Donna Dennis’ Licentious Gotham: Erotic Publishing and Its Prosecution in Nineteenth-Century is fantastically specific. One century, one obscure brand of literature, and a cast of characters forgotten by history. There is no sense of the hackneyed “I will know it when I see it” approach to pornography and its predecessors. Rather, Dennis retains a firm hold on the narrative that transports erotic publishing from its meager beginnings until the turn of the century where it will eventually flourish into the bunnies, pets, and hustlers we know today.
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. This is not to say that Dennis unfairly privileges either side. One would just have to be grossly stodgy not to cheer on the plucky authors and distributors of sexual works, which by our modern libertine standards were rather modest.
From here, the book takes us through the unusual “flash papers”—newspapers that simply chronicled sexual hearsay about locals—the inception of the mail-delivery erotic print service, and the rise of more conventional “smut” such as erotic photography. It should be noted that the book is not necessarily a history of erotic publishing as much as the history of erotic publishing’s clash with the law. Either way, Licentious Gotham is rich in its scholarship, extensively annotated and researched, plumbing the depths of its obscure subject matter.
Now, it would be no large stretch of the imagination for such a work to be relegated to the ranks of books of novelty curiosity taken up largely by aficionados of the topic. The trick, though of Licentious Gotham is how easily it allows itself to be translated into an account of the flourish of Internet pornography.
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.
However, where the book falls short is its tragically sober rendering of the subject at hand. Trading cards featuring men in top hats having sex are inherently funny. Lithographs of fondling, tabloids of sex gossip, “anthropological” accounts of fornication: all of these are just begging to be handled lightly. However, Dennis’ scholarship bleeds over into style and the book loses any trace of humor, which could have made its almost 400 pages pass anything but deliberately.
It is possible that such a criticism is merely a reflection of my locker-room sensibilities, but I would like to think that levity is a virtue regarding sexuality. Indeed, as Dennis portrays the early proponents of erotic publishing as rascally and thoroughly amusing, to sincerely involve oneself with sexuality requires a certain humor. The simple truth is that it is no strange coincidence that sex columnists and pundits are all bawdy, witty old ladies.
The moment that sex becomes overly sacrosanct is the moment that it begins to wane in quality. Even that pillar of Christian virtue C.S. Lewis recognized the humor in sex. “We must not be totally serious about Venus. Indeed we can’t be totally serious without doing violence to our humanity. It’s not for nothing that every language and literature in the world is full of jokes about sex,” the theologian writes in his The Four Loves.
In the end, Licentious Gotham is a landmark in sexual scholarship that is spared of being a landmark in literature only by its damningly arid tone.