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
By Daniela Sheinin
Much has been written on the American “New Woman,” what the historian Einav Rabinovitch-Fox calls “both an image and an appellation referring to a generation of women who came of age between 1890 and 1920 and challenged, through their attitudes and appearances, Victorian values and gender norms.” Her identity varied by race, class, ethnicity, and age. The New Woman breached gender norms, pressed for a public voice, and has been tied by some to feminism, the campaign for women’s suffrage, consumer culture, and female sexuality. New and sometimes radical fashion trends marked an expression of New Woman feminism and a break from a gendered, culturally confining past. These included versions of the Japanese kimono and the “ ‘Village smock,’ a bohemian version of the kimono and the dress item most associated with Greenwich Village feminists.” Moreover, there’s evidence that manufacturers produced low-price knockoffs of the kimono and other New Woman fashion trends, eagerly consumed by some working class women.
Clifton Hood's In Pursuit of Privilege: A History of New York City’s Upper Class and the Making of a Metropolis
By Karen Karbiener
Walt Whitman is the world’s first New Yorker. Declaring himself as both a “Brooklyn Boy” and a “Manhattanese” at the same time Emerson described the Big Apple as a “sucked orange,” Poe denounced its noise and too-rapid development, and Thoreau felt “sick ever since I came here,” Whitman celebrated the urban roots of Leaves of Grass in many of his greatest poems. “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son” named the city his spiritual forefather in “Song of Myself,” and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is just about everyone’s pick for the greatest New York poem ever written. “Proud and passionate city! mettlesome, mad, extravagant city!” he sings in “City of Ships.” “I chant and celebrate all that is yours.”
But 165 years before this blog post on summer city getaways was scribed for Gotham readers, Walt published his own versions of such pieces in the New York Evening Post and the New York Sunday Dispatch. “Swarming and multitudinous as the population of the city still is, there are many thousands of its usual inhabitants now absent in the country,” he wrote in 1851. “Having neither the funds nor disposition to pass my little term of ruralizing at the fashionable baths, or watering places, I am staying awhile down here at Greenport, the eastern point of the Long Island Railroad.”
By Paul A. Ranogajec
Bowling Green, a surviving fragment of New York’s earliest days, was totally transformed in the decades around 1900. What had been a low-scale square of houses and small offices became a skyscraper-ringed urban canyon, a spectacle of corporate and state power. That spectacle resulted from a scenographic approach to architecture in which designers orchestrated buildings and spaces together as an ensemble for dramatic visual and experiential effects. Architects who worked at Bowling Green were committed to the traditional urban streetscape, but their designs also gave form to the imperatives and values of the emerging corporate-capitalist economy. That meant skyscrapers. At Bowling Green, skyscrapers and the new Custom House together reshaped the historic square, providing visible, material proof of the intensity and speed of the economy’s corporate transformation.
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