Books by NHC Fellows

Books by Fellows

Between the Covers: Fellows Discuss Their Recent Publications

NHC Fellows have produced a wide assortment of fascinating and award-winning books this year. We asked four of them to share a little about their new publications and to reflect on the process of writing them.


David K. Johnson (Fellow, 2014–15)

‘Buying Gay’ book cover

Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement

Columbia University Press, 2019

From the publisher’s website:
“In 1951, a new type of publication appeared on newsstands—the physique magazine produced by and for gay men. For many men growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, these magazines and their images and illustrations of nearly naked men, as well as articles, letters from readers, and advertisements, served as an initiation into gay culture. The publishers behind them were part of a wider world of ‘physique entrepreneurs’: men as well as women who ran photography studios, mail-order catalogs, pen-pal services, book clubs, and niche advertising for gay audiences. Such businesses have often been seen as peripheral to the gay political movement. In this book, David K. Johnson shows how gay commerce was not a byproduct but rather an important catalyst for the gay rights movement.

“Offering a vivid look into the lives of physique entrepreneurs and their customers, and presenting a wealth of illustrations, Buying Gay explores the connections—and tensions—between the market and the movement. With circulation rates many times higher than the openly political ‘homophile’ magazines, physique magazines were the largest gay media outlets of their time. This network of producers and consumers helped foster a gay community and upend censorship laws, paving the way for open expression. Physique entrepreneurs were at the center of legal struggles, especially against the U.S. Post Office, including the court victory that allowed full-frontal male nudity and open homoeroticism. Buying Gay reconceives the history of the gay rights movement and shows how consumer culture helped create community and a site for resistance.”

What are the most important things you want people to take away after reading Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement?

I want people to come away with an expanded notion of the origins of the gay movement in the U.S., and of activism more generally. I show how an explosion of gay-oriented publications, catalogues, and mail-order enterprises first provided a way for gay men to see themselves as part of a national community. Unlike most historians of the movement, I place commercial enterprises rather than homophile political groups at the center of gay community formation. I show how gay men could see themselves as a market, as an economic force, long before they understood themselves in political terms. By blurring the lines between the commercial and the political, I seek to rethink the origins of the gay rights movement.

As you were working on this project, what did you discover that you found most surprising?

The level of surveillance and censorship by the U.S. Post Office shocked me. With over a thousand postal inspectors, the Post Office infiltrated customer mailing lists with false names, raided production facilities, and helped indict nearly every physique publisher and photographer I survey. Worse yet, they went after customers. They arrested gay men who joined pen pal clubs and exchanged nothing more harmful than salacious letters. Inspectors would often visit men at their place of employment to intimidate them into confessing to the crime of sending obscene material through the mail. And they targeted teachers and professors, knowing they were the most vulnerable—that just an accusation of receiving gay material would lead to their dismissal. They were so aggressive because they were convinced that these types of exchanges were promoting homosexuality in American society. The book turned out to be more an exposé of the federal government than I initially intended—it came to resemble my first book on the federal government’s lavender scare.

Producing a scholarly work involves innumerable details, minutiae, and references. Could you please point us to your favorite footnote and tell us more about it?

I’m particularly proud of two sources I was able to track down and interpret. In both cases I was the first scholar to do so. One was the diary of Bob Mizer, the first and most influential of the physique photographers I chronicle. He started Physique Pictorial in 1951 and is perhaps best known for discovering physique artist Tom of Finland. I was able to read his diary from his high school days, when he was just coming out and starting his business. Because he was living with his Mormon mother, he wrote in a sort of code, using terms like “urning” that he had learned from reading 19th century works in sexology. Only a historian or scholar of sexuality would recognize this language. The other source was a transcript of a federal court obscenity trial. Trial transcripts are always very revealing, since they include testimony from contemporary experts and observers taken under oath. This one was a 3,000-page transcript from the Adonis Pen Pal case of 1960, in which the founders and a dozen of the customers of the first gay pen pal service were tried in a Chicago federal court for obscenity. Prosecutors read aloud in court dozens of customer letters, ensuring they made it into the verbatim transcripts. So I was able to provide not only a behind-the-scenes account of the club’s formation, but also a window into the lives and thinking of the customers.

What was the most difficult thing to leave out of the final version of your book?

I chronicle a consumer culture network that included lots of items for sale—clothing, books, paintings, and sculptures. If you received these publications, you could send away for a host of gay-oriented materials, everything from his & his towel sets, to The Gay Cook Book, to Greek-inspired artwork. The network was so vast that many items don’t get mentioned at all. For scholars of material culture, this would be a gold mine.

You worked on this project during your fellowship in 2014–15. How did your fellowship experience affect the work you ultimately produced?

The National Humanities Center was an ideal place to work on this project. I could consult with art historians, literary theorists, and other scholars when I encountered images and references that needed some interpretation. The library staff proved incredibly resourceful, finding both primary and secondary sources for me from all over the country. Buying Gay is a much better book because of that incredible year.

Now that this book has been published, what’s next for you?

I’m planning on returning to my two earlier publications with an eye toward revisions and expansion. I will revise my U.S. Since 1945 documentary reader to account for the rather dramatic changes we’ve seen in American political culture in the last decade. I’m also thinking about revising or extending The Lavender Scare, given all the attention it has garnered thanks to the documentary film. Legislation has been introduced in the U.S. Senate to investigate and recognize the devastating impact of the anti-gay purges, so I think it is time to revisit this story and employ the new digital and online tools that were not available to me when I did the original research in the 1990s.


Benjamin Kahan (Fellow