What Lies Beneath Old-Erotica Covers

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, April 16, 2009


Erotic Publishing and Its Prosecution in Nineteenth-Century New York

By Donna Dennis

Harvard Univ. 386 pp. $29.95

In the 19th century, a bookseller who stocked John Cleland's "Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure" -- a novel better known as "Fanny Hill" -- could be arrested, severely fined and sentenced to prison. In my own youth, "Fanny Hill" was still kept behind the counter at Rusine's cigar store, carefully sealed in plastic shrink-wrap. Today it's a Penguin Classic and frequently taught in college literature courses. The world changes.

In "Licentious Gotham," Donna Dennis, a professor at Rutgers School of Law in Newark, carefully examines a series of prosecutions and legal battles to better understand the extent and character of erotic publishing in 19th-century America. She also aims to reconstruct "the meaning of obscenity" during that time and repeatedly shows how prohibitions "promoted, as much as suppressed, the proliferation of sexual representations."

Dennis begins by discussing such antebellum "flash" weeklies as the Whip, the Libertine of New York, the Weekly Rake and the long-running National Police Gazette. These papers offered sporting men news about Manhattan low life and specialized "in lavish descriptions of the milieu of New York prostitution, for which they provided a veritable directory to the best and worst prostitutes, brothels, and madams in the city." The Sunday Flash even ran an 18-part series called "Lives of the Nymphs." "Each number featured a lengthy biographical sketch of a prominent New York prostitute."

As Dennis makes clear, this "flash" press made most of its money out of extortion: The editors "humiliated private figures and attempted to blackmail prominent citizens. They also violated public order and offended Christian sensibilities by brazenly marketing their papers in public spaces and on Sundays. And by openly discussing prostitution and extramarital sex, they shone an unwanted, embarrassing light on licentiousness in Gotham."

But these weeklies were eventually overshadowed by the lucrative trade in "fancy" books, "elegant" engravings and "racy" yellow-back pamphlets. (All three of those adjectives were code for what we would now call "hard-core.") Many of these "standard works of the voluptuary" were imported from England or supposedly translated from scandalous French originals. Whatever their naughty contents, the language of their titles is certainly luscious: Consider "The Confessions of a Voluptuous Lady of High Rank. Disclosing Her Secret Longings and Private Amours before Marriage. Forming a Curious Picture of Fashionable Life and Refined Sensuality" or "The Cabinet of Venus Unlocked in a Series of Dialogues between Louisa Lovestone and Mariana Greedy, Two Cyprians! of the Most Accomplished Talent in the Science of Practical Love." If memory serves, a few of the books mentioned by Dennis, or at least their titles, could still be found in my youth: "The Lustful Turk," for instance, and "The Curtain Drawn Up; or, The Education of Laura."

Dennis points out that many of these works boldly highlight the existence of female sexuality: Women were actually depicted experiencing desire, even lust. This, she suggests, was a kind of progress, given an era when wives were generally expected to show no signs of passion and were usually advised -- in the old British phrase -- to simply lie back and think of England. But the world really was changing. In 1856, George Akarman inaugurated the country's first sex magazine, Venus' Miscellany. It was sold by mail and thus discreetly available to anyone anywhere. Before long, the magazine's popular letters column was encouraging ordinary women, as well as men, to describe their sex lives and fantasies. No doubt much of this material was made up by the editors. And yet the very existence of such a feature suggests that eroticism could move out of the brothel or the French chateau and actually become middle-class and downright American.

In the pages of Venus' Miscellany, pornographers advertised their "fancy" books, and some of the more entrepreneurial branched out to offer condoms, sex toys, alleged aphrodisiacs and even abortion aids. In fact, anything gynecological could be marketed as erotic, including a dour and wonderfully titled polemic against female masturbation: "The Secret Habits of the Female Sex: Letters Addressed to a Mother on the Evils of Solitude, and its Seductive Temptations to Young Girls, the Premature Victims of a Pernicious Passion, with All Its Frightful Consequences: Deformity of Mind and Body, Destruction of Beauty, and Entailing Disease and Death; but from Which by Attention to the Timely Warnings Here Given, the Devotee May Be Saved, and Become an Ornament to Society, a Virtuous Wife, and a Refulgent Mother!"

In "Licentious Gotham" Dennis also briefly outlines the career of George Thompson, the most prolific writer of what has been called "American porno-gothic," a subgenre emphasizing graphic violence, dark secrets and sexual excess, including teasing hints of incest, miscegenation, orgies and public sex. Some of Thompson's novels include "The Ladies' Garter" (c. 1851), "The Gay Girls of New York" (1854) and "The Bridal Chamber, and Its Mysteries" (1856). While Thompson freely reveled in every form of splatter-flick violence -- including disfigurement by acid and cannibalism -- he would typically build up tremendous erotic tension, then suddenly announce that the law or morality compelled him to draw a veil or "drop the curtain" over what was to ensue between some snowy-globed damsel and her well set-up admirer.

Much of this "pleasurist" writing is now lost to us, known only from police accounts or the bibliographical records of the famous collector of erotica H.S. Ashbee. Thousands of books, prints and printing plates were destroyed during the long career of Anthony Comstock, who from 1873 to 1915 was secretary and chief special agent of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. (The 1873 law against sending obscene material through the mail bears his name: the Comstock Act.) In "Traps for the Young" (1883) this relentless scourge of smut actually calculated that there existed, by title, exactly 165 "bad books" when he began his more than 40-year crusade in 1872. He tried to destroy every last copy. For instance, of the Cupid's Own Library imprint a single item survives (owned appropriately by the Kinsey Institute): "The Love Feast; or, A Bride's Experience: A Poem in Six Nights."

While much of "Licentious Gotham" is undeniably entertaining, much is also dryly legalistic, paying minute attention to the judicial maneuverings of both prosecutors and publishers. In short, Donna Dennis has certainly written an important work of American cultural and legal history, yet somehow it's not half as titillating as one might expect -- or hope.

Dirda -- mdirda@gmail.com-- appears in Style on Thursday.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company