On joining the editorial board at the Journal of the History of Sexuality

(warning: here there be nostalgia) 

I’ve just joined the editorial board of the Journal of the History of Sexuality, which prompted this  . . . reverie? is that what you’d call it? I guess:

I remember first discovering the Journal of the History of Sexuality. It was my first year of grad school, and I was browsing the HQ section of the stacks at Charles Young Research Library wistfully. I’d come to UCLA a true babe in the woods in every sense; I’d never lived in a city larger than 50,000 people, and I had no idea how history worked as a scholarly discipline (even my writing sample had been about, um, pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, I think? Oof). What I knew was that I liked Gabriel Kolko’s New Left analysis of railroad regulation, and I wanted to do that; it never occurred to me until I got there that saying “yeah! What he said!” wasn’t really enough to sustain much of a project (plus, Kolko had long been displaced by newer frameworks that were arguably more nuaced, if also perhaps more apologist for the ravages of capitalism).

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some dream of fame, power, or glory; my dreams were of KOLKO

In any case, I was floundering, and when I came across the JHS, it was a breath of fresh air—this was what I wanted to be doing, whatever this was. I spent the next year finding out, reading every issue cover to cover (there were only about ten years of back issues at that point, though it was still a fairly daunting task). My notes from that time—still handwritten, though this actually makes them vastly more accessible than the notes I would come to type on my then-laptop, available now only on discs that no longer fit into my machines—suggest that I was sometimes reading more for narrative than analysis, but gradually I came to recognize the patterns, what sort of questions were being asked and through what methods these were being answered.

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I set out to emulate these articles in my own work. I had only the vaguest of contours for a dissertation—by this point, I’d abandoned the history of Progressive-era railroad regulation for something about postwar battles over porn, though I wasn’t sure exactly what. I was interested in feminist intellectual history, I’d found some fascinating archival material about heteronormative obscenity regulation in Los Angeles, and Lisa McGirr’s recently-published Suburban Warriors was creating a buzz with its examination of the New Right, but I couldn’t see how the pieces fit together.

One name that seemed to keep popping up was Citizens for Decent Literature. Not much had been written about the group, but it was everywhere in the 1960s, especially. So I became obsessed with CDL and its brilliant, mercurial founder Charles Keating, he of the Savings & Loan debacles of the 1980s. I wound up driving around the country chasing its archival traces—research only newly made possible by the digitization of various finding aids that one would probably never think to examine were it not for the wonders of Google, which led me from Utah to Arizona to Ohio to Pennsylvania, since CDL left no central archive.

Eventually, I thought I had enough material to support an argument that CDL had cultivated a new mode of antiporn activism, one that was nominally secular and legalistic, even as it extended more traditional moral politics into the new formations of the so-called New Right. I wrote it up, sent it out, and anxiously waited; after what I think was a revise and resubmit (I still have the letter from editor Matt Kuefler, which I parsed relentlessly for hidden subtexts at the time, somewhere around here), it was accepted, and became my first published article.

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That was a really thrilling moment for me, to join the scholarly conversation that I’d by then been reading for several years. Since then, I’ve continued to read every issue of JHS, as well as serving as a book and manuscript reviewer on a few occasions. I’ve always admired Matt’s editorship—a good deal of the best articles in my own field of modern U.S. appear in the journal, but it also provides a valuable forum for global research that’s too easily marginalized otherwise—in this random stack alone, we get everything from monks in early Byzantium to an entire theme issue on sexuality in imperial China.

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So, JHS was really my entryway into history, and it’s still my favorite journal. It’s a tremendous honor to join the editorial board, and I’m looking forward to working with the journal. I also vow not to try to impose my own agenda on it, meaning there will be no theme issues on cats or Guided by Voices . . . I mean, unless readers demand it, of course.

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Newark on the backlot: Gypsy (1962)

When I began blogging about cinematic representations of Newark (which stemmed out of my teaching a class on film and urban history, but feeling a bit ridiculous doing it in Newark without having a real sense of locally-shot work–here’s a longer discussion of this, buried deep in the blog-archive), one conundrum that failed to occur to me was: what if purported Newarks are not really Newark?

Clearly I do not watch enough classic Hollywood cinema, where the entire cosmos exists on a backlot off Melrose Avenue, or I’d have thought of this earlier (though there’s also the later New Jersey Drive, one of the rare films set in Newark but largely shot in the surrounding environs for interesting political reasons). So thanks to Mary Rizzo, intrepid watcher of musicals, for this suggestion:

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Those are the faces a concerned young Natalie Wood makes as the family troupe rolls into Newark in Gypsy, during a brief, rather flimsy, tour montage. And here is the film’s “Newark”:

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Yeah, that’s it: they made a painting. A little insulting, but for what it’s worth, San Francisco receives the same treatment.

It’s really too bad, since I’m not aware of any early-60s cinematic depictions of the city. It was good enough for Hitchcock and Kubrick, but apparently director Mervyn LeRoy, whose career ran from the 1920s to the late 60s without much of interest beyond The Bad Seed, just couldn’t miss a happy hour at the Brown Derby or something.

