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  • The Marriage of Social Science and Literary Criticism in The Other Victorians
  • Seth Koven (bio)

“I begin this book with an account of its origins.”

Preface to The Other Victorians

Steven Marcus’s brilliant, field-forming book, The Other Victorians (1966) opens with a fragment of autobiography and a genealogy, at once personal and professional. Its preface captures a moment in the history of literary history and in the history of the history of sexuality in 1960s America. The Other Victorians (hereafter TOV) remains intellectually rigorous—and a great read—a half-century after its publication. The preface reminds us just what a risky business it was for an untenured Columbia faculty member to treat as complex literary texts a medical doctor’s animadversions on prostitution and an anonymous well-to-do pornographer’s eleven volumes chronicling his compulsive “secret life” of sexual pleasure and danger. TOV paved the way for several generations of Victorianists to scrutinize sex, sexuality, and class politics. My essay appreciatively contextualizes TOV’s landmark contribution to the history of how sexuality emerged as a subject and object of analysis in Victorian studies.

Writing amid the turbulence of the sexual revolution and the Cold War’s “weakening of the critical function” (285), Marcus felt keenly just how much the Victorians pressed up against “us” (“The Novel Again” 193). He felt no less keenly the need to explain the chance circumstances and deep structures that led him to his archive and his topic. In the preface to TOV he portrays himself [End Page 477] as a reluctant skeptic, wary of the sexual scientific work conducted by Alfred Kinsey at the Institute for Sex Research in Bloomington, Indiana, where he had gone in 1961, not to study sex, but to teach literature at the Summer School of Letters. Invited by the Institute’s staff to return to Bloomington the next year, he found himself absorbed in its holdings and felt like an anthropologist exploring a sexual subcultural “other” world.1 Marcus is too much the self-aware Freudian to leave his story there. “It did not require a dialectician’s cunning to make out that Dickens [the subject of his Columbia doctoral dissertation and first book] plus Freud [the subject of his first edited book] might conceivably add up,” he acknowledged, “to an interest in writing about sex and sexuality in mid-nineteenth century England” (x). Marcus’s “account of [TOV’s] origins” in the preface justifies his personal investment in studying Victorian pornography while also suggesting the urgent necessity for further inquiries.

The stakes are high in showing humanists why they should take seriously materials like pornographic novels “thought to have been ‘shocking’” (xiii). Marcus contends that “the general liberalization of sexual life and of social attitudes toward sexuality that is taking place in our time” makes understanding Victorian sexuality an exigent matter (285). For “academic tabby cats” like the New Critics (“The Novel Again” 179), with their enclosed self-referential emphasis on a text’s formal attributes, Marcus had no patience. In “The Novel Again,” a sharp-edged 1962 essay in the Partisan Review, he looked to novels and literary critics alike to “give us what we need: an adequate notion of what it is like to be alive today, why we are the way we are, what might be done to remedy our bad situation” (190). This was the tall order Marcus set for himself as he embarked on TOV.

Reading TOV alongside Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society (1958) as a Swarthmore College undergraduate inspired me to become a Victorianist. TOV disclosed entirely new possibilities for approaching class and sexuality, history and literature. Though I’m absolutely certain that I did not then read nor notice nor care about its preface, that preface is the subject of my essay. Or rather, I consider the work that Marcus’s preface performs in situating TOV within a constellation of public and private, intellectual and institutional networks and debts. Marcus’s preface describes his effort to connect social science and literary criticism with his blossoming partnership with the sociologist Gertrud Lenzer and their research projects at the Institute for Sex Research in Indiana. Marcus and Lenzer met...


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pp. 477-489
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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