Portrait of a Puritanical Knucklehead

The struggle between piety and libido in the age of mechanical reproduction is at the core of Amy Werbel's Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock, writes Scott McLemee.

May 18, 2018
 
 

A reference librarian of my acquaintance was once asked by a patron to locate an authoritative account of how Johannes Gutenberg -- after finishing up with the Bible -- applied his invention to the manufacture of pornography. It had the odd quality of sounding both preposterous and faintly plausible at the same time. The patron was sure he'd read it somewhere, but couldn't remember where, which is exactly the kind of problem reference librarians make their bones by solving.

But a thorough search of both print and digital sources turned up nothing. It seems likely that the patron had seen a reference to how pornographers tend to be early adopters of new technology and made an overly literal deduction from it. At the same time, however, "the intertwining of religion and pornography in diffusing communication technologies" is "far closer than might otherwise be suspected," as Jonathan Coopersmith said in a paper published in 1998. Besides the sacred and profane uses of the printing press, Coopersmith noted that "religious and pornographic images were the earliest and major uses of Stanhope lenses -- glass slivers which magnified images -- in the mid-19th century."

The struggle between piety and the libido in the age of mechanical reproduction is at the core of Amy Werbel's Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock (Columbia University Press). Making good use of recent monographic studies of mass media and the history of sexuality, the author, an associate professor of the history of art at the Fashion Institute of Technology, places the architect and chief executor of U.S. anti-obscenity law in a thick social and cultural context.

The variety and sheer abundance of erotic merchandise on sale in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th century is staggering: not only evidence of Yankee ingenuity but also proof that the sexual revolution of later decades was long in preparation. Stanhope lenses of the illicit variety -- "depicting a single [nude] female figure standing or sitting in a languorous pose … set against backdrops of Moorish architectural elements, holding peacock feathers, or in faux agricultural scenes" -- were among the tamer commodities available. There was a thriving and very profitable industry in sex toys such as, in Comstock's words, “‘dildoes (that being the trade name) made of stout rubber, and in the form of the male organ of generation, for self-pollution.” Their manufacture, advertisement and sale was subject to prosecution under the Comstock laws, though Comstock professed himself unable to understand who would buy them.

The limits of his imagination were no brake on his effectiveness. In the late 1860s and early '70s, Comstock's activity was confined to the Northeastern Unted States. Over a seven year period, he was involved "in seizing and destroying 134,000 pounds of books, 194,000 'bad pictures and photographs,' 6,250 microscopic pictures, and 60,300 'articles made of rubber for immoral purposes, and used by both sexes.' " (The puzzling expression "microscopic pictures" refers to Stanhope's.) His influence went national in 1873, when Congress passed "An Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, obscene Literature and Articles, of immoral Use" -- the legislation that became his namesake. Besides the trade in sexual imagery and writing, the Comstock Act took aim at the distribution of anything about or enabling contraction or abortion, and could even be invoked to prosecute material that denied the value of marriage. It was a law designed to perpetuate monogamy, procreation and guilt.

In short order, Comstock was named an official but unpaid employee of the U.S. Postal Service, his activity subsidized largely by donations from wealthy supporters who gathered to view samples of the immoral material he was seizing. While never as inventive about using new technology as merchants of the erogenous, Comstock was driven to use every venue available to him in advancing his cause. "If Comstock wasn’t physically in your hometown during his career between 1873 and 1915," Werbel writes, "he was there in your hometown newspaper, fighting the purveyors of vice on the streets and in court, weighing in as a critic of art, theater and literature, suffering editorial and physical attacks from his many enemies, being defended by ministers and moralists, and lampooned as a Puritanical knucklehead."

The degree of resistance to his crusade, even when enforced by federal law, is remarkable and merits more comment than I can give it this week; we'll get into it in the next column. Suffice it for now to say that the title of one of his pamphlets, "Morality Versus Art," is indicative of both his attitude and his Achilles heel. The manufacturers of sexual devices "of stout rubber" had very limited recourse in opposing him, while creative people did not. A satirical cartoon depicts Comstock as Saint Anthony -- triumphant over temptation like the early Christian monk of that name, or making quite a show of sparing others from it, in any event. A polemic by George Bernard Shaw included a reference to “Comstockery" as "the world’s standing joke at the expense of the United States.”

The dart must have hit the mark, because Comstock felt compelled to offer his own definition of Comstockery: “The applying of the noblest principles of law, as defined by the higher Courts of great Britain and the United States of America, in the interest of Public morals, especially those of the young.” It seems extremely unlikely anyone else has ever used the word in his preferred sense.

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