I’d cough up some cheesy Baudrillard joke, but really, is it worth the effort? In any case, here is how Newark was rendered legible to mass culture before 1967: a skyline, a river, a presumed port that could be any port. It’s less insulting than many later representations of the city, to be sure–though New Jerseyites will surely relish the one lone line of dialogue directed toward the city and state: “Newark is in New Jersey, and New Jersey is only one big, deep breath from New York.” Somewhere, the perpetual underdog city of Philadelphia smirks.

Anyway, included here simply to keep archiving any and all cinematic Newarks. Even the incredibly half-assed ones.

two new essays: gay pulp and Pat Rocco

Two new essays that I wanted to share, since I’m pretty excited about both:

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I’ve got a piece in this new collection on gay pulp, just out from the University of Massachusetts Press. It’s a fantastic-looking book (I just got mine, and have only just begun reading through it). Lesbian pulp fiction has attracted a great deal of scholarly attention, but gay male pulp has gone mostly unattended by historians and literary scholars. So it’s neat to be part of the cutting edge of research here—essays in the book recover such authors and publishers as the Guild Press, Lou Rand Hogan, Phil Andros/Samuel Steward, Alexander Goodman, Victor Banis, Richard Amory, and more. It’s really an embarrassment of riches. Editors Drewey Wayne Gunn and Jaime Harker were clearly the perfect team for this project—Wayne having already edited another excellent collection on The Golden Age of Gay Fiction, and Jaime having written Middlebrow Queer, a really smart book about Christopher Isherwood that situates him within both middlebrow and lowbrow culture.

The truth is, I hadn’t known much about gay pulp when I saw the call for essays, so I pitched a more historiographical essay—which then evolved into a hybrid, looking also  at how first the homophile, then the gay liberation, movement engaged with the seamy cultural connotations of pulp, which proved more difficult to absorb into a “liberated” sexuality than did the gay hardcore films of the 70s.

This was generative work in the best possible way—not only am I delighted to be part of a collection that I’d be thrilled simply to read, but also thinking historically about pulp has spurred a greater interest in it, and I’m now working on a few new pieces more directly examining some still-overlooked gay pulp authors. Not sure yet how they’ll shape up, but in any case, 1960s Gay Pulp Fiction is a great beachhead for further work, and I can’t wait to see what else it inspires.

Then there’s this:

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The International House in Philadelphia is in the middle of its mammoth, jawdropping Free to Love: The Cinema of the Sexual Revolution series. It’s a brilliant combination of canonical (if still probably underseen) films, like Fritz the Cat and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and utter obscurities, from the bizarre documentary Free to Love to orphaned radical-sex-ed shorts by the Multi-Media Resource Center. The Pat Rocco screening that I got to introduce last week was part of this series (and was really enjoyable—Pat himself called in from Hawai’i for a spirited Q&A that climaxed in his sharing his home phone number with the entire audience!).

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howdy, cowboy: Cal Culver in Radley Metzger’s Score

Jesse Pires at the I-House has done a remarkable press barrage for the series (I even got to be interviewed by the Philadelphia Inquirer, though I was overshadowed by, well, everyone else involved; no shame in that when everyone else includes Radley Metzger, I guess). His masterstroke, though, was putting together a striking catalog, with essays by exploitation-film historians Eric Schaefer and Elena Gorfinkel (both of whom can count me among their biggest fans), not to mention Jesse himself and Herb Shellenberger from the I-House, who’s unearthed some fascinating material about the sex-ed films. I wrote an overview of Pat Rocco’s work, arguing for his importance not just in gay film history but also the sexual revolution more broadly. The catalog also has a ton of sexy archival imagery, always the best kind.

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“quick, think of another erotic sexual practice, right now we’ve only got 68!”

Oh, and there’s also a piece by some obscure film writer named J. Hoberman. Which is amazing—if I weren’t pretty sure it would be the nerd equivalent to those obnoxious people who find any excuse to mention the time their band opened for Nirvana in 1988, and if I wouldn’t be forced to violate my own principles of non-violence to endorse people punching me in the face for it, I’d probably spend the rest of my life casually mentioning “that time I was in a collection with J. Oh, you know, J. Hoberman, mmmm.”

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pic cribbed from Herb’s Facebook, hope he doesn’t mind!

I’m told the Free to Love catalog will pop up on Amazon soon, but really the place to get it is at the I-House, where the series is still rolling, with Rosa von Praunheim’s It is Not the Homosexual Who is Perverse, but the Society in Which He Lives this Saturday, not to mention the Hoberman-introduced WR: Mysteries of the Organism, a set of Barbara Hammer shorts, and, er, uh oh, Woody Allen’s Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Sex (which might be a rather fraught screening, though probably not as fraught as the documentary about Mumia Abu-Jamal the I-House screened last year), among others.

edited to add: I forgot to mention, the catalog comes with an unlabeled DVD, with a few mystery shorts. I won’t spoil them, but they’re worth investigating.