This blog post comes from Penn Press's Direct Mail and Advertising Manager, Tracy Kellmer, continuing the Afternoon Coffee Break series, in which Tracy shares her reflections and observations about a different Penn Press book that she has read. Enjoy!
Just about every weekday afternoon you’ll find me at a coffee shop drinking a latte and reading a Penn Press book. There are many good reasons for wanting to work at a scholarly press, but my favorite one is that I get to read the books. I am not a scholar, and this is not a review.
This week's book:
Taming Lust by Doron S. Ben-Atar and Richard D. Brown
Why I picked it:
I read this book on the recommendation of my colleague, Publicity Manager Gigi Lamm. When I first started working at Penn Press, she told me how the two authors, Doron S. Ben-Atar and Richard D. Brown, were each writing a book about two separate bestiality trials in the late 1700s in New England, in which both plaintiffs were 80-year-old men. When each one discovered the other’s project, they decided to join forces to write this book and see if there was something in the time and place that would have explained such a rare and coincidental situation. Gigi said it reads almost like a novel, and she was right: it’s a real page-turner!
What I discovered:
In Massachusetts, the accused was a doctor. He was a new arrival to the town of Leverett, a lone man without a family, but his reputation preceded him—not only was he a clever doctor, but also was believed to have credibly cured cancer in previous patients. In Connecticut, the accused was a man who had deep roots in the town of Litchfield and the surrounding area, and his children continued to live on the family property. Although the plaintiffs were clearly very different, the places in which they lived were facing remarkably similar challenges to their way of life.
These small, largely rural communities were changing. Local markets were becoming increasingly national and even international. The “godless” and libertine French were seen as having undue influence over American politics and culture, symbolized by the rise of Thomas Jefferson. The cosmopolitan cities were extending their lawless, corrupt, and immoral reach into the heartland through their newspapers and political elites. The dominance of the Congregational Church, that bastion of stability and moral authority, was threatened by an influx of Quakers, Deists, Baptists, Methodists, Unitarianism, and even “Nothingarianism.” This last development was especially troubling to community leaders outside of the urban cities, who came to see themselves as the last guardians of morality. They feared that religious tolerance would lead directly to sexual license, just as they believed it did in Boston and Philadelphia, and it was in this climate of fear and entrenchment that the bestiality trials took place.
For the old men at the center of these trials, it certainly mattered if they were found guilty or not, as the punishment for the crime was death. But for their larger communities, their guilt or innocence was less important than the fervor with which they were accused and convicted. For the first time in a hundred years, laws against bestiality were enforced publicly and vociferously, as if the community’s leaders believed that by doubling down on punishing a sexual activity, they could halt, prevent, or even postpone all of the other economic, political, and cultural changes that were threatening their status and way of life. Turns out American culture wars are nothing new and have been with us since the very beginning.
The era’s most popular novel was The Coquette; or, The History of Eliza Wharton (1797) and it was rumored that the seducer in the novel was based on a real person from Connecticut. Although the novelist, Hannah Foster, may have intended the book, and the main character, to serve as a cautionary tale for young women, the opposite may have been true as well. Ben-Atar and Brown quote Litchfield woman Mariah Wolcott: “Coquette is the least odious epithet they bestow on me,” and “being obedient and dutiful was not in my creed.” From Eliza Warton in the eighteenth century to Katniss Everdeen today—the most dangerous threat to a society’s status quo may be the young women who read novels.