatic to the downright ugly.

The Good

“Vladimir Nabokov is an artist of the first rank, a writer in the great tradition. He will never win the Pulitzer Prize or the Nobel Prize, yet Lolita is probably the best fiction to come out of this country (so to speak) since Faulkner’s burst in the thirties. He may be the most important writer now going in this country. He is already, God help him, a classic.” – Conrad Brenner, The New Republic, June 23, 1958

“Technically it is brilliant, Peter-De-Vries humor in a major key, combined with an eye for the revealing, clinching detail of social behavior. If there is one fault to find, it is that in making his hero his narrator, Mr. Nabokov has given him a task that is almost too big for a fictional character. Humbert tends to run over into a figure of allegory, of Everyman… Humbert alone runs over at the edges, as if in painting him Mr. Nabokov had just a little too much color on his brush; which color is, I suppose, the moral that poor Humbert is carrying for his creator.” – Elizabeth Janeway, The New York Times, August 17, 1958

Lolita is a major work of fiction; it is also a shocking book… As far as erotic detail is concerned, the book tells little that has not been dealt with in a lot of bestselling fiction; but where the sexy bestsellers talk about the sordid or tragic facts of life in staccato sociology, couch jargon or four-letter words, Lolita is the more shocking because it is both intensely lyrical and wildly funny. It is (in many of its pages) a Medusa’s head with trick paper snakes, and its punning comedy as well as its dark poetics will disappoint the smut hounds — a solemn breed.” Time Magazine, September 1, 1958

“It is one of the funniest serious novels I have ever read; and the vision of its abominable hero, who never deludes or excuses himself, brings into grotesque relief the cant, the vulgarity, and the hypocritical conventions that pervade the human comedy.” – Charles Rolo, The Atlantic, September 1958

“I cannot regard it as pornography, either sheer, unrestrained, or any other kind. It is the engrossing, anguished story of a man, a man of taste and culture, who can love only little girls… an anguished book, but sometimes wildly funny, as in the saga of his travels across and around the United States with her… [Nabokov’s] command of the language is absolute, and his Lolita is a fine book, a distinguished book — alright then — a great book.” – Dorothy Parker, Esquire, October 1958

The Bad

Lolita is not crudely crammed with Anglo-Saxon nouns and verbs and explicitly described scenes of sexual violence. Its depravity is more refined. Mr. Nabokov, whose English vocabulary would astound the editors of the Oxford Dictionary, does not write cheap pornography. He writes highbrow pornography. Perhaps that is not his intention. Perhaps he thinks of his book as a satirical comedy and as an exploration of abnormal psychology. Nevertheless, Lolita is disgusting.” – Orville Prescott, The New York Times, August 18, 1958

“After wading along with a kind of fascinated horror through 140,000 words, most readers will probably become bored… at times downright sickened…” – The Providence Journal

The Ugly

“…there were moments… when my whole instinct was to land a Babbitt’s righteous punch on the super-civilized nose of the author… The novel has a tone which says that, if you cannot swallow its exquisitely distilled sewage with a good appetite, then you’d better go back where you belong and read Elbert Hubbard’s Scrapbook.” – Leslie Hanscom, New York World-Telegram