Q&A With Amy Werbel On Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock

This week, our featured title is Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock. Today, we are happy to present an exclusive interview with author Amy Werbel.

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Q: Anthony Comstock doesn’t seem like the likeliest subject for a book by an art historian. How did you end up writing about him?

Amy Werbel: Great question! In the course of writing my first book on the artist Thomas Eakins, I came across Comstock’s name. Artists and art educators who wanted to introduce more study of the nude in art schools in the late 19th century, and also exhibit more paintings of nudes, were worried about Comstock showing up to shut them down. I really didn’t have any idea who he was, and when I started to read more, I realized there was a big story there that hadn’t been told. After flirting with the idea of writing a biography of Comstock with my husband, who is a legal scholar, I realized that was never going to work for a variety of reasons. By making the book about American visual culture as seen through the eyes of Anthony Comstock, I brought the project closer to my usual wheelhouse as an art historian, and also vastly expanded my grasp of how much art production is entangled with and dependent on law.

Q: You made the choice to illustrate a lot of material that was declared obscene and destroyed during the course of Comstock’s career. Some of these things are pretty provocative. How did you decide what to illustrate?

AW: Another great question! First, I had to find the stuff. Comstock kept meticulous records of the materials he seized and destroyed in huge “Records of Arrest” blotters that are now in the Library of Congress. I spent two weeks there going through them, and made an excel spreadsheet listing everything that constituted some kind of visual culture – including paintings in brothels, sex toys, girly photographs used to advertise cigarettes, and some things I had to spend time figuring out. I sent a pretty funny email to a lot of archivists, something like: “I would be enormously grateful if you could let me know if you have any of the following in your collection: “vile Valentines, obscene cigar holders, a glass penis filled with liquor, an obscene hen and rooster jar that forms an indecent posture, etc.” Almost all of this stuff survived in the Kinsey Institute Collection, including some things I didn’t have room to illustrate, for example “sooner” dogs that you could fill with “eggs” and then watch them defecate. Comstock destroyed hundreds of them – he had no sense of humor.

For obscene prints and illustrated books, the American Antiquarian Society has a great collection. Over the years, they clearly had collectors interested in saving what were euphemistically called “gentlemen’s libraries.” As for the decision about what to illustrate, some of it was needlessly graphic and better described in text. Other plates were so evocative that I included them even though they might cross a line for some people. At a certain point I just had to make decisions about how much truth to show, and how much to tell.

Q: This is a serious book, but it’s also pretty funny in some parts. Can you share one part of this story that you find most amusing?

AW: My personal favorite moment is the story of Jake and Belle Berry, who orchestrated a vaudeville show in 1878 that was really very silly. They simulated a shower scene by hanging lace in front of the stage, with women wearing padded tights behind it. Another scene that they ended up performing in court before a jury involved a rag doll held at an actor’s hip that he referred to as “Peter,” and the testimony involved whether this was a phallic joke, which it obviously was. On the spot, the Berrys made up a story about how this actually referred to a lost child named Peter. At another point in the trial, an actress performed a dance that was accused of being sexually suggestive, which a reporter covering the case described as “not at all glaringly indelicate, but seemed rather oppressively stupid.” In some places in the text, I really tried to just get out of the way and let people involved tell their stories. In many cases they were great comedic writers, and I certainly couldn’t top them by paraphrasing.

Q: Lust on Trial has a pretty sweeping mix of art, law, biography, sexuality, and culture in general. What do you most want readers to absorb from your research?

AW: We are, at our best, a nation governed by secular rule of law. Lust on Trial tells the story of a time when this went off the rails in the worst possible way. Americans didn’t take repression lying down, just like they aren’t doing so today. This really is an inspirational story about the power of “We the People” to self correct, to stand up for pluralism, shared power, acceptance of sexual difference, and the incontrovertible right of women to control their own bodies without interference from the state. There are a lot of heroes in the fight for civil liberties in my book whose stories haven’t been told before – artists, photographers, defense attorneys, and entrepreneurs like the Berrys. All of them are part of how we eventually got rid of Comstockery. Finally, I hope the book can be a wake up call to people who want to emulate Comstock. If anyone could have made America a Christian nation through censorship and suppression of birth control and abortion, it was Anthony Comstock. The ultimate futility of his life’s efforts is a pretty bracing cautionary tale.

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