Karen Halttunen’s “Murder Most Foul”

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Dec 212011
 

Halttunen, Karen. Murder most foul: the killer and the American Gothic imagination Harvard University Press, 1998 Google Books

Halttunen’s book is about the transformation of how American society handles social deviance (violent crime, particularly) from the pre-industrial to the post-industrial.

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Nov 242011
 

Davis, Tracy C. “The Actress in Victorian Pornography” in Garrigan, Kristine Ottesen. Victorian Scandals: Representations of Gender and Class Ohio University Press, 1992

It was a widespread assumption in the 19th century that actresses were whores. The actress was the most common female occupational type in pornography of the period, and some pornographic works explicitly referred to actual actresses. Actresses in turn danced on the edge of decency in see-through white dresses, body stockings and “breeches roles,” i.e. cross-dressing as men.

In the weekly serial magazines, available for as little as one penny and with circulations of hundreds of thousands, actresses were depicted in knee-length skirts, exotic Oriental harem trousers, men’s fencing costumes or breeches, intermixed with nude or semi-nude pictorials included spanking and lesbianism. The sexualization or fetishization of the costume itself is what’s at work here.

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Sexual Perversions, 1670-1890. Julie Peakman, ed.

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Nov 052011
 

Peakman, Julie (ed.) Sexual Perversions, 1670-1890 Palgrave Macmillan, 2009 Gbooks

Julie Peakman starts off with an interesting question: whether you accept Foucault’s theory about power and discourse or not, how to we explain one person’s choice of sexual acts and object over all the other possibilities?

It is the question of why a person might decide on any particular act which fascinates the historian. Why did some of these activities diminish over time (bestiality diminished when rural activities shifted to urban living), or expand (auto asphyxiation has become more widespread today as the word passed around of its link to sexual stimulation) – this is what really broadens our understanding about sex.

Pg. 8

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Veil of Fear: Convent tales

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Oct 202011
 

Schultz, Nancy Lusignan (ed.) Veil of Fear: Nineteenth-century convent tales NotaBell Books, Purdue University Press, 1999 Amazon

While Rebecca Read’s earlier Six Months in a Convent (1835) was a relatively sober and realistic work, Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures (1836) heads straight into paranoid xenophobic “virtue in distress”. This is what happens if young women heed the siren song of Catholicism, and it was popular enough to sell 300,000 copies by 1860. The fears of a young republic with large, unassimilated immigrant populations that were often Catholic, and an economy shifting to industrialization with consequent shifts in gender roles, found expression in anti-Catholicism. “In times of rapid social change, such as that experienced in antebellum America, intolerance and demonization of marginal groups find fertile soil.” (pg. viii) One of the anti-Catholic agitators, incidentally, was minister Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

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Licentious Gotham, by Donna Dennis

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Oct 102011
 

Dennis, Donna. Licentious Gotham Harvard University Press, 2009 Amazon

As I’ve observed previously, there’s a lot of historical coverage of the European/British history of pornography, but not so much of American porn, at least in the 19th or early 20th centuries.

Dennis’ book bears this out, saying that while there was plenty of porn produced in antebellum New York, it was largely pirated editions of English or translated European works, notably John Cleland’s Fanny Hill (1748), easily the most popular, and Laurence Sterne’s Sentimental Journey (1768, published in New York as early as 1795). Little if any was actually written by Americans, at least until during and after the Civil War, when demand grew greatly. (Illustrations may have been created domestically, though the text isn’t clear.)

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Erastus Dow Palmer’s ‘The White Captive’

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Sep 272011
 

Erastus Dow Palmer's 'The White Captive', statue of nude woman standing

I’m still working up to reviewing Donna Dennis’ Licentious Gotham: Erotic Publishing and its Prosecution in Nineteenth-Century New York (Harvard University Press, 2009), but I want to post something on a sculpture mentioned in the book called The White Captive by Erastus Dow Palmer.

It portrays a youthful female figure who has been abducted from her sleep and held captive by savage Indians. Hands bound, and stripped of a nightgown hanging from a tree trunk, she turns her head away from the terror, and clenches her left fist, in defiance of imminent harm. Palmer avoided the often cold appearance of Italianate Neoclassical sculpture, in part by using for his model a local girl. He was particularly commended for his use of a “thoroughly American” subject that makes a conscious allusion to the endless skirmishes between Native Americans and white pioneers. It is these naturalistic and individualizing qualities that have, down through the years, earned such praise for Palmer’s sculpture.

According to this article, it was based on Hiram Power’s Greek Slave (previously discussed). True or not, there are definitely similarities in composition and posture. The main difference is that in The White Captive, the woman has her left arm behind her body, fist clenched in defiance. Like Power’s work, this was publicly exhibited to men, women and children.

What’s interesting here is that two different artists used a very similar image, a nude woman in distress, to address two different conflicts, i.e. Greece’s rebellion against Turkey and the various battles between Americans and First Nations peoples in the West. The latter conflict was also reflected in the captivity narrative genre. These, in turn, are related to the “held captive by Catholics” stories: virtue in distress from a threatening Other population.

As discussed previously, this kind of imagery is used in a wide variety of contexts and to refer to a wide variety of real-world conflicts. It is thus hardly surprising that these images percolated through the collective subconscious, via the Anna Freud process described earlier.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin mantelpiece screen

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Sep 062011
 

Here’s an image cribbed from Reynold’s Mightier than the Sword (previously discussed), which shows a mantelpiece screen depicting a black man, brandishing a whip, standing over a black woman, who is half-naked. Another man observes from the background.

A lot of elements in this issue undercut its value as shock propaganda and add the erotic value. The woman is young and shapely, and positioned and dressed so that her breast just peeps from under her arm, and her upper body and arms are nearly uncovered. Her facial expression is hardly fearful or agonized, and seems to be one of ambivalent anticipation. Her dark skin depicted with subtle shading, giving a sense of the shape and texture of her body.

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David S. Reynolds’ “Mightier than the Sword”

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Aug 302011
 

It started with a vision of torture.

According to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the genesis of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, arguably one of the most influential books in history, came in Feburary 1851 when she attended communion service. After taking the bread and wine and thinking of the Last Supper and the Passion, a vision hit her, “blown into her mind as by the rushing of a mighty wind.”

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