Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock
by Amy Werbel
Columbia University Press, 2018
Reviewed by Marcela Micucci
Anthony Comstock was a household name in nineteenth-century America, so much so that his last name became synonymous with a movement and set of laws that sought to censor obscenity and eradicate vice. Historian Amy Werbel explores this anti-obscenity movement — and its champion — in her provocative and cutting-edge work, Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock (2018).
Few nineteenth-century figures reached Anthony Comstock’s notoriety. From the 1870s until his death in 1915, the social purity crusader earned a reputation, for better or worse, as the nation’s most stringent and unyielding defender of Victorian morality. He rigorously prosecuted any business or individual in violation of the “Comstock Act,” of which he was the creator and chief proponent. Passed by Congress in 1873, the law outlawed the circulation of “obscene literature and articles for immoral use,” including “any obscene book or pamphlet, paper, writing, advertisement, circular, print, picture, drawing or other representation” of sexual nature. During his time as special agent of the United States Post Office, Comstock confiscated hundreds of thousands of books, photographs, and any other material he deemed immoral, ranging from sexual charms and toys to birth control and contraceptive devices to nude paintings and reproductions of classical art.
Amy Werbel's Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock
In the context of Indecent’s success, along with concurrent off-Broadway revival of God of Vengeance, Eddy Portnoy’s book Bad Rabbi is a timely excavation of the real-life, nonfictional, but perhaps sensationalized stories of sex, violence, misery, and depravity that characterized much of urban Jewish life in the first decades of the twentieth century. Mining the depths of Yiddish press, largely produced in New York City and Warsaw, Portnoy’s study hones in on the scoundrels, cheats, criminals, and gossipmongers of Jewish enclaves within the growing, cosmopolitan urban centers in the United States and Poland. At the center of Bad Rabbi is the flourishing Yiddish press and the dogged journalists who documented the daily lives of the “rabble” — the “downwardly mobile” Jews who, Portnoy claims, have been lost to a predominantly celebratory narrative of popular Jewish history.
Melissa Meriam Bullard's Brooklyn’s Renaissance: Commerce, Culture, and Community in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World
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