The Return of Anthony Comstock, Part 2: The Comeback Trail

Anthony Comstock has seen his fortunes turn recently. Anthony Comstock, an anti-smut crusader who established the profession of censorship and whose obsessiveness blotted out freedom of speech laws for over 40 years, was almost forgotten in the middle of the 20th century. More than 100 years after his death, there is a boom of books that attest to the central role the anti-smut crusader played in the history and present day of women’s freedoms.

Amy Werbel’s 2018 book The Trial of Your HeartComstock’s life and times are meticulously documented, including a special emphasis on art history. The story concludes that Comstock’s attempts to regulate morality and homosexuality through statutes and prosecutions undoubtedly calls into question their effectiveness. The strength of his opposition may be the best measure of Comstock’s impact.

He made himself the Bond villain of censorship and forced artists, writers, feminists, free thinkers, and others to come up with better arguments for freedom of expression in a period before courts were even established. Werbel points out that “Comstock” can almost be singlehandedly credited with initiating foundations for a First Amendment Bar.

Annalee Newitz, a novelist, featured Comstock in her 2019 book by drawing inspiration from Werbel. Future of Another Timeline, about time-traveling feminists who do battle with “Comstockers”—as well as the old moralist himself—in 1893 (and various other times). They are determined to stop a Handmaid’s TaleComstock-inspired travelers engineered the future type.

Newitz did historical research for her book. This was reused in September 2019. New York TimesComstock was referred to as “the first anti-feminist crusader” in an op-ed article. She cautioned “[h]While Comstock’s name has been lost, the age of Comstockery does not end. Comstock’s tactics—”a combination of media manipulation and ruthless legal strategies—are a precursor to those used by anti-feminists on social media and in Washington today.”

Amy Sohn, another Comstock biographer The Man Who Hates WomenComstock, who died in summer 2021, was buried in the midst of summer 2019. It makes it clear that Comstock was “one the most important men” in nineteenth-century women’s lives because of his anti-abortion crusades. Sohn details Comstock’s crusades against “sex radicals”—those who openly advocated sexual liberation of women, access to contraceptives and abortion, and information about sexual health—and concludes the “sex radicals’ legacy lies in their use of speech to fight the repression of speech.”

Sohn strongly rejects “victim-oriented Feminism,” which she refers to as “limited” and “inciting fear and panic. It turns sex in to something that’s only ugly, only darker, only violent. “Victim-oriented Feminism,” she wrote, “robs women from their strength and deprives the movement the diversity that gave way to the sex radicals.” Comstock was not as clear in her conception of free speech, but she agrees with her view that Comstock does. She also observes that the freedom to speak is not as wide as Comstock.[t]To oppose the Comstock law was to oppose all speech restrictions.”

Brett Gary followed this closely. Dirty Works: Obscenity in America’s First Sexual Revolution. Gary’s book’s main topic is Morris Ernst, ACLU attorney and pioneering free speech work from the 1920s to the 1950s. Gary’s opening chapter makes it clear that those efforts were essential to counter the work of Comstock. Gary describes Comstock in the book as “the best propagandist warning of the dangers associated with obscene materials” and “the country’s foremostcensor and smut-eradicator.”

Ernst had an impressive and long career, which began shortly after Comstock died. However, Gary points out that “the key enemy” was always Anthony Comstock and his anti-intellectual and anti-modern attitudes, all of which were bundled into the title “Comstockery.” These retrograde attitudes remained in place for a long time under the laws of the country, and influenced federal and state policies as well as activities throughout the 1950s and beyond. Gary concluded that Comstock’s influence is not gone, and that certain aspects of “Comstockery”‘s patriarchal, restrictive, and feminist impulses towards women are still strong in culture today, particularly in relation to reproductive politics.

My book The Mind of the Censor and the Eye of the Beholder—The First Amendment and the Censor’s DilemmaThis book is not Comstock-related, but it contains several chapters about Comstock’s life and how he helped define the meaning of “activist”, or morals crusader. The occupation does not have to be on one side or the other of the political spectrum. The Mind of a CensorThis article describes the ways that Comstock’s methods are being continued to be used against those they perceive as speech crimes by supporters of every political party. Comstock established censorship as an entrepreneurial venture and set the standard for anti-speech activists today.

Comstock, half century after his death and long after his name had faded from public attention, was described as the “the” editor for a re-issue. Beautify Ideal of American reformer”, and “the spiritual dad of today’s young suburbanites who took on the task of cleaning out newsstands from ‘objectionable material. In the context of current struggles over freedom of expression, this observation was made in 1960.

These books do not portray Comstock as sympathetically. Many of them have nothing positive to say. Comstock’s return to the game is a result of renewed interest. This is even more important, because these books show that Comstock helped define the game.

[This post is based on the new book, The Mind of the Censor and the Eye of the Beholder: The First Amendment and the Censor’s Dilemma.]