Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock

Amy Werbel. Columbia Univ., $35 (352p) ISBN 978-0-231-17522-7
Werbel (Thomas Eakins), an associate art history professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, undertakes an insightful and entertaining critical examination of the prominent American censor Anthony Comstock (1844–1915). Werbel provides biographical detail, notably Comstock’s pious upbringing by a Congregationalist minister father, to contextualize his mission as secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, founded in 1873. She also focuses more widely on the cultural currents of late-19th- and early-20th-century America. From the passage of the Comstock Act, which banned “obscene literature and articles of immoral use” in 1872 up until his death, Comstock battled perceived immorality in everything from contraceptives and sex toys to the theater and cigar cases, and persecuted both the famous (artist Thomas Eakins; Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger) and the forgotten (professional daredevil Steve Brodie; early standup comic Russell Hunting). Based on an impressive amount of research into both primary and secondary sources, Werbel’s writing possesses a scholarly formality, but also accessibility, elegance, and wit (Comstock’s “connoisseurship was rooted not in the head or the heart, but rather in the groin”). She closes this fascinating, page-turning study by rebuking Comstock and connecting her subject to modern concerns: “Our endurance as a democratic nation will be determined far more by our openness, our honesty, and our empathy than by our purity.” (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 02/05/2018
Release date: 04/01/2018
Ebook - 978-0-231-54703-1
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