Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock

New Book by Amy Werbel

Winner of the 2019 Peter C. Rollins Book Prize, Northeast Popular & American Culture Association

Published by Columbia University Press, 2018.

Anthony Comstock was America’s first professional censor. From 1873 to 1915, as Secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Comstock led a spirited crusade against lasciviousness, salaciousness, and obscenity that resulted in the confiscation and incineration of more than three million pictures, postcards, and books he personally judged to be obscene. But as Amy Werbel shows in this rich cultural and social history, Comstock’s campaign to rid America of vice in fact led to greater acceptance of the materials he deemed objectionable, offering a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of censorship. In Lust on Trial, Werbel provides a detailed and colorful journey through Comstock’s career that doubles as a new history of post-Civil War America’s risque visual and sexual culture. Drawing on material culture high and low, courtroom transcripts, and numerous examples of the “obscenities” Comstock seized, Lust on Trial provides fresh insights into Comstock’s actions and motivations, the sexual habits of Americans during his era, and the complicated relationship between law and cultural change.

About the Author

Amy Werbel is a graduate of Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges, received her PhD from Yale University, and is the recipient of fellowships from numerous institutions, including the UC National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, Frick Center for the History of Collecting, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her previous publications include Thomas Eakins: Art, Medicine, and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia (Yale University Press, 2007) and Lessons from China: America in the Hearts and Minds of the World’s Most Important Rising Generation (2013). Werbel presently serves as Professor of the History of Art at the Fashion Institute of Technology. In 2019-2020, she served as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of York, UK, and in 2011-2012 as a Fulbright Scholar at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies in Guangzhou, China.