Licentious Gotham: Erotic Publishing and Its Prosecution in Nineteenth-Century New York (Hardback)
  • Licentious Gotham: Erotic Publishing and Its Prosecution in Nineteenth-Century New York (Hardback)

Licentious Gotham: Erotic Publishing and Its Prosecution in Nineteenth-Century New York (Hardback)

Hardback 408 Pages
Published: 01/03/2009
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Licentious Gotham, set in the streets, news depots, publishing houses, grand jury chambers, and courtrooms of the nation’s great metropolis, delves into the stories of the enterprising men and women who created a thriving transcontinental market for sexually arousing books and pictures. The experiences of “fancy” publishers, “flash” editors, and “racy” novelists, who all managed to pursue their trade in the face of laws criminalizing obscene publications, dramatically convey nineteenth-century America’s daring notions of sex, gender, and desire, as well as the frequently counterproductive results of attempts to enforce conventional moral standards.

In nineteenth-century New York, the business of erotic publishing and legal attacks on obscenity developed in tandem, with each activity shaping and even promoting the pursuit of the other. Obscenity prohibitions, rather than curbing salacious publications, inspired innovative new styles of forbidden literature—such as works highlighting expressions of passion and pleasure by middle-class American women. Obscenity prosecutions also spurred purveyors of lewd materials to devise novel schemes to evade local censorship by advertising and distributing their products through the mail. This subterfuge in turn triggered far-reaching transformations in strategies for policing obscenity.

Donna Dennis offers a colorful, groundbreaking account of the birth of an indecent print trade and the origins of obscenity regulation in the United States. By revealing the paradoxes that characterized early efforts to suppress sexual expression in the name of morality, she suggests relevant lessons for our own day.

Publisher: Harvard University Press
ISBN: 9780674032835
Number of pages: 408
Dimensions: 210 x 140 mm


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

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

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

[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

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

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