Out of the Closet

Richard Altick

  • The Private Case: An Annotated Bibliography of the Private Case Erotica Collection in the British Library by Patrick Kearney
    Jay Landesman, 354 pp, £45.00, July 1981, ISBN 0 905150 24 4

Erotica are the non-books of the bibliographical world. In most, if not all, of the standard records of book production and book possession their existence has gone unnoticed. They have seldom been recorded in the lists of books entered for copyright at the British Library or the Library of Congress, for the understandable reason that their secret publishers did not wish to bring them to any form of official attention. Historically, in nearly all libraries they have not only been segregated from other books but kept in limbo, their catalogues, if any, withheld from the public as resolutely as the collections themselves. The fact that, in British and American libraries, ‘curiosa’ (another euphemism for sex books) were kept under lock and key in the head librarian’s office gave rise to the perennial fancy in the profession – a gossipy morsel that must already have been making the rounds in the staff canteen at Alexandria – that he sometimes sequestered himself in order to have a furtive go at some choice item in the closet. In Victorian times, this might have been interpreted as an indulgence he allowed himself after having performed another service incumbent on him as a guardian of public morality, the daily scissoring of racing news from the papers before they were put on the reading-room racks.

This venerable policy of obscurantism (by a pleasant lexicographical accident, the word in the Concise Oxford Dictionary immediately follows ‘obscenity’) was forced on librarians by the irresistible pressures of society, although many, no doubt, wholeheartedly agreed with the principle. But it had the practical effect of suppressing not only the books but the very mention of them in the libraries’ official catalogues, with the result that they do not appear in the vast National Union Catalog of the holdings of more than two thousand libraries in the United States and Canada. The late Dr Kinsey’s Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University, which has issued over three hundred bibliographies of special subjects based on its collection of 46,000 volumes and bound periodicals, is feeding cataloguing data to the NUC and other agencies, in the expectation that other libraries will eventually report their own holdings. In the past the only major library to have publicised its erotica, to the extent of freely letting the public know what it had, was the Bibliothèque Nationale, the contents of whose Enfer, the French term for bibliothecal exile, are listed in its general catalogue. Only in the last decade, however, has the British Library distributed into its General Catalogue of Printed Books the entries for its own Enfer, known internally as ‘the Private Case’.

The present volume is the first publicly available catalogue of the British Library collection, though it lacks the Library’s imprimatur. Its usefulness is not limited to Great Russell Street, however. It is an important tool for any interested scholar whom the much-advertised New Freedom of the present day enables to work among hitherto ‘forbidden’ books in public and academic libraries without fear and with considerably less hindrance than formerly. He needs all the help he can get, because there are no more than half a dozen bibliographies of erotica as such. In his introduction to The Private Case, G. Legman, the doyen of erotic bibliographers, mentions a melancholy number of projected master lists that never got beyond the point Mr Casaubon reached in his Key to All Mythologies.

Lacking more than a handful of catalogues, the field of erotica has also lacked taxonomy. It is one of the few areas of received knowledge, as distinct from the newly-developed fields of science and technology which are amply cared for by specialists, not to have had its various branches (prostitution, homosexuality, transvestism, nymphomania, sadism, masochism, fetishism – all tributes to mankind’s inventive genius when pressed by the libido) neatly classified in the manner of the estimable Melvil Dewey or the subject – splitting metaphysicians in the Library of Congress’s cataloguing division. The Kinsey Institute is now leading the way to the light by perfecting such a classification system.

Legman asserts that erotic bibliography is ‘certainly the most difficult there is’. Perhaps not absolutely the most, but it is certainly high on the list: a murky labyrinth lighted only by flickering tapers reflected in mirrors, a real cavern of illusions. Whatever identity a given piece of erotica seems to possess is necessarily assumed to be wholly or partly false. Most were published under pseudonyms. Sometimes several writers used the same alias; at other times one author used a number, as did Alphonse Momas, a shadowy civil servant attached to the French police, whose prodigious output, written to the order of his customers, was published under nine different names. The effort to pin down the real authors is not much assisted by the usual dictionaries of anonymous and pseudonymous literature, which is why Kearney’s title-author index is especially valuable – though it also represents a dead end, because few of the owners of the ‘real’ names have ever qualified for admission to biographical dictionaries.

The most intensive and extravagant use of disguise resulted from the fact that the producers of erotic works were subject to the same kind of legal prohibitions and penalties as those that applied to, say, unorthodox religious and political pamphleteers in Tudor England. Since they had to cover their tracks as thoroughly as possible, they used false imprints. Books allegedly printed in Constantinople, Madrid, Lisbon, Montreal or New York were, more than likely, the clandestine products of Paris presses, and other works bearing Oxford, Paris, Naples, Philadelphia or Rotterdam on their title-pages probably came from Brussels, which, along with Amsterdam and Paris, seems to have been one of the most fertile sources of erotica. A ‘Boston’ imprint might really mean Stuttgart, and a ‘Mexico City’ imprint might have been applied in Cleveland, Ohio. For sheer cheekiness, however, a prize might be claimed by several early editions of the Comte de Mirabeau’s Errotika Biblion (1783), actually from Paris, Neuchâtel, or somewhere in Germany, which were putatively issued ‘A Rome: de l’imprimerie du Vatican’.

These, at least, were real places, as was Lesbos, though that storied isle almost surely was never the site of the Institution Méry-Pavillon Baudelaire that was dreamed up by the Belgian publisher of an 1864 edition of a work ascribed to Alfred de Musset, Gamiana, ou Deux Nuits d’Excès par Alcide, Baron de M****. Other fictitious places of publication suggest an atlas of bawdy geography: Merdianopolis, Foutropolis, Priapeville, Bordelopolis, Voluptopolis. There is possibly a touch more wit in the wry name that John Camden Hotten, who laboured in the dubious sector of the London book trade, gave to a series of reprints he published in the 1870s: the ‘Library Illustrative of Social Progress’. Another example of Victorian erotica, The Pearl, A Journal of Facetiae Voluptuous Reading [sic], was put forth as a publication of the well-known Society for the Suppression of Vice, the third, fourth and fifth words, however, being omitted. Such foolery persists. Twenty years ago, Ralph Ginzburg, a flamboyant American who took full-page advertisements in leading magazines and book-reviewing journals to push his wares, mailed his promotional literature and his glossy, short-lived Eros from a very small but quite real post office in the farming country of eastern Pennsylvania named Intercourse.

The 1,920 entries in Kearney’s catalogue are ideal browsing ground for the reader whose curiosity about the morbid sociology and psychology of past and present is not so urgent as to require reading the books themselves. The titles, often changed from edition to edition to endow old books with factitious novelty, are studies in the art of ribald enticement. Each epoch and nation, it seems, has had its indigenous style of appealing to the prurient. To many of the entries are appended useful notes on such matters as the circumstances of publication, kinship to similar books, variant editions and occasional prosecutions, as well as on the peculiarities of the British Library copies – the binding, the presence of the original wrappers, the count of plates, and any notes that may have been inserted by former owners or curators.

Legman’s 50-page introduction is quirky, reminiscent, indignant, gossipy, truculent and informative, in approximately equal quantities. It is devoted wholly to erotica as articles bought, sold and collected, with no reference to their individual contents. Legman says that he has ‘been writing in my peculiarly provocative way for nearly fifty years now’. He began his studies at the tender and impressionable age of 14: none too soon, one would think, for a career that was to be dedicated to transactions in the suppressed-book trade and the unravelling of its bibliographical mysteries. His erudition is monumental, though not without some outcroppings of controversy, and even if it is not the sort of learning most people aspire to, society must be grateful for the rare genius who can spend a lifetime in the shadowy byways of erotica. As éminence grise of his chosen branch of humane learning, Legman launches ferocious attacks on people of our time who have given erotica a bad name, ‘the publicists, the schlock-meisters, the fake artists, the sociopaths and string-pullers higher up, and the mass-murderers in war and peace’ whose inspiration and guidance have reputedly come from books of the sort listed in Kearney’s bibliography. ‘Beautiful or repellent, normal or perverse,’ says Legman, ‘erotic books are not and have never been the school of crime.’ He quotes with grim sympathy the complaint of a Soho dealer when asked whether he had any other kind of books and pictures besides those on flagellation: ‘You can’t sell these rotten buggers any of that normal perv!’ If he had his way, he would burn all books describing, promoting or catering to a taste for sadism and related forms of cruelty – a socially responsible deed whatever professional sacrifice it entailed.

Legman speaks of erotica, not pornography. When, once or twice, he uses the latter word, it is in a strongly pejorative sense. He calls pornography ‘cheap’ – and at another place completes the familiar linkage by writing ‘cheap and nasty’ – but it is not clear whether the word is meant to limit or merely describe. What, after all, is the difference between erotica and pornography? One gathers that in current connotative usage, erotica are genteel, socially up-class and possessed of snob appeal as well as a certain cultural cachet, as befits a category of literature designated by a Latin noun used in the plural: pornography is vulgar, the poor man’s erotica. Erotica come luxuriously packaged, sometimes in slip cases, bound in half or full morocco, with elegant engravings and the book labels of rich collectors. Sometimes they are sold by reputable dealers in rare books, who maintain this discreet sideline for their customers’ convenience. Pornography is physically as well as morally grubby. It is printed with worn type on pulp paper and illustrated with obscene photographs, and it is sold in Soho sex shops and ‘adult book stores’ in the sleazier neighbourhoods of American towns. Erotica are the stuff of which learned bibliographies are compiled, and pornography is what is seized and impounded when adult book stores are raided and maybe destroyed if the proprietor hasn’t got a good lawyer.

Of course, as any attempt to apply criteria such as these to ‘the Private Case Erotica Collection’ or any similar assemblage quickly proves, none of these distinctions holds any more water than one based on literary merit or on the engaging cop-out of American jurisprudence, ‘redeeming social value’. Greater wisdom is found in the remark attributed to an eminent judge: ‘I may not be able to define smut, but I know it when I see it.’

Erotica or pornography or smut, whichever one wishes to call it, does have arguable sociological and psychological significance, although the origins and very nature of any given example make it a kind of historical evidence which must be treated with extraordinary caution. It can throw vivid, if lurid, light on the mores, attitudes and imaginations of a few of the people who belonged to a past society, though heaven help us all if it is a dependable mirror of behaviour or fantasy-life among the commonalty. Once in a while it can also assist the interpretation of literature, the more so now that we know that not only Pierre Louÿs and Swinburne but women as different as Edith Wharton and Anais Nin wrote – what? Wharton: erotica? Nin: pornography? (Hers, like the French police official’s, was ‘bespoke’.) Some day an alert or lucky explorer of erotica will identify the ‘scrofulous French novel/On grey paper with blunt type’, a mere glimpse of whose ‘woeful sixteenth print’ would send the unwary Brother Lawrence, in Browning’s poem, spinning down to hell. The irony would be all the neater, and beautifully typical of Browning’s still not fully appreciated talent for recondite humour, if the novel in addition to being pornographic was also anti-clerical, a combination which was by no means unknown in France.

With legal restrictions largely abolished, though in the United States there is no telling what the Moral Majority may achieve by way of restoring them, pornography is now being turned out in a quantity far greater than at any time in the past. While today’s moralists deplore what they always call the ‘flood of pornography’, some thought should be given, though probably not by them, to how tomorrow’s bibliographers, preparing the ground for historians, will cope with it in retrospect. Present-day pornography is hardly more subject to systematic recording as it is issued than were old-time erotica. With a few exceptions, such as the Olympia Press originals in Paris and the Grove Press reprints in New York, the bulk of it is produced and distributed well outside the usual channels, so that there is no record of it in current trade bibliographies. It is methodically collected and preserved for scholarly purposes by only a few libraries, notably the one at the Kinsey Institute. The British Library accepts examples when offered (Kearney’s list contains a substantial number of post-1945 items) but does not go out of its way to obtain them.

Preservation is a major problem. It is not to be expected that the people who emit today’s pornography are sufficiently concerned for posterity’s understanding of our age to produce a few copies of each book on acid-free paper. A rather more feasible solution would be to commit every discoverable item, old and new, to some form of micro-reproduction. Here is a profitable field for microform publishers to consider, by way of enlivening lists that run pretty heavily toward complete runs of parliamentary blue books, documents of labour history, (respectable) publishers’ archives, and files of obscure periodicals. Budgets and boards of trustees permitting, libraries could store in a few cubic feet the present contents of all the Enfers, Private Cases, Phi (the Bodleian: a donnish pun on ‘Fie!’), five-star (New York Public Library) and Delta (Library of Congress) collections. A continuing scheme of the same sort, preserving each new item as issued or vended, would ensure future scholars’ possession of the historical documents they will need in order to see us reflected in our pornographic record.

What future generations will make of us, seen in a variety of impracticable postures and activities rendered additionally arresting by the distorting mirror of pornography, is a question to ponder. For that matter, one may ask how future generations will look upon this very book, a handsome and not inexpensive souvenir of the time when erotica, in more than one sense, came out of the closet.