Matilda Joslyn Gage & Henry Fielding

In 1893, Matilda Joslyn Gage published Woman, Church & State: A Historical Account of the Status of Woman Through the Christian Ages. The book’s modern-day publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, describes it thusly:

“This classic history of woman’s oppression is one of the first attempts to document the sad legacy of injustice and discrimination against women, which is unfortunately inseparable from the history of both Christianity and the evolution of the Western state… Among the topics of her research is the medieval exaltation of celibacy as an expression of the male belief that women were unclean and the cause of original sin, the gross discrimination against women in canon law, abuse of women in the feudal system, the persecution of women as witches, the virtual slave status of wives and their almost total legal subjugation to their husbands.”

Even then, the book was viewed as anti-clerical, arguing that Christianity was an impediment to the progress of women, as well as civilization. Gage saw religious doctrine dehumanizing women, depriving them of civil, human, economic and political rights. Understandably, the book drew attacks from the pious of both genders, especially men, the Christian clergy and those who benefited from the status quo.

In 1894, Gage attempted to give a copy to the school library in her hometown, Fayetteville, N.Y., and the school refused it. A Fayetteville village board member, T.W. Sheedy, sent a copy of the book to Anthony Comstock and asked if this was a proper book to be placed in a school library. In February of 1894, Comstock wrote, “The incidents of victims of lust told in this book are such that if I found a person putting that book indiscriminately before the children I would institute a criminal proceeding against him for doing it.”

This was typical Comstock. He did not take a stand against the well-documented outrages that Gage brought to light, but rather to her writing about them.

In August of 1894, Ms. Gage responded to Comstock:

I look upon him as a man who is mentally and morally unbalanced, not knowing right from wrong, or the facts of history from ‘tales of lust.’ Being intellectually weak, Anthony Comstock misrepresents all works upon which he presumes to pass judgment, and is as dangerous to liberty of speech and of the press as were the old inquisitors, whom he somewhat resembles. A fool as a press censor is more to be feared than a knave, and Comstock seems to be a union of both fool and knave. Buddha declared the only sin to be ignorance. If this be true, Anthony Comstock is a great sinner. That a free nation like the United States, should allow a press censor within its limits is a disgrace to the name of freedom, savoring of Russian despotism.

“Comstock’s weak judgment was shown a few weeks since when the Worthington firm of booksellers in New York failed. Among their stock were books by the most distinguished writers, ancient and classic works… Judge O’Brien decided against Comstock, and this is but one instance of many that proclaim his imbecility of mind.”

The judge in the Worthington case was Morgan J. O’Brien of the New York Supreme Court, and his decision is described in Licentious Gotham: Erotic Publishing and its Prosecution in Nineteenth Century New York (2009) by Donna Dennis:

“A similar setback occurred in 1894. On behalf of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, Comstock objected to a bankruptcy receiver’s [Joseph J. Little’s] proposed sale of certain assets of an insolvent publishing firm, Worthington Company, that consisted of elegantly bound, ‘choice editions’ of a number of erotic classics. Included among the company’s holdings were [John] Payne’s translation of The Arabian Nights, [Henry] Fielding’s Tom Jones, Ovid’s Art of Love, Bocaccio’s Decameron, Rousseau’s Confessions, the Heptameron [by Marguerite de Navarre], Tales from the Arabic, Aladdin, and the collected works of Rabelais… As the court stated, it was ‘very difficult to see upon what theory these world-renowned classics can be regarded as specimens of that pornographic literature which it is the office of the Society for the Suppression of Vice to suppress.’

“The court’s ruling emphasized the refined character of the imagined purchasers, as well as the elegant quality of the books themselves. ‘They rank with the higher literature and would not ‘be bought nor appreciated by the class of people from whom unclean publications ought to be withheld.’ In a stinging rebuke, the judge chided Comstock that to burn such ‘rare and costly’ editions would amount to a ‘wanton destruction of property.’ With this formulation, Comstock was rendered not puritanical but ‘wanton’ as a result of his crude overreaching.”

For his part, Comstock said he did not and could not read Tom Jones, as he was “completely nauseated with that kind of rot.” As for the total lot of books in question, Comstock met with the original publisher in Philadelphia, and “warned him that if he continued to publish these books he would be prosecuted. I had not supposed that Mr. Worthington had continued to sell these books, for if I had been so advised I certainly would have instituted criminal proceedings against him.”

Commenting on Comstock’s condemnation of a book he refused to read, the New York Sun noted, “There is no doubt about it that Anthony Comstock, instead of having no mind, as some skeptical and unkind critics have asserted, really has two minds, or a mahatma, or something.”

After the court’s decision, the New York Press reported, “The opposition which Anthony Comstock offered to the sale of ‘Tom Jones’ and other works of the Worthington Company seems to have been an excellent advertisement for the books. Receiver Joseph J. Little has succeeded in disposing of most of the tabooed works at private sale, and at very good prices.”

And today, the memory of Matilda Joslyn Gage is much revered in Fayetteville, N.Y.

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