A Letter from America IX: Some Tales of American Erotica - November

From the Antiquarian Book Review

Cotton Mather’s was enormous. Yes, it was at least eleven inches in length. Seldom seen, of course, and much sought after. But the really peculiar thing is that, while the text of his famous Magnalia Christi Americana was printed in London , it was printed in Boston . Since it is only two leaves, its really not surprising that it’s missing from most copies. What? What do you think I’m talking about? Errata, of course. The errata leaf to Mather’s Magnalia is a bifolium, printed in Boston in 1702, and tipped into only a few copies of the book. It’s very rare.

Wait- some fool has blundered. I was distinctly told this was the errata issue of ABR. None of us over here can understand half of what you English people say anyway. Oh, it’s the erotica issue! Good Lord, what next? O.K., we can come up with something. Let’s start all over again. Cotton Mather’s was enormous…. Actually I’m afraid I don’t know very much about erotica (but I know what I like.) A sheltered life, you see. Early Americana is pretty skimpy that way; a few bawdy ballads, the waste sheets for Isaiah Thomas’ suppressed edition of Fanny Hill, some editions of that paleogenesis of sex manuals, Aristotle's Masterpiece. So I thought I would call up the greatest American expert and leading American dealer, C.J. Scheiner for some thoughts. For several decades, Scheiner ( Suite B2 , 275 Linden Blvd. , Brooklyn , New York , 11226 , cjscheiner@pol.net) has been both a most diligent researcher into the bibliography of erotica and its foremost purveyor in the United States . His Essential Guide to Erotic Literature (Wordsworth, 1996, in two parts, before and after 1920) is among the best reference guide issued on the topic in modern times, and his knowledge of the complicated maze of false imprints, publication dates, and pseudonyms which litter the field is second to none in this country. He has also dealt in the area through an era of shifting attitudes about the material and its acceptability. The story of the modern erotica market, Scheiner pointed out, is its evolution from a sub-rosa, under-the-counter trade to a mainline business. Until the 1960’s both existing laws and shame kept the selling and collecting of material often considered only mildly racy today undercover. There are numerous tales from this period of wives discovering, to their horror, that their husbands were major erotica collectors. This revelation was often posthumous. Scheiner recalled one of the favorite stories of the late Donald Gallup, long the curator of American Literature at the Beinecke Library at Yale. The wife of a leading donor, investigating her late husband’s private study on a December evening while a blizzard howled outside, found his collection of erotic livres d’artiste. By present standards there works, illustrated by some of the greatest French artists of the 20th century, would scarcely raise an eyebrow (they would sure cost a lot, though). The widow, in hysterics, rousted Gallup from bed to tell him that if he did not get them out of the house that night she would feed them into the fireplace. Fortunately she lived less than an hour from New Haven , and Don made an heroic drive through the storm to save the collection for Yale. A landmark was Sotheby’s 1972 sale of "Libertine Literature", probably the first truly open American auction of erotica with attention paid to bibliographical points. Since then, of course, the landscape has changed radically. As Scheiner points out, much that was considered improper (Henry Miller, for instance) is now considered legitimate literature. Some writers best known for their work in other fields, such as Robert Silverberg or Philip Jose Farmer in science fiction, also wrote erotica to supplement their incomes, and this is now pursued by their collectors. Sexually explicit material without the virtue of such literary pretensions is now traded openly in any case, without the shame or legal concerns that hampered it in the past. Scheiner also sees some "erotica" being perceived in different ways by modern audiences - as folklore, for example, or as material for study by psychologists or in other areas of medicine, or simply as art. Scheiner sees a much larger and more efficient market these days. Collections which would once have been sold as quietly as possible are now appearing at public auction, and modern buyers are not hindered by the embarrassment which might have held an earlier generation back. Not surprisingly, the high end of the market is driven by private buyers, but that is true of every area of books and manuscripts these days. The institutional market is there, however, in medicine, literature, folklore, and mixed media. One irony, Scheiner points out, is a slight holdover of the sub-rosa attitude toward books and manuscripts in erotica compared to the worlds of art or photography, where literally anything goes. I certainly agree; I have seen nothing in the book world to compare with a Sotheby’s auction catalogue using one of Robert Mapplethorpe’s ruder photographs as an illustration. And we have yet to see books in clear plastic slipcases filled with piss (and now that I think of it, that would be an ideal touch in some cases). So, all in all, Scheiner sees these as good times for the erotica market- more buyers than ever at the high end, still abundant sources of supply, and a broadening interest in the field as more scholarly disciplines find material for study there. But he does worry about the future. Mass market paperbacks, once produced in editions of 50-100,000, are now often printed in runs of 5000 or less. Where have all the readers gone? To the Internet, of course, where pornography competes with genealogy as the most popular topic. Ah, kids today.

- William Reese