Friday, October 29, 2010

"Hot on the trail of Anthony Comstock"

This month's issue of Common-Place describes researcher Amy Werbel's efforts to uncover surviving examples of the materials that U.S. Postal Inspector Anthony Comstock famously attempted to censor. A professor of fine arts, Werbel is interested in Comstock's "aesthetics," and how over a period of forty years those aesthetics "served . . . as the national line between virtue and vice."

Her archival journey also bears on the sort of questions that are the bread-and-butter of legal historians: How did Comstock's targets avoid and evade prosecution? How did Comstock enforce (or fail to enforce) the sweeping law he convinced Congress to pass? How should we make sense of his enforcement choices? Most important of all, perhaps, her research raises a tricky methodological question: How do we find evidence of what people in the past worked so diligently to purge from the record?

Hat tip: book forum
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