BOOKS & THE CULTURE Up or Out in the Colonies BY JAMES E. MCWILLIAMS Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America. By Thomas A. Foster Beacon Press, 2006 256 pages, $28.95 0 nce upon a time in America, sex was everybody’s business. Consider the 18th century Massachusetts couple of Joel and Susannah Richardson. During their open divorce proceedings, Susannah saw fit to thoroughly dismantle her husband’s manhood. Not only was her own account of Joel’s sexual incapacity brutally honest \(“Joel was not a man and followed from townsmen who seemed to know equally well that Joel was not, in the crude parlance of the day, “a glorious hang.” The local doctor showed up at the trial to declare his patient’s “parts of generation” to be “utterly incapable of procreation.” A neighbor testified having once heard Susannah complain that Joel’s penis was “not enough to make a mark in a dish of meal.” As for the couple’s kids, Susannah insisted that Joel “had no business with the children for they were none of his.” The outcome of the trial went unrecorded, but either way it was a humiliating day for the poor farmer from Woburn, Massachusetts. As Thomas A. Foster demonstrates in his fascinating new book Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man, the ritualistic emasculation of Joel Richardson was no anomaly. In fact, public vigilance over sexual behavior played a critical social role in 18th-century American life. As a pre-industrial colonial outpost that agonized over stability, self-mastery, and republican virtue, early America was a place were size mattered. After all, any deviation from the dominant sexual standarda patriarchal model rooted in marital monogamy, heterosexuality, self-control, and sexual vigorposed an insidious threat to the precarious civilization that English colonists were forging in wilderness. Adultery, fornication, same-sex relations, bachelorhood, interracial sex, and, as Joel knew all to well, sexual incapacity were dire enough threats to the patriarchal juggernaut to clog the court records with testimony that Foster, a DePaul University historian, has spent the last 10 years studying. His findings, while not always presented in the clearest manner, are amazing. Given the social significance of normative sexuality in the early republic, the elite white men entrusted with the task of preserving patriarchal relations spent considerable time and effort hammering down the nail that stuck up. Foster not only uncovers hundreds of examples of men and women being hauled into court for so-called deviant behavior, butin one of the book’s many unexpected attributeshe thoroughly relishes the language that early Americans used to convey their own sexual experiences, tribulations, and opinions. When John Amee, an Indian, threatened to “nok” one Elizabeth Tyler, Tyler mockingly asked if he was going to “nok her with a hatchet or hammer,” to which Amee responded that “he would nok her with his prick.” Women brought to orgasm \(something believed at the time to be necessary for procrepatriarchs for granting them “all due benevolence.” Men charged with sexual -assault sought refuge in the excuse that their “libidinous faculties” succumbed to what one victim called “the Rage of his Lust.” Others proudly refused to bow to their “extreme lust,” articulating their aggressive sexuality in crude doggerel: Tis nobler like a lion to invade When appetite directs, and seize my prey Than to wait tamely, like begging dog, Till dull consent throws out the scraps of love. Yet others were matter of fact about their motives, as was one defendant who simply stated in his defense that “god had left him” when he seduced a young girl. Such rich rhetorical material makes it clear that Foster chose his evidence with an eye toward not only illuminating readers, butrarity of rarities in the historical professionentertaining them as well. Given the narrow scope of proper sexual behavior in early America, and given the inherent challenges involved in rooting out deviance, colonial patriarchs relied heavily on innuendo and arbitrary stereotyping to finger transgressors. If, as Foster explains, “the ideal man was married, strong, and controlled;’ then woe to the dandyish bachelor. Here was a man who, in a social milieu that rewarded marital masculinity, was vulnerable to the most socially consequential accusations \(especially if An authority no less lugubrious in temper than Cotton Mather, for example, drew a direct connection between “licentious masturbators” and effete bachelors when he opined that a single man given over to the habit of pleasuring himself was “reduced into a woeful consumption; his visage Pale and Leane, and Stomach depraved, and his depauperated Blood fill’d with acid, and acrid particles.” If the unmarried fop was not a chronic masturbator, then there was always the good chance that he was, as one minister put it, “amongst the sodomites,” a designation that stressed his preference for “strange flesh”not only that other men and family relations but, alas, farm animals. Pity not only the skinny white guy for being skinny, but also the black man for being black. Foster writes, “[a]s a man of unbridled sexual energy, [the black 12 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JANUARY 12, 2007
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