Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica, 1920-1940

Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica, 1920-1940

Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica, 1920-1940

Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica, 1920-1940

Synopsis

Between the two world wars, at a time when both sexual repression and sexual curiosity were commonplace, New York was the center of the erotic literature trade in America. The market was large and contested, encompassing not just what might today be considered pornographic material but also sexually explicit fiction of authors such as James Joyce, Theodore Dreiser, and D.H. Lawrence; mail-order manuals; pulp romances; and "little dirty comics." Bookleggers and Smuthounds vividly brings to life this significant chapter in American publishing history, revealing the subtle, symbiotic relationship between the publishers of erotica and the moralists who attached them--and how the existence of both groups depended on the enduring appeal of prurience. By keeping intact the association of sex with obscenity and shameful silence, distributors of erotica simultaneously provided the antivice crusaders with a public enemy. Jay Gertzman offers unforgettable portrayals of the "pariah capitalists" who shaped the industry, and of the individuals, organizations, and government agencies that sought to control them. Among the most compelling personalities we meet are the notorious publisher Samuel Roth, "the Prometheus of the Unprintable," and his nemesis, John Sumner, head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, a man aggressive in his pursuit of pornographers and in his quest for a morally united--and ethnically homogeneous--America.

Excerpt

Many of the men and women who began careers in printing, publishing, and distributing erotic literature in the 1920s and 1930s have passed away or are quite elderly. Once, snarl words were used legally to stigmatize such individuals and their products. The federal antiobscenity statutes, lobbied through Congress by Anthony Comstock in 1873 and enforced just as powerfully half a century later, called their wares “obscene, lewd, lascivious, indecent, filthy, or vile.” Comstock, and his supporters and successors, applied the same epithets to the dealers. But sometimes (and, despite their assertions, often incidentally), the dealers’ work helped liberate the popular imagination and furthered democratic principles of freedom of speech and action. Hard-driving entrepreneurs, these bookmen and bookwomen catered to American needs in a society where sexual repression and prurience were commonplace. This book commemorates their work, their life experiences, and their contributions to contemporary culture. The business of distributing erotica has changed dramatically since the 1920s and 1930s. The same can be said of sexual taboos. They still exist, however, and challenges made to taboos by commercial enterprises such as publishing, filmmaking, and bookselling continue to provoke moral indignation. Erotica dealers’ careers and personal tensions in the social context of the interwar period can teach us a great deal about how both repressing and trading upon sexual curiosity affect moralists and merchants. Bookleggers and Smuthounds presents information gathered in part from personal interviews and archival collections. This supplements, and in some cases corrects, existing secondary sources. In reviewing the body of material, I have become convinced that publishers of erotica and the moralists who attacked them during the early twentieth century had (as they continue to have) a subtle symbiotic relationship. As savvy businesspeople, erotica distributors necessarily appealed to prurient fascination. As they invited their clients to indulge curiosities that kept intact the association of sex with obscenity and shameful silence, the blunt fact of their existence provided antivice crusaders with the public enemy they needed to show how fascination with sex was indeed a moral offense exploited by people with contempt for purity.

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