I have now finally read my Brontës. Jane Eyre was amazing but Wuthering Heights was, well, that it wasn’t what I was expecting worked very much in its favor, since I spent most of the book going “Really? These are the leads? This is the structure? Wait, you mean this person is dead? I have literally no idea where this is going.” It certainly succeeded insofar as I was neglecting other life objectives to get to the end, but I’m fairly certain the book demands a few more readings. I’m grateful I got to read it so relatively fresh to it, though–the mentions of Cathy and Heathcliff and love on the moors really don’t let you know what you’re in for. So it’s a mixed review, I guess, but I have a strong feeling the spell creeps over you with every reading (and I definitely need one more where I don’t just believe the opinions of the narrator the whole time).
In comics, I’m finally reading Criminal: Ohmygoshwow. Read my first Alex Robinson (author of Box Office Poison): his semi-recent short book, “Too Cool To Be Forgotten.” File it under ‘Don’t read this at work unless you can cover the sniffles really quickly.’ (So, yes, it was very good. Wish some of the plot threads had come back or been resolved, but absolutely satisfied with the ultimate direction)
I also recently made perhaps the greatest book purchase I will ever make: at a used book store near the UCB Theatre, I picked up a book with the following fascinating spine: On top, “History of Prostitution” by W.W. Sanger, M.D. On the bottom: “Eugenics Publishing Company.” How can you walk away from that? It has a certain trainwreck quality. The book, as it turns out, is even better than I’d hoped. It is a 1937 printing of an 1897 volume containing a massive sociological study from the 1850s(!) on the current state of prostitution in America and around the world. The joys of this book are endless (and much better than the mere shock value I was expecting from the spine). For instance, the full title page reads:
THE HISTORY OF PROSTITUTION
ITS EXTENT, CAUSES AND EFFECTS THROUGHOUT THE WORLD
WILLIAM W. SANGER, M.D.
RESIDENT PHYSICIAN, BLACKWELL’S ISLAND, NEW YORK CITY; MEMBER OF THE AMERICAN ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF SCIENCE; LATE ONE OF THE PHYSICIANS TO THE MARINE HOSPITAL, QUARANTINE, NEW YORK, ETC., ETC., ETC.
WITH NUMEROUS EDITORIAL NOTES AND AN APPENDIX
“To such grievances as society cannot readily cure, it usually forbids utterance on pain of its scorn; this scorn being only a sort of tinseled cloak to its deformed weakness.” –CURRER BELL, Shirley.
EUGENICS PUBLISHING COMPANY
First of all, Currer Bell=Charlotte Brontë, so link up there, as Eddie Izzard would say. Secondly, three ETC’s! That’s a truly impressive degree of ETC! Thirdly, Blackwell’s Island? Awesome!
The pleasures of the book are various: first, the survey of world history and contemporary geography according to a New Yorker in the 1850’s is priceless. The section on Japan, which can be found in the chapter “Semi-Civilized Nations,” begins as follows:
“The recent connection established by American enterprise with the semi-fabulous empire of Japan (the Zipangi of Columbus) makes the institutions of that country more than usually interesting. From the earliest accounts of the Dutch and Jesuit writers to the present time, we know that the Japanese, like the Chinese, have attained a high degree of civilization, and among both, the vices which, in the present experience of mankind, seem the accompaniments of that improvement, have been developed in a remarkable degree.”
A few paragraphs down: “The most recent traveler (for those who composed Commodore Perry’s expedition can hardly be said to come under that denomination) is Captain Golownin, and he had opportunities for close observation not equaled since the times of the early writers. He was commander of the Russian sloop-of-war Diana, and visited the Japanese empire in 1811.”
This Captain apparently proceeds to get himself captured by the Japanese for two years, owing to “the duplicity of the Japanese, who are adepts in all the political arts of lying and hypocrisy” and who apparently had “an old grudge to settle with the Russians on account of injuries done them by certain individuals of that nation.”
This book runs to over 700 pages, and it is filled to the brim with not only hilarious historical racism and sexism, but with startling insights and glimpses of the beginnings of great things. The bulk of the book, what I called a sociological study, is a stunningly extensive survey of prostitution in New York City. Sanger apparently conducted interviews with 2000 prostitutes in New York City between 1855 and 1858, and there are endless charts and tables of their responses on everything from disease status to father’s employment to average income. Sociology as we know it did not yet exist when he did this; it seems like this study in itself must form a part of the very development of the concept.
One of the most interesting sections, and one of the real beauties of this book, is when Sanger delves into the previous occupations of the prostitutes and their answers when asked why they do what they do. Sanger, it turns out, can be a passionate advocate for women. His lens is still one of his time; his severe discussion of the Crime of Seduction depends on the acceptance of concepts like a woman’s virtue being an irretrievable loss, and the idea that, you know, that matters. However, there is a distinct humanitarianism at its heart. He absolutely condemns the Crime of Seduction, because in his social milieu the negative consequences of this loss of virtue are very real, and he argues eloquently that the women he’s interviewing are the best proof of it, many of them having been cast out by their communities after a love affair. Sanger also seems to feel that if seduction is a crime, the seducer is the real criminal, and although the attendant protestations regarding the inevitable absolute dependence of a woman in love on the word of her man are a little hilarious, the point he’s trying to make is that men reckless enough to love ‘em and leave ‘em ought to be held responsible for their actions. (How hilarious? “But how to account for the participation of the female in the crime? Simply by viewing it as an idolatry of devotion…. As soon as this conviction of a mutual love possesses her mind, as soon as her heart responds to its magic touch, she lives in a new atmosphere; her individuality is lost; her thoughts revert only to her lover” (493))
In all seriousness, Sanger develops a remarkable premise in the course of his study: he finds that the complete absence of work for women that will actually pay enough to sustain them is a major social ill. A man well over a century ahead of his time, as it turns out. He believes incarceration does nothing to reform the prostitutes of his day and in fact hurts by preventing them from seeking out medical help.
Coverage of this book will have to extend over many more posts, because there is simply too much good stuff. The mayor of Newark, New Jersey responds to Sanger’s inquiries with the declaration that there are no prostitutes in his town because everyone just goes up to New York (Sanger’s skeptical response is priceless).
Random excerpts from the rest: “The city of New York contains, at this day, venereal infection sufficient to contaminate all the male population of the United States in a very short space of time” (645).
“It may be assumed as an almost invariable rule, that courtesans in all countries are in the habit of using alcoholic stimulants to a greater or lesser degree, in order to maintain that artificial state of excitement which is indispensably necessary to their calling” (541).
“Undoubtedly there are cases where the woman is the seducer, but these are so rare as to be hardly worth mentioning” (495).
The charms of the world and historical survey that makes up the first half of the book may wear thin, since much of it is frankly offensive to read now (ask him about the morals of the Turks!), but there’s much, much more to discover as I make my way around the volume in skips and jumps.
I just hope writing extensively on this doesn’t permanently weird my Google search terms.