Libido: Reviews:Bookleggers and Smuthounds
Bookleggers and Smuthounds

By Jack Hafferkamp
From Libido Winter 2000
For a student of the 20th-century process that dismantled much of sex-related censorship in America, this book, a detailed, impressively researched study of the trade in erotic books between the World Wars, is invaluable.

It clarifies the range of erotic and pornographic materials available both under and over the counter; it details the business of providing erotic materials; it brings to life the major personalities of the era, such as Samuel Roth and John Sumner, and it underscores the symbiotic relationship between the people who purveyed erotica and the moral watchdogs who attempted, with varying degrees of success, to prevent its spread.

For me, one surprise was the extent of the above-counter erotica actually available during these censorious decades. Officially the United States court-determined policies on erotic materials changed only a little during these years, from the crude 19th-century Hicklin Standard, which defined as obscene any material that would tend to corrupt vulnerable minds (i.e., women and children) to the Ulysses Standard, established in 1933, which defined as obscene any work, which taken as a whole, would tend to corrupt the average person. Neither standard left a lot of wiggle room for publishers who wanted to be legal.

But as I learned from Bookleggers and Smuthounds, enterprising publishers, mainly recent Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, found a number of ways to publish books about sex for an audience hungry for titillation as well as information. One common way to get around the rules was to make quasi-anthropological works available to professionals — doctors, lawyers and professors — and to those who claimed to be one. Another way was to publish expensive limited editions and sell them by subscription to the wealthy. Yet another way was to expurgate like mad books such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Frank Harris’ My Life and Loves. When other means failed, bribes sometimes helped ensure freedom from harassment for questionable books.

Bookleggers and Smuthounds also helps to clarify is the range of erotic books and other publications available. At the outside level were those often labeled “flagitious,” a term that in its day was even more “loaded with moral indignation” than “pornographic” or “hard-core” as we use those terms today. These included blatantly pornographic works such as “Tijuana Bibles,” and pirated editions of works such as Fanny Hill, My Secret Life and The Perfumed Garden.

At the more polite end of the spectrum were works known as “gallants,” i.e., stories and essays about sexual attraction. In between there were numbers of books that focused on “sexual abnormalities,” such as “inversion” (homosexuality) and sadism, especially spanking and flagellation. Then, too, there were the “sex pulps,” periodicals such as Broadway Brevities, Artists and Models and Police Gazette.

Standing in opposition to — and often acting against — all this “corruption” were the now quaint-sounding anti-vice organizations such as the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and Boston’s Watch and Ward Society, which took on the self-appointed task of protecting society from the degeneracy proffered by the people author Jay A. Gertzman describes as “pariah capitalists.” The major national instrument of censorship was the U.S. Post Office, which took on the job in serious fashion after the Civil War under Anthony Comstock, Sumner’s predecessor at the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

Or course, all this damage supposedly spread by books was a relative concept — just as it is today. One person’s corrupting filth was another’s avant garde art and progressive social science. With the aid of distance, one can understand the sense of frustration felt by the publishers of such now-recognized literary and social lions as James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Arthur (Eyes Wide Shut) Schnitzler, Oscar Wilde, Radclyffe Hall, Pierre Louys, Magnus Hirschfeld, Marie Stopes, Havelock Ellis and others.

The final chapter of Bookleggers and Smuthounds concentrates on the single most important, intriguing, enigmatic and confounding of the era’s “bookleggers,” Samuel Roth, a publisher who wanted to be taken seriously as a man of letters but who had apparently few qualms about publishing pirated versions of books by impoverished authors such as James Joyce. In the 1950s Roth played a major role in the great change in America’s obscenity rules, when a case involving three of his publications was heard by the United States Supreme Court.

While the court upheld Roth’s conviction for sending obscene materials through the mail, its decision forever altered how we look at literature and obscenity. The majority opinion, written by Justice William Brennan, Jr., concluded that while obscenity was not protected by the First Amendment, literature was, thus opening the door for a set of clever First Amendment attorneys to argue in the 1960s that if a work is judged to be literature, it cannot be obscene, even if some of its content appeals to the prurient interest.

In the end I must add that my appreciation of Bookleggers and Smuthounds is tempered by certain annoying problems. One is the book’s nearly impenetrable style. Author Gertzman never seems to have written a long, needlessly complex sentence he didn’t love. Getting through to the book’s benefits requires more of a commitment than casual readers may wish to make. More’s the pity.

Also worth noting are some small but dismaying lapses. I received my doctorate in Erotology from the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco. Gertzman persists in calling the place the McIlvenna Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, confusing the name of the director, Ted McIlvenna, with the name of the school.

Gertzman also defines the term “erotology” in a curious, dated and counter-productive fashion that has more to do with the period he was studying than its use today. According to Gertzman, “erotology” refers to “the techniques of sexual stimulation.” In fact, erotology today refers to a field of study that includes all the goods, services and artistic representation that a society imbues with erotic charge. Erotology today is the cultural equivalent of the better-known field of sexology, which is mostly about the clinical and physical aspects of sexuality.

Finally, the book contains virtually no information of author Gertzman except to identify him as a professor English at Mansfield University. Is that Mansfield of England or Ohio — or someplace entirely different? And one can’t help but wonder what, exactly, are Gertzman’s degrees and qualifications. Not mentioning them only raises questions.

And yet, having gotten all that off my chest, I have to say I’m still glad to have discovered Bookleggers and Smuthounds. It is useful.

Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica, 1920-1940, by Jay A. Gertzman (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. ISBN: 0-8122-3493-6. 418 pages, $35. U.S. orders 800-445-9880)

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