THE SECRET MUSEUM: Pornography in Modern Culture by Walter Kendriek

THE SECRET MUSEUM: Pornography in Modern Culture

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Really more a study of censorship than of pornography, this witty investigative history from academician Kendrick (Fordham/English; The Novel Machine) covers a lot of familiar territory but also explores some little-publicized back alleys of suppression. Although Kendrick takes his title from 19th-century museum curators' practice of creating separate, usually hidden, catalogues for erotic works of art, he devotes nearly all of his study to literary rather than visual pornography. First, in an fit of pedantry, he spends 31 pages tracing the evolution of the dictionary definition of pornography (originally ""a description of prostitutes or of prostitution, as a matter of public hygiene""). That aside, he turns to livelier material: a brief history of the ""pre-pornographic"" era, detailing the influence of writers of the erotic (assigning significant space to Arentino) and of censors (Plato wins Kendrick's laurel as the first). Next, a dash through Victorian erotica and through trials of such literary luminaries as de Sade, Flaubert, and Baudelaire; then on to the book's most fascinating section, a discussion of the bizarre career of official censor supreme Anthony Comstock, an ""obsessed individual"" who, in the first two years alone of his 41-year-long reign of terror over American literature, managed to seize and destroy ""134,000 pounds of 'books of improper character,' along with 194,000 pictures and sundries like 60,300 'rubber articles' and 5,500 'indecent' playing cards."" A look at 20th century obscenity trials follows, with Kendrick wrapping things up by knocking both the Meese Commission's Report on Pornography and feminist cries that pornography be outlawed. An entertaining guidebook to literary pornography and its foes; but overly predictable, and both superficial and haphazard in its consideration of its rich, complex subject.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1987
Publisher: Viking