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The 19th-century censor who pushed Americans too far

Historian Amy Werbel, author of the new book 'Lust on Trial,' explores the divisive and influential career of Anthony Comstock.

'Lust on Trial' is by Amy Werbel.
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  • Randy Dotinga

Few people are so influential that their last name inspires a word. But Anthony Comstock, a postal inspector who becomes America's first professional censor, eagerly set himself apart. 

In the Victorian era, he pushed to ban any material that threatened to inflame passion, from photographs and books to birth control guides and classic works of art. But he went too far.

Comstock's tattered legacy lies in the Dictionary.com definition of "comstockery": "overzealous moral censorship of the fine arts and literature, often mistaking outspokenly honest works for salacious ones."

Historian Amy Werbel, author of the new book Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock, talks with our contributor Randy Dotinga about this morality cop's divisive and influential career. 

Q: How did censorship become an issue after the Civil War?

A lot of Christian evangelicals had been involved in the slavery abolition movement, and they need a new gig. They'd cleansed the nation of slavery, so what's next? They'll cleanse the nation of moral perversion. 

Q: Comstock targeted materials that he and others believed inspire inappropriate passion. What was his issue with lust? 

There's an idea of temptation that's rooted in the Bible, that it's the downfall of man. The evangelical idea is to get rid of the temptation before men, in particular, would fall into that trap of lust. 

That's what fuels Comstock's incredibly fierce persistence in the face of so many obstacles and pushback. He really believes in this theology of lust and hell and that it's his sacred mission to prevent people from falling into these traps that Satan has set.

Q: How did women fit into his worldview?

It's all predicated on the idea that it's men who can experience lust and be trapped, and it's women who are the temptation. 

All this goes to bolster a patriarchal system in which proper women are passionless. This supports limiting access to birth control, abortion, and any knowledge about sexual health. 

Q. Your book shows the logo of the powerful New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Amazingly, it depicts a man actually throwing books in a fire. Today, this image makes us think of Nazis and "Fahrenheit 451." Was censorship shocking then too?

At that time, this is new, and pretty much everybody says that outright pornography should be cleaned up. 

But entrapment feels wrong, spying feels wrong, and there's a sense that Americans should have privacy in their own homes. 

And there's worry about who will have the authority to control what will circulate in society. There's a sense that Comstock shouldn't be the one who calls the shots. 

When he's rounding up art, you have artists and art collectors who have been buying these nudes saying, "You don't know anything about art. Why do you get to decide?" That's when you see his credibility begin to fall away.

Q: Comstock eventually became a joke, with newspaper cartoons mocking his priggishness. Writer H.L. Mencken memorably dismissed him as a "puritan gladiator" devoted to "pecksniffery," a 19th-century term derived from Dickens that implies moralistic hypocrisy. How did he lose his halo?

Every time he wins, he also loses because with his victories, he rallies more people to the opposition who feel this is not in keeping with the concept of liberty in the United States. But he can't admit that what he's doing is producing the opposite of what he wants. 

In fact, there ends up being a gradual expansion of the idea of what kinds of speech have value and should be circulating in the marketplace of ideas. 

Q: What route could he have taken instead to encourage morality?

I compare his efforts to those of the YMCA, which builds recreational facilities at this time and holds lectures and concerts. They want young men to choose virtue over vice and they focus on offering healthy alternatives. Today they're a behemoth of offering good in the world.

What Comstock does is really the opposite, choosing the sticks over the carrots. Ultimately, that path is a dead end. 

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