catching up: recent work and trembling in the face of book reviews

A few new pieces that I wanted to mention here—

Most recently, I did a really long-form interview about Obscenity Rules over at the Critical Margins site. It took me an unconscionably long time to finish, but that’s a testament to the great questions Hope Leman asked—it’s always an honor when anyone takes your work seriously enough to really dig into it with sharp inquiries, so I’m grateful to Hope, and hope it makes for a good, if perhaps lengthy, read.

Also, cool pic:


The other thing I’m most excited about is a four-(short!)-part historical essay on Queer Newark that I co-wrote with my friend and colleague Tim Stewart-Winter, over at the wonderful This stems out of work we’re both involved in with the Queer Newark Oral History Project at Rutgers-Newark, and it’s something I care about on multiple levels—both my love for the local community in Newark, and also my excitement as an historian to think methodologically about under-documented histories.

Writing for OutHistory works on a different (but only slightly different, I think) register than formal scholarly prose, but because there are very few LGBT archives in Newark, Tim and I had to approach this history through literary texts, brief glimpses in straight histories that often skip right over important material (I have a heartbreaking example from an oral history with a now-deceased activist that I might write more about later), and other sources. It could definitely use more oral history, to be sure—but it’s only a sketch, and something I know both Tim and I—not to mention the rest of the QNOHP!—plan to return to from various angles (in fact, we have another piece underway for a journal, which will hopefully come out later this year).

Also, we tried to think very visually for the piece—it’s full of great images, but my favorite is this, which I found while flipping through endless LGBT New Jersey periodicals of the 1970s, and finding very little about Newark. Then, in the March 1975 issue of Hold Hands, newsletter of the Gay Activist Alliance of New Jersey, presto! Now I want to learn more about this place…

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Finally, I meant to post this two months ago, but I also did a guest post at the always-enjoyable Writers Read blog in January, about what I was reading. I leave for California in two days, and as always, will be packing some Donald Westlake.

never travel without this!

And then there are book reviews. I wrote one, for the latest Journal of American History, on Leigh Ann Wheeler’s fantastic new book How Sex Became a Civil Liberty, which caused me to look at the early ACLU’s sexual-rights efforts in a whole new light (I’ve been pretty critical of midcentury ACLU obscenity policy in my own work), and also puts a smart, fresh spin on the consumerist nature of 20th-century American civil liberties. Definitely highly recommended  (as is Wheeler’s first book, Against Obscenity, which inspired me when I was in grad school).

The other book reviews are more nerve-wracking, since they review me (well, my book, but what is a book to a neurotic academic but an extension of the ever-fragile self?). Having one’s book reviewed is akin to receiving a public peer review, except without the option of crumpling it in shame and going into hiding. Fortunately, Gillian Frank’s review of Perversion for Profit in the latest Journal of the History of Sexuality is a positive one—which is a relief, because I’m a huge admirer of Frank’s own work (I’ve assigned both his “Discophobia” article and his recent, really amazing, article on the racial origins of Anita Bryant’s late-70s antigay campaign). He calls me out for some points that are “underelaborated,” such as the contrast between nominally-secular antiporn activism of the 60s and the “marked religiosity” of such efforts in the 80s—and I find myself in agreement, wishing I had further developed this theme. Perhaps in a future essay…

Alas, Perversion fares less well at the hands of Timothy Hodgdon at H-1960s. Hodgdon does have some rather flattering things to say (he may be the only person on earth to have ever called me a “polymath”—wholly untrue, but delightful to pretend I’m in the company of my former Temple colleague Samuel Delany!), but the title of the review, “For Want of a Nail, a Shoe was Lost,” kind of sums it up.

It’s probably churlish to bicker with a review on a blog, so I won’t—the truth is, while I don’t agree with all of Hodgdon’s quite extensive critiques, I do agree with several of them; most painful is his observation of my “remarkably truncated understanding of the history of liberalism.” This one hurts because Perversion is a somewhat lumbering beast of a book, and even still required extensive whittling down to meet my (already generous) word count. A more thorough analysis of liberalism was something I knew belonged there (and even existed there, in earlier incarnations), but something had to give, and much of that discussion wound up on the cutting-room floor.

I’m not sure what I’d do differently today—cutting material is always challenging for me, probably because I’m guilty of the great historian sin of falling too in love with my material—but in any case, I agree with Hodgdon that, given the centrality of liberal sexual politics to the book, the history of liberalism more broadly should be better developed. Mea culpa.

Hodgdon’s review makes for a good, if occasionally idiosyncratic read (it might be the only scholarly book review I’ve read to take note of the author’s undergraduate majors!). I winced at my first encounter, but returning to it now, I return to my above comment about gratitude for sheer engaged reading—even though Hodgdon thinks I lost my shoe (something I’ve certainly done in real life, not even figuratively, including the time I kicked it onto the roof of my elementary school), he clearly read the book carefully and critically, so I’m grateful for that. Though if the next review were to be a glowing assessment that finds no flaws whatsoever in the book, that would be okay too; if any book-review editors need my mother’s email address, please just ask…

And OMG: the actual best review of the recent past comes not of a book, but of OMGcatrevolution, the collaborative tumblr on cats in radical cinema that may actually be my greatest (shared) achievement; longtime, awesome film-blogger Girish Shambu called it “a great website on cats and cinema.” Terse, but utterly satisfying!




Sightseeing in Newark (1927) and a reverie on a scholarly journal article

Rarely do I enjoy a scholarly journal article as much as I did Caitlin McGrath’s “’I Have Seen the Future’: Home Movies of the 1939 New York World’s Fair,” from the fall 2013 The Moving Image, which I read while traveling home last night. It’s something of an esoteric niche topic, I know, but McGrath uses the abundance of home movies shot at the fair to make very smart historical points about how these seemingly dull, often inept films can become useful in giving “a more palpable sense of what feeling swept away, overwhelmed, and dazzled by the fair looked like; stylistically, they reflect the excitement and confusion that resulted from such a visually stimulating environment.”

Now, I’m quite partial to home-movie studies, a small but fascinating academic field that grew largely out of Patricia Zimmerman’s 1995 book Reel Families, partly for idiosyncratic personal reasons (perhaps due to my own misspent youth as an amateur filmmaker, making backyard micro-epics like Chuck and Bob Fight Saddam Hussein, shot in miserable Wasilla, Alaska during the first Gulf War and reflecting some deeply internalized American triumphalism that definitely preceded my introduction to punk and Noam Chomsky; I will still vouch for Those Who Have Puked, though). But I think the genre could profitably be linked to work on early gay erotic cinema, too—I sort of missed my chance when writing about Pat Rocco’s guerilla-shot gay Los Angeles films, but maybe someone should situate Bob Mizer’s Athletic Model Guild physique films—newly available on DVD—in this context, that could be interesting.

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