The Repeal of Reticence

Rochelle Gurstein, Author
Rochelle Gurstein, Author Hill & Wang $27.5 (357p) ISBN 978-0-8090-8069-4
Paperback - 372 pages - 978-0-8090-1612-9
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Public discourse today, asserts Gurstein in this jeremiad, is a noisy, vulgar circus where privacy and modesty are flouted, and where so-called avant-garde artists invoke free-speech rights to justify violent, dehumanizing or pornographic works. Her rigorous study charts the death in the U.S. of a ""reticent sensibility"" valuing tact, discretion, good taste and politeness. Among the chief destroyers of this sensibility, she argues unpersuasively, were intrusive, sensationalistic journalists dating back to the 1830s penny press; realist novelists like Theodore Dreiser and William Dean Howells; and sex reformers such as Margaret Sanger, Mary Ware Dennett and Emma Goldman who discredited their Victorian forbears by equating reticence with prudery, evasion and hypocrisy. Gurstein, who teaches history and other subjects at Bard Graduate Center in Manhattan, covers landmark cases such as the 1933 trial exonerating James Joyce's Ulysses of obscenity charges, as well as cases that steadily eroded the right to privacy as defined by Louis Brandeis in 1890. In Gurstein's analysis, H.L. Mencken, Walter Lippmann, Joseph Wood Krutch and Philip Rahv reformulated aspects of the reticent creed, but mass culture won out, abetted by Olympia Press erotic publisher Maurice Girodias and Susan Sontag's defense of pornography as an art form. Gurstein brings a historical dimension to current debate over free speech and media responsibility. (Sept.)
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