Sunday, March 26, 2017

Panurge Press and other early 20th century distributors of erotic books

Jay A. Gertzman's Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica 1920-1940 gives an engaging history of the difficulties in New York City with distributing literature that had any sexual content. "The federal antiobscenity statues, lobbied through Congress by Anthony Comstock in 1873 and enforced just as powerfully half a century later, called their wares 'obscene, lewd, lascivious, indecent, filthy, or vile.' * * * By the early 1920s, a group of young New York publishers was providing Americans with literature from European writers whom the older publishers considered too subversive to touch. Beginning in 1922, a series of court rulings made it more difficult to suppress sexually explicit material that could not be termed flagitious by any general consensus." (pp. 1, 10)

The most detailed figures in Gertzman's history include Esar Levine of Panurge Press (Esar was editor, and his brother Benjamin was business manager) and Benjamin Rebhuhn of Falstaff Press (he ran it with his wife and nephew). The Levines and Rebhuhns both had mail-order businesses and were close friends with each other. "Many Panurge titles were transferred to Falstaff in 1936 (and reprinted as new editions), and later became property of Metro Books, distributed by Benjamin Levine." (p. 30) The most important character is probably Samuel Roth, whose Golden Hind Press at 122 Fifth Avenue was raided on October 4, 1929. (p. 16) These men endured repeated prosecutions and incarcerations.

The majority of the names of booksellers in this narrative belonged to Jews. "In New York at least, during the period from 1880 to 1940, many [erotica dealers] were members of Jewish immigrant families," Gertzman writes. He adds that "German immigrants were skilled printers, lithographers, and typesetters". (pp. 28- 29)

"Although avoiding ethnic scapegoating, John Sumner [secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice] sometimes specifically described the purveyor of 'obscenity' as a Jew (or Italian or German). Rooted in his opposition to erotic literature was a fear of contamination by the unclean outsider. Society as a whole, as well as the immigrant neighborhoods, was in danger of contagion. Sumner's annual reports stigmatize individuals arrested (whether convicted or not) as 'foreign looking,' 'mentally defective,' 'exhibitionists,' 'fly-by-night.' 'Most of these defendants,' he wrote in his 1928 report, 'were of the young, radical, irreligious and over-educated type. Their personal writings wherever found, indicated an utter disregard for the law, public decency or any of the proprieties of organized society. They are literally anarchists.'" (p. 45)

The Panurge books were overpriced for the Depression era. Consequently, "Panurge classified its clients into groups. There were twenty-five 'prominent individuals'...ten 'professors'; fifty 'army officers'; twenty 'reverends'; two hundred eighty 'lawyers'; and fourteen hundred 'doctors,' including more dentists than physicians — thirty-five fully typed pages were needed to list them." (p. 57) Gertzman also says: "Judge Learned Hand appears to have recognized the more complex reality, when he found Esar Levine guilty of pandering to prurience with the circulars for his Panurge Press books. He refused to admit into evidence the Panurge Press mailing list, with its 'professors,' 'army officers,' and 'physicians.' 'Even respectable persons may have a taste for salacity,' he wrote." (p. 144)

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