Extremely detailed study of how 19th-century Americans imagined sex and the resulting court battles over obscenity.
The period, writes Horowitz (American Studies/Smith; The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas, 1994), was “engaged in a complex four-way conversation about sex.” The first of the “four primary voices” she discerns was traditional bawdy humor, passed down through generations mostly in oral form but including such books as Fanny Hill. These frank works soon became targets of evangelical Christians, the second partner in this conversation. The third, and the one given the most space by Horowitz, is the “voice” of reform physiology, which here includes everything from the first medical books on birth control to the European notion that masturbation caused insanity. (The author also throws in a brief mention of John Humphrey Noyes’s utopian colony in Oneida, New York, and a quick survey of prescriptive literature.) Woven into this third section is the emerging world of an urban male “sporting” culture devoted to the pursuit of pleasure without thought of obligations or consequences; this culture gave rise to weekly newspapers that contained frank material about sexual matters. It is here that Horowitz turns to a study of the press, libel, and obscenity, noting that in addition to delivering erotic material, the weeklies possibly extorted money from their readership, for example by threatening to reveal the names of those who visited brothels. The final voice in this conversation comes from reformers promoting sexual liberty and adherents of free speech. The magnitude of Horowitz’s aims sometimes makes for a daunting read: a discussion of the Comstock Law requires an extensive review of the origins of the Y.M.C.A.; the history of an 1873 statute suppressing obscene literature dictates a lengthy portrait of free-love advocate Victoria Woodhull.
Overwhelming and at times wearying, but nonetheless an instructive look at previous battles over knowledge and suppression in a culture that remains “profoundly divided over questions of morality and its relation to government.” (86 illustrations)