- Hardcover: 408 pages
- Publisher: Harvard University Press; 1 edition (March 31, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0674032837
- ISBN-13: 978-0674032835
- Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.5 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 2 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,298,869 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Licentious Gotham: Erotic Publishing and Its Prosecution in Nineteenth-Century New York 1st Edition
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A wonderfully readable and sophisticated look at the raucous popular culture and freewheeling politics of a New York City that in some ways seems impossibly distant, yet in other ways strikingly familiar. (Paul Boyer, author of Purity in Print)
Marvelous and funny, both smart and―dare I say?―sexy. Donna Dennis has written a history of nineteenth-century obscenity law that will define the field. The protagonists-- a particular group of entrepreneurs who produced lascivious print--and their pornographic ventures are wacky, brilliantly devious, and determinedly wicked. (Christine Stansell, The University of Chicago)
A brilliant and fascinating book on a strangely neglected subject. Dennis shines a bright new light on a hidden and underground aspect of American social and cultural life, and on the response of the law to the trade in dirty books. (Lawrence M. Friedman, Stanford Law School)
Licentious Gotham is original and illuminating―essential reading for those who wish to understand the law in action. (Robert Post, Yale Law School)
[Full of] riveting and good-natured detail. It's not just [Dennis's] descriptions and reproductions of old-fashioned dirty pictures that hold the reader's attention. Her discussion and analysis of legal and social responses to the growth of erotica is as compelling as it is comprehensive...There's an important lesson to be drawn from the book: Moral regulators cannot effectively police the desires, dreams and fantasies of consenting adults. Indeed, prohibition typically creates or exacerbates many more problems than it solves. It's a lesson we are painfully slow to learn, whether the offending substance is alcohol, marijuana or porn. This book may speed up our education. (Nick Gillespie New York Post 2009-03-08)
Much of Licentious Gotham is undeniably entertaining...Donna Dennis has certainly written an important work of American cultural and legal history. (Michael Dirda Washington Post 2009-04-16)
Dennis traces the ways in which provocative material was passed off as edifying, like the guides to the city's prostitutes that purported to steer unknowing rubes away from their clutches. And she also notes that prohibitions of one sort of racy material only led to another innovation, often more popular than the first. (Susan Dominus New York Times Book Review 2009-04-05)
[Dennis] offers revelations of her own in sharply etched portraits of resourceful publishers who managed to survive and prosper despite Comstock and his ilk...Dennis also strikingly highlights the underestimated role of women both as workers in the business--they specialized in coloring engravings--and as customers...Perhaps the most significant contribution of Licentious Gotham and its predecessors is the lesson they afford in the futility of keeping secrets, particularly against academic industriousness aided by the collapse of government censorship. Erotica, on the face of it, might seem especially fated for early destruction: cheaply made, energetically used, and often confiscated in raids or shredded in panic when Ma undertook the spring cleaning. But the embarrassments of the past are more durable than their perpetrators prayed. A furtive Victorian wank can inspire a leer for the ages. (Mark Caldwell Bookforum 2009-04-01)
Dennis' book begins with the early legal battles over explicit pamphlets, papers, and novels published in the early 1800s. Collecting a vivid cast of repeat offenders and their aggressors, Dennis presents the infancy of erotic publishing as a battle of the little man against the censors...From simple erotic fan fiction to the blockbuster sensory assaults common to the Internet, erotic publishing online has been fought every step of the way but persevered in manner not too different than Dennis' history of erotic print. Perhaps, this will be the true legacy of the book: by illustrating a previously unknown struggle in the past, cultural critics will stop crying falling-sky whenever a new erotic meme crops up on the Internet. Dennis' book reminds us that lust has been commoditized for centuries...Licentious Gotham is a landmark in sexual scholarship. (Erik Hinton PopMatters 2009-04-28)
About the Author
Donna Dennis is Professor of Law and Justice Frederick W. Hall Scholar at Rutgers School of Law-Newark.
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The ambivalent nature of the works described here is perfectly shown in the 1839 _Prostitution Exposed: or, A Moral Reform Directory, Laying Bare the Lives, Histories, Residences, Seductions &c of the Most Celebrated Courtezans and Ladies of Pleasure of the City of New York_. The anonymous author advised that readers could use the guide so as to shun the brothels described in detail within. Or not. Enforcing morality really began with the coming of the "flash" weeklies like _The Whip_ or _The Weekly Rake_, which offered themselves as guides to the best and worst of available commercial sex. What really got them into trouble, however, was that they made much of their income by blackmail, offering to hold particular stories about public figures for a fee. New York also became a center for the publishing of "fancy books", relatively expensive, well-bound texts illustrated with engravings. Dennis shows that the books did reflect a change in the understanding of female sexuality in acknowledging that it even existed. The women in the books enjoyed sex and experienced lust at a time when it was the men who were supposed to be carrying on that way. The men reading the books obviously enjoyed thinking about women with such attitudes. In 1856 came the nation's first sex magazine, _Venus's Miscellany_. One of its most popular features was its letters column, a forerunner of _Letters to Penthouse_ or blog entries, wherein men and women would describe their sex lives and secret desires (no matter that most of the letters were written by magazine staff). The 1873 Comstock Act made it illegal to send such things via the US mail. The act that bears his name appointed Anthony Comstock a commissar within the Post Office to snag pornography in the mail. His work was initially wildly effective, and literally tons of erotic mailings were seized and burned. He became less effective as he assumed controversial stances and overreached, like prosecuting those who sold classics like _Tom Jones_ or _The Decameron_, or arresting the owner of an art gallery on Fifth Street for selling photographs of paintings from a Parisian Salon.
Comstock didn't succeed in stopping pornography (and for all his industriousness, he wound up being a laughingstock of prudery). Dennis's volume shows pointedly why such efforts will never be successful. The simple enjoyment people get from viewing or reading about other people having sex makes it too big a commercial pull. (Indeed, the current governor of New York has proposed taxing downloads of pornography from the internet; he did not suggest trying to eliminate it.) Faced with a simple supply and demand economy, the product got through, no matter what. The pornographers adapted with new styles, techniques, and delivery systems, and the moralists proposed new solutions and prosecutions that made them feel they were making a more moral city. It is easy to see that the dance has never stopped.
Ms Dennis's research is extraordinary and her illustrations are fascinating (and kind of titilating too!). Its a law book that doesn't require the reader to go to law school to enjoy!