Amy Werbel FDGA 2017

About Lust on Trial:

Near the end of his life, Anthony Comstock boasted in the 1914 Annual Report of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice that his efforts had led to the incarceration of nearly 4,000 perpetrators, who collectively served more than 586 years in prison. During his 42 years of service as Secretary of the Society and as Special Agent for the U.S. Postal Service, Comstock dispatched to incinerators more than 3,000,000 pictures, 106,000 pounds of books, and 88,000 newspapers he personally had judged to be obscene. He clearly took abundant pride in those numbers, but an obvious question arises from the privileged vantage point of hindsight: to what end?

My forthcoming book, Lust 011 Trial: American Art, Law, and Culture during the Reign of Anthony Comstock, tells the story of how, and why, Comstock's heartfelt and painstaking campaign to rid America of vice was instead primarily responsible for creating the very forces that would make a mockery of his lifelong endeavors. Despite Comstock's over-sized persona and power during his lifetime, today his cautionary tale is rarely examined. In the course of ten years of research in more than 30 public and private institutions, I have unearthed for the first time a wide range of archival materials that document his story, including vital and probate records, contemporary newspaper articles, postal inspector reports, district attorney files, court pleadings and transcripts, and examples of the material he seized. My research illuminates not only the biographical arc of Comstock's life and the depth and breadth of his censorious activities, but also encourages an empathetic reading of his motivations.

Lust 011 Trial includes new documentation and analysis of the theological and secular education he received as a child, and explores how the hardships faced by his family both calcified and challenged his beliefs at an early age. Comstock ultimately viewed lust as a toxin so dangerous to the public welfare that he devoted his life to ridding the nation of potentially arousing cultural works. Beyond contributing new understanding of Comstock's actions and motivations, Lust 011 Trial also adds fresh insight to several interconnected fields that rarely are studied together, including literary, legal, and American studies, art history, and the theory of cultural regulation.

With many thanks,

Amy Werbel
Associate Professor, History of Art