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  • Marcus’s Sources:Archives, Canons, Texts
  • Colette Colligan (bio)

Published in 1966, Steven Marcus’s The Other Victorians takes its place as the first sustained work of scholarship on Victorian pornography. Marcus argued that Victorian pornography expressed the unresolved psycho-sexual fantasies of a culture still in adolescence (286). He introduced a new literary sub-field along with a compelling, if unevenly developed, critical method. He also grappled with challenging source materials. Perhaps surprising, given his psychoanalytic critical framework, is the degree to which he thought materially about the pornographic sources he was uncovering. Marcus discussed their “circumstances of publication and collection” (54–55) as well as their “progressive mutilation” (66), with fleeting recognition that the conditions of these sources were as revelatory of a textual subculture as their content.

With fifty years having passed since the publication of Marcus’s book, it is worth examining the material basis of his thinking about Victorian pornography. In the 1960s, Marcus was in a position far different from our own with respect to archival materials and academic mores, but his methods continue to have an impact on scholarship. Marcus’s lack of specificity about his bibliographical instruments, his construction of a particular pornographic canon, and his citational practices have resulted in some distortions and exclusions whose effects linger even as easier access to surviving materials along with comparative cross-border and cross-period research have led scholars to reshape historical understandings of the period’s pornography. In revisiting Marcus’s sources alongside more recent scholarship and digital discovery methods, my aim is to [End Page 490] show what his study revealed—and what it obscured—about the unusual forms of Victorian pornographic archives, canons, and texts, and about the thick layers of other cultures and other times that have accumulated around them.

I. The Pornographic Archive

Marcus began The Other Victorians by introducing the archive and anchoring his study in place-based research. In the summer of 1961, as he explained in his preface, he was invited to undertake research at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute. There, he would explore the “largely unused” collections that had remained behind “locked doors,” available to only a small group of sexual science researchers (xv). These materials became the foundation for his study, from which he delimited an archive of Victorian pornography and established his scholarly authority. In its expanded meaning, an archive is both a collection of materials and a conceptual construct, with attendant collecting practices and affects (Dean 4). Marcus did not simply explore the Victorian pornographic archive; he helped to bring it into existence in a project that he characterized as both exhilarating and challenging. He had “hesitations and doubts” over the materials’ “dubiousness” and “capacity to trouble and disturb” (xvi). Likening himself to an anthropologist “out in the field,” he felt “alone in an area where almost none had been before” (xxi). His preface acknowledged the assistance of Kinsey staff who guided him through the collections, but there was also another unacknowledged intermediary who led Marcus through the Kinsey stacks, informing his approach to the Victorian pornographic archive and subsequent study of the field.

This intermediary was the Victorian bibliographer and collector Henry Spencer Ashbee (1834–1900), who compiled three bibliographies on forbidden books, which he had privately printed under the pseudonym “Pisanus Fraxi” between 1877 and 1884 (Gibson xi). These were the first bibliographies of their kind in English and, as Marcus noted, the most influential, reprinted by Gershon Legman just a few years before the publication of The Other Victorians (35, 81). Modelled after Jules Gay’s French bibliographies of pornographic books and spoofing the Vatican’s perdurable index of forbidden books, Ashbee’s bibliographies registered hundreds of pornographic texts in multiple languages and across the centuries from his own extensive library, other collections he had consulted, and still other bibliographies, including some items not seen and some lost. The frontispiece to his first Index Librorum Prohibitorum (1877) suggests the archival vision behind his bibliographical project: to gather the world’s imperiled titles which had been kept by cherubs and satyrs and [End Page 491] handled with whip and flame (fig. 1). Ashbee’s centrality to Marcus’s approach to...


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pp. 490-505
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