In the 19th century, a bookseller who stocked John Cleland’s “Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure” — a novel better known as “Fanny Hill” — could be arrested, severely fined and sentenced to prison. In my own youth, “Fanny Hill” was still kept behind the counter at Rusine’s cigar store, carefully sealed in plastic shrink-wrap. Today it’s a Penguin Classic and frequently taught in college literature courses. The world changes.
In “Licentious Gotham,” Donna Dennis, a professor at Rutgers School of Law in Newark, carefully examines a series of prosecutions and legal battles to better understand the extent and character of erotic publishing in 19th-century America. She also aims to reconstruct “the meaning of obscenity” during that time and repeatedly shows how prohibitions “promoted, as much as suppressed, the proliferation of sexual representations.”