Donna Dennis is certainly not the first to consider erotic publications in the nineteenth century. Other books have used the “flash press” and the popular pornography of the antebellum era as ways to contextualize explorations of street life in New York. Authors such as Patricia Cline Cohen and Timothy Gilfoyle, for example, have used these texts to better situate their studies of prostitution. Others have looked at these texts as literary products. David S. Reynolds, for example, plumbs this literature to paint a portrait of “immoral reform,” showing how the popular press helped provide fodder for authors such as Poe and Hawthorne. Nonetheless, Dennis is the first to provide a close history of the producers of popular erotica and those reformers who sought to suppress them. She provides a detailed portrait of the trade in sexually illicit works, proving incontrovertibly that pornography was a vital part of the print industry in the early republic. Her efforts to interpret these findings, however, wax and wane in their persuasiveness.
In her introduction Dennis crafts an argument that follows the broad interpretive themes of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Volume 1 (New York, 1978). She insists that efforts to “suppress” pornography merely served to encourage its production. As one digs more deeply into the [End Page 485] body of her book, however, it becomes clear her evidence points to a tenuous middle ground somewhere between the “repressive hypothesis” (the notion that Victorians were prudes intent on silencing sexual expression) and Foucault’s insistence that all talk about sex (whether reform-minded or not) represented an “incitement” to more talk about sex. As Dennis reveals, some “reform” authors such as George Thompson were merely striking a pose as moral crusaders. When they “exposed” dens of iniquity, they were quite deliberately advertising them. But Dennis also effectively illustrates that some moral crusaders, most especially Anthony Comstock, were both sincere and successful. Comstock succeeded in suppressing the trade in pornography just as much as Prohibition proponents succeeded in suppressing alcohol consumption. True, in the long durée, popular pornography, much like alcohol consumption, seems to have “won,” but both forms of “sin” appear historically variable. It is unfortunate, then, that in her conclusion Dennis confines her findings too closely to the “proliferation” model, suggesting that the policing of sexual expression in print provoked sexual expression in dance halls and burlesque theaters. Of course, sex did reside in those venues, but absent a close study of the evolution of sexual content in theaters, this seems too tidy an equation. Instead, Dennis is most persuasive when she portrays an evolving contest between pornographers and reformers; each, in turn, gained advantage over the other. Sometimes, reformers’ actions had unintended consequences. Their laws unwittingly inspired creativity and entrepreneurship, yielding new forms of sexual distribution; other times, reformers seem to have largely achieved their aims.
Dennis is better able to excavate the popular pornography of the antebellum era than her predecessors because she closely mines the police and court records of the time. She finds traces of books now long gone, texts that were quite deliberately discovered and destroyed by antismut crusaders such as Comstock. She shows a variety of markets in the world of erotica, running from expensive “fancy books” intended for wealthy consumers to cheap pictures and yellow paperback pamphlets hawked in the streets. The patterns of production and distribution varied over time, responding to legislation both in America and abroad. For example, when the U.S. Congress struck against European erotic imports, domestic production grew quickly.
Dennis also finds interesting patterns of reform activity, connecting the level of interest in prosecution to the political currents of the times. [End Page 486] For example, while there were occasional raids during the reign of the Tammany Democrats, pornographers prospered under their watch. Even when they were prosecuted, sentences proved light, allowing the publishers to jump right back into business. Reform-minded Republicans proved less indulgent, encouraging more cautiousness and creativity on the part of pornographic publishers. Dennis...