Books

The sexual exploitation of children by adults has a long, fraught history. Yet how cultures have reacted to it is shaped by a range of forces, beliefs, and norms, like any other social phenomenon. Changes in how Anglo-American culture has understood intergenerational sex can be seen with startling clarity in the life of British writer Norman Douglas (1868–1952), who was both a beloved and popular author, a friend of luminaries like Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley, and D.H. Lawrence—as well as an unrepentant and uncloseted pederast. Rachel Hope Cleves’s careful study opens a window onto the social history of intergenerational sex in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, revealing how charisma, celebrity, and contemporary standards protected Douglas from punishment—until they didn’t. ​Unspeakable approaches Douglas as neither monster nor literary hero, but as a man who participated in an exploitative sexual subculture that was tolerated in ways we may find hard to understand. Using letters, diaries, memoirs, police records, novels, and photographs—including sources by the children Douglas encountered—Cleves identifies the cultural practices that structured pedophilic behaviors in England, Italy, and other places Douglas favored. The resulting book delineates just how approaches to adult-child sex have changed over time, even as it offers insight into how society can confront today’s scandals, celebrity and otherwise.
Charity and Sylvia is the intimate history of two ordinary women who lived in an extraordinary same-sex marriage during the early nineteenth century. Based on diaries, letters, and poetry, among other original documents, the research traces the women’s lives in sharp detail. Charity Bryant was born in 1777 to a consumptive mother who died a month later. Raised in Massachusetts, Charity developed into a brilliant and strong-willed woman with a passion for her own sex. After being banished from her family home by her father at age twenty, she traveled throughout Massachusetts, working as a teacher, making intimate female friends, and becoming the subject of gossip wherever she lived. At age twenty-nine, still defiantly single, Charity visited friends in Weybridge, Vermont. There she met Sylvia Drake, a pious and studious young woman whose family had moved to the frontier village after losing their Massachusetts farm during the Revolution. The two soon became so inseparable that Charity decided to rent rooms in Weybridge. Sylvia came to join her on July 3, 1807, commencing a forty-four year union that lasted until Charity’s death. Over the years, the women came to be recognized as a married couple, or something like it. Charity took the role of husband, and Sylvia of wife, within the marriage. Revered by their community, Charity and Sylvia operated a tailor shop employing many local women, served as guiding lights within their church, and participated in raising more than one hundred nieces and nephews. Most extraordinary, all the while the sexual potential of their union remained an open secret, cloaked in silence to preserve their reputations. The story of Charity and Sylvia overturns today’s conventional wisdom that same-sex marriage is a modern innovation, and reveals that early America was both more diverse and more accommodating than modern society imagines.
When the French Revolution degenerated into violent factionalism and civil war during the early 1790s, American conservative northeasterners reacted in profound terror. Alarmed by the possibility that the United States would follow her “sister republic” into chaos and civic bloodshed, northern Federalists and their Congregationalist allies reacted by aggressively attacking the violence of the French Revolution and its supposed American votaries. The Reign of Terror in America argues that American fears of the violence of the French Revolution led to antislavery, antiwar, and public education movements in the nineteenth-century United States. It is the first history of how Americans perceived the Reign of Terror, and reveals how significantly fears of French Violence changed the United States. Ultimately, these fears inspired a stark opposition to the violence of slaveholding, provided material for dramatic attacks on southern slavery, and helped to spark the Civil War.

 

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