Sex Wars: A Novel of Gilded Age New York
By Marge Piercy
In Sex Wars Marge Piercy takes on another historical era, once again making me wish they’d teach history this way in school. The time is post-Civil War up to 1915, the place, New York City, and three of the four main characters are real people—Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Victoria Woodhull, and Anthony Comstock. The fourth character, fictional, is Freydeh Levin, a Jewish-Russian immigrant from “The Pale.” (Yes, that’s the origin of the expression beyond The Pale.) In case you’re wondering about the book’s unfortunate title, Stanton and Woodhull were women’s rights advocates, working primarily for female suffrage, and Comstock was the head of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, a fanatical crusader who destroyed lives and livelihoods trashing bookstores, saloons, and even condom manufacturing. The Comstock Laws are still on the books in New York.
Several other historical figures appear in Sex Wars: Madame Restell, New York’s premier abortionist of the time, Cornelius Vanderbilt, benefactor to Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee, Lucretia Mott, Harriet Beecher Stowe and her siblings—all drawn with meticulous attention to historical accuracy. Several times I found myself propelled by curiosity to Wikipedia to find out what was real and what was fictional, and found the stories hewing closely to truth. What Piercy makes up, of course, is their inner lives—their thoughts, motivations and feelings as they live through the events unearthed in her research. I wasn’t surprised: Piercy is an avid researcher, and on her website she says she dug up far too much information to include in the novel, and has created a Power Point lecture available for group presentations.
This isn’t the first novel in which Piercy uses historical figures as characters. In City of Darkness, City of Light she took the same approach to the story of the French Revolution. In previous books she often utilized the style of telling stories from various characters’ points of view, most notably in Gone to Soldiers. While I loved both these novels, I was sometimes disappointed when the narrative switched its point of view, as I preferred that of a different character. In Sex Wars this never happened: every character is as compelling as the last, so I was perfectly happy throughout, no matter whose voice predominated—proof that Piercy has attained mastery over this style of storytelling. Other writers who use this method in fiction don’t quite carry it off: Louise Erdrich did it in The Beet Queen, but the voice is the same for every character. In Sex Wars every character is immediately identifiable by speech pattern or sentence structure or techniques I probably can’t even discern.
The era portrayed here bears uncanny similarities to our own time, and Piercy says that’s why she chose to explore it:
“I was attracted to the era after the Civil War because I found it had so many of the same divisions and conflicts as our own time. The role of women in the public sphere and in the family, the degree to which free sexual expression was valuable, permissible, tolerated or condemned, whether Church and State should continue to be separated or whether Christianity should be the official religion…. debates about sexual freedom…censorship and whether the fear that children might view writing, art or entertainment intended for adults that would damage them irreparably was justified or was sufficient reason to ban such adult content. There were similar debates about immigration and whether immigrants from certain countries were dangerous or might contaminate the body politic. There were deep social and political divisions that played out in the media of the time, in elections, in violence in the streets…. There were strong differences of opinion on contraception and abortion—widely practiced but often officially and publicly condemned. The gap between the very rich and the poor was widening, as it is today, and the poor were blamed for being poor, poverty being considered a moral failing – as there is more than a hint of in current rhetoric.”
The event that really blew my mind with its parallel to the present was the Presidential race in which Republican Rutherford B. Hayes stole the election from Democrat Samuel Tilden, with the help of several Supreme Court judges. This passage, of course, sent me scampering to Wikipedia; sure enough, Marge told it true. So how come we didn’t hear about it during the hijacked election of 2000? Or did I just miss it?
I’ve missed so much, and haven’t we all? Some of our woefully lacking education can be blamed on public school methods, with their relentless recitation of history as a series of wars and treaties, crap that bored the hell out of me so much I tuned it out. Piercy, on the other hand, brings (forgive me) her story to these pages, including small and large details of domestic life: the food they cooked and how, the clothes they wore and the tools used to wash and iron them. These details not only fill a gap in American education, they also add spark and color to the narrative.
On its website Harper Collins posts a Sex Wars “reading guide,” of the kind so fashionable in book groups today. One question asks readers their favorite character. My immediate answer was, without hesitation, Victoria Woodhull. All I knew of this women’s rights’ advocate was her name. In Sex Wars I learned she was a sex radical who espoused some of the same beliefs as Carol Queen or Susie Bright; that she and her sister were the first female brokers on Wall Street; and that she was the first woman to address Congress and the first woman to run for President—before women were even granted the vote. Several times in her life (yes, I checked Piercy’s facts) she was broken, spiritually and financially—once when Comstock threw her into prison for writing about sexual issues—but each time she rose up like Lazarus. As the Elizabeth Cady Stanton character says near the end, “Victoria had been forced to retreat from her more radical positions because she actually lived them.”
There are flaws; there are always flaws in a Marge Piercy novel. Too much is repetitive, and some characters feel exaggerated, particularly Anthony Comstock, who comes off like an extreme version of Jerry Falwell (then again, he probably was). As she gallops to a conclusion the writing becomes more news reportage than storytelling, and the end is a bit too neat, with each character’s life summed up tidily. But such minor flaws are tolerable in an otherwise compelling page-turner of such wide perspective. Another era beautifully Pierced! (Sorry, as with her story, I just couldn’t resist.)