Anthony Comstock, "Morals Versus Art"
Anthony Comstock is one of the figures who orbits just slightly beyond the primary concerns of my dissertation, alongside other fascinating, but lesser known, figures of literary history, like Samuel Roth (book pirate), Jack Kahane (founder of Obelisk Press), or Norman Douglas (whose book on the obscene limerick is considered the first). Comstock (1844 - 1915) was the founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and US Postal Inspector, and one of the most notorious figures of turn of the century America. Comstock is hardly the only turn-of-the-century vice crusader; Boston's Watch and Ward Society, headed by John Chase was, if anything more "successful" in suppressing works than Comstock's organization (the list of works that the Watch and Ward Society managed to have suppressed is truly stunning; it is through their efforts that "Banned in Boston" achieved popularity—that, and its lovely alliteration). Comstock's successor in the Society for the Suppression of Vice, John Sumner (the key figure in the banning of many modernist texts), was widely discussed in the press (and was a key figure in the suppression of the Little Review and works by D. H. Lawrence). And Britain certainly didn't lack its own anti-obscenity crusaders from James Buchanan (author of "The Fleshly School of Poetry") to James Douglas (who compared The Well of Loneliness to prussic acid, to the benefit of the latter) and William Joynson-Hicks. But Comstock is the figure who best captured the Puritanical spirit of Victorian vice societies. The obscenity statutes of the United States, which prohibit the mailing or importation of "obscene" material (I'm papering over some complexities here) were called the "Comstock laws" (though Pound, apparently, wasn't aware of this nomenclature, referring to the laws as "Section 211" when he commented on them in essays). George Bernard Shaw famously decried "Comstockery" as the "the world's standing joke at the expense of the United States" (see OED definition of "Comstockery"). (Shaw here draws on an implicit geography of censorship standards, with Paris as the frequently decried source of all obscenity, America as awash in puritanism and Comstockery, and England standing firm between them. While there is some truth to this image, it is worth insisting that some works which were banned in England were, in fact, published in the United States—The Well of Loneliness and Sleeveless Errand come to mind immediately. British law held not only the publisher, but the printer, open to prosecution for obscenity, with the predictably chilling effect.) It is, however, Comstock's pugnacity that makes him stand head and shoulders above Sumner, Jix, or his other fellow vice crusaders. Like his contemporary, Carrie Nation, Comstock was not simply opposed to vice or offended by it; he was militantly attacking it. My own interest in Comstock comes primarily from his role in the history of September Morn (which I am still working on recording at the September Morn Archive; will be adding more stuff there in coming weeks actually). The immediate popularity of the painting was implicitly a reaction against the excesses of Comstockery; a way of rejecting such censorship by laughing at it. Indeed, the entire history of Chabas's academic nude has far more to do with Comstock than it does with Chabas. For this reason it is unfortunate that Comstock's short 1887 pamphlet Art Versus Morals is so rare. I have been unable to locate a copy through online booksellers. WorldCat lists only 10 copies of the work (and of those 6 are either photocopies or microfillm copies of the original work). I imagine that so few copies of the work have survived because it appears to have been a pamphlet; it is only 39 pages long, in a rather small format. But the indefatigable folks in UVA's interlibrary loan department were able to get me one of the photocopies, which I in turn copied and scanned. The work is fascinating. Comstock in particular (and, to a lesser extent the anti-Vice crusaders as a whole) was far more sensitive to the changes on a work's reception wreaked by mechanical reproduction. As early as 1887 (more than 25 years before September Morn came to his, and everyone else's, attention), Comstock was noting the importance of context on reception; the painting "exhibited to cultured minds in an art gallery, where it legitimately belongs, is a very different thing from what it appears to be to the common mind upon the public street in the shape of a photograph" (Morals Versus Art 9). He even asks us to "note the throngs about windows where nude or partly nude figures are exposed" (Morals Versus Art 9 - 10). The sharp distinction between the "common" and the "cultured mind" is what likely leaps out at us here. But I'd like to stress that Comstock was decades ahead of his opponents in his attention the effects of mechanical reproduction on art. I am currently checking the OCR on the document and marking it up. Once it is all set I'll post a nice clean copy of this fascinating document, with some annotation and introductory material. Along the way I may post some more about Comstock here. But if there is (heaven help you) another person fascinated by Comstock out there in the world, I hope google has somehow led you here; the raw, ugly, hideous PDF is yours for the taking.blog comments powered by Disqus