“Lust on Trial” is the story of the most extraordinary efforts in American history to make us a moral Christian nation . . . . [It is the story of a man] who truly believed that lust would lead mankind to the eternal fires of hell. [Thus, it] was his mission throughout his life to destroy any materials that would arouse lust . . . . And he pursued that mission relentlessly throughout his career. — Amy Werbel
Anthony Comstock (1844-1915): By any and all measures, he was the greatest enemy of free speech in America; and his legacy of suppression endured long after he died. Intoxicated with his own sense of moral righteousness and obsessed with what he deemed to be immoral expression, Comstock (a devoted evangelical) went after his targets with ruthless passion. No book, dime novel, newspaper, magazine, pamphlet, manual, photograph, printing plate or even postcard was safe from his censorial clutches. This founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice roamed his world searching for any signs of immorality. Later, he succeeded in urging Congress to pass the Comstock Law. Under it, it was illegal to mail any “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” materials. Likewise, it was unlawful to print or distribute anything counseling or even discussing abortion, contraception, or the prevention of venereal disease. Armed with such powers, this special agent of the United States Postal Service prosecuted and persecuted the impure with a manic vengeance. To buttress his influence, he also wrote books — e.g. Frauds Exposed (1872) and Traps for the Young (1883)
“For more than four decades,” wrote Robert Corn-Revere, “Comstock terrorized writers, publishers, and artists—driving some to suicide . . . . George Bernard Shaw popularized the term ‘Comstockery’ to mock the unique blend of militant sanctimony and fascination with the lurid that marks American prudishness.”
→ David Brudnoy, Comstock’s Nemesis: Theodore Schroeder, Reason.com (Oct. 1975)
Now comes a major new book on Comstock and his censorial calling, a book a decade in the making and rich with historical details based on original sources. The book is titled Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock (Columbia University Press). Its author is Amy Werbel who is an Associate Professor of the History of Art at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Abstract: Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock offers a new and unadulterated view of the risqué behaviors and complex sexualities of Americans in the Gilded Age and Progressive Eras, and a fresh perspective on legal efforts to expand civil liberties before World War I. Extensive new research conducted in dozens of public and private archives makes it possible for the first time to fully tell the story of Anthony Comstock’s censorship of American visual culture, and to publish examples of the “obscenities” he suppressed. Lust on Trial illuminates the complex relationship between censorship and cultural change, and offers thought-provoking insight into our nation’s long struggle to live up to the promise of the First Amendment.
→ YouTube video of Professor Werbel discussing her book
→ Introduction to Lust on Trial here
→ Publishers Weekly (review: “fascinating, page-turning study”)
→ Amy Werbel, For Our Free Speech, We Have Censors to Thank, Chronicle of Higher Education, Sept. 14, 2015
“Amy Werbel’s Lust on Trial offers a brilliant analysis of the life and times of Anthony Comstock, the fiercely religious moralist who led the national campaign to rid the United States of sexual expression from 1873 until his death in 1915. As Werbel powerfully demonstrates, Comstock’s efforts to persuade the nation that such expression “corrupts the mind . . . and damns the soul” perilously threatened our nation’s separation of church and state. This lesson in how religious fanaticism can destroy our freedom is now more important than ever.” – Geoffrey R. Stone
“In this vibrant history, Amy Werbel explores the legal and cultural battles surrounding the censorship of “obscene” materials in late nineteenth and early twentieth century New York. Lust on Trial not only mines the history of censorship and repression in a modernizing America, but also sheds light on its legacy for current debates.” – Nadine Strossen
Discounted priced for FAN readers
(look for discount code box — $10.50 off the $35.00 list price — much cheaper than Amazon!)
Association of University Presses issues statement on censorship
The Association of University Presses (AUPresses) yesterday issued a statement of guiding principles addressing attempted censorship in a global network of scholarly communications. The Board of Directors of AUPresses approved the statement to affirm “the fundamental importance of the integrity of the scholarship entrusted to us and the essential role of university presses in supporting the values which safeguard that integrity.”
University presses around the world serve scholars — as authors and readers — on a global scale, with local impact. The Association understands that in this more closely networked world, publishers may receive more frequent requests to censor or otherwise alter the content they have published.
“All attempts to censor the scholarly record must be met with the deepest concern,” reads “Facing Censorship: A Statement of Guiding Principles.” The Association recognizes that individual publishers may be faced with difficult situations, wherein the theoretically complementary values of access and integrity, intellectual freedom and cultural sensitivity, equal treatment of customers and the safety of staff, may suddenly be in tension. A publisher should be able to turn to the support of its home institution and the community of university presses when facing such challenges.”
“We have recently seen cases where scholarly publishers have been forced to grapple with these issues in real time. Good faith arguments attempt to balance questions of access and integrity with sometimes very different results, and we all recognize the seriousness of any ultimate decision,” said Peter Berkery, AUPresses Executive Director.
Nicole Mitchell, Association President, and Director, University of Washington Press, added, “The board felt that it was important for the Association to make a clear affirmation of our community’s values and to provide some guidance for any of our member presses who may be called upon to change the shape of the scholarly record.”
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