- The Other Victorians at Fifty Introduction
The Other Victorians has lived an unusually long scholarly life since its initial publication in 1967. Like all long-lasting and oft-cited works, Marcus’s text has attracted its share of criticism as well as praise. Writing in the 1990s, Andrew H. Miller described The Other Victorians as “the single most influential account of sexuality in Victorian Britain before the work of Foucault” (2). The Other Victorians has served as a touchstone text—one to which scholars in both the humanities and the social sciences turn again and again when thinking about the history of human sexuality and its literary representations. It is a book of intellectual history whose central argument many of us feel obliged to engage to this day, even if, in some cases, mainly to contest its claims.
Drawn from a plenary panel presented at the 2016 meeting of the North American Victorian Studies Association, these essays offer a “critical celebration” of Marcus’s contributions. They each consider this signal text by Marcus, who was at the time of its publication not only an author, but also a dissertation director, a university professor, a New York Intellectual, and a crusader for the end of the Vietnam War. In these pages, Simon Joyce, Seth Koven, and Collette Colligan assess the contexts for the writing of The Other Victorians, and the legacies of this landmark work.
Taken together, these contributions suggest that what many of us value above all in this work is the way it has challenged (and continues to challenge) us all to engage in a debate opened up by Marcus in his consideration of nineteenth-century pornography, a topic long neglected—or [End Page 463] underplayed—by scholars until his work helped to make it a respectable scholarly pursuit. It is fitting that, despite arguing that the realms of literature and pornography ought to be kept distinct, as Colligan reminds us in her essay, Marcus himself was the first to invite scholars to fully investigate the neglected riches of the pornographic archive. Although Marcus clearly stipulated a position that can now seem somewhat quaint to interdisciplinary scholars—that “literature” is a culturally and ethically superior genre to pornography, with its endlessly repetitive narrative elements and its libertine indifference to conventional morality—one ought to consider the historical context: The Other Victorians was published only nine years after the 1957 Supreme Court decision, in Roth v. United States, that allowed literary works containing sexual representations to be sold in the U. S. only if they were works of “redeeming social importance.”
The essays by Joyce, Koven, and Colligan offer three critical readings of Marcus’s work and its legacies. In so doing, they provide three distinctly different acknowledgements of its importance. In his essay “Past, Present, and Pornography,” Joyce makes a broad but ultimately compelling claim in response to Marcus’s contention that there is no homosexual canon of Victorian pornography. Joyce re-poses Foucault’s question about whether, when it comes to sex and sexuality, we are “modern” or still stubbornly “Victorian.” If “modern,” then we “align,” so it seems, with the position of Victorian pornography. If still “Victorian,” then do we “compliment the past for being a lot more modern than we typically admit?” (466). In a rereading of Teleny; Or, the Reverse of the Medal (1893) and The Pearl (1879–80), Joyce contests Marcus’s claim. He notes that there is neither a homosexual nor a heterosexual pornography in the nineteenth century, because the characters in many of these narratives move from male-female sex to male-male sex and back again without the texts taking overt notice that a significant boundary has been crossed and re-crossed. As Joyce concludes, rereading Marcus through the lens of Foucault reminds us of the “continued residual force of a unitary model of sexuality through the nineteenth century and beyond” (474).
Koven’s essay “The Marriage of Social Science and Literary Criticism in The Other Victorians” returns us to an emphasis on the more intellectually revolutionary aspects of Marcus’s 1966 book. Koven’s essay is a generously appreciative reading of The Other Victorians as an inspirational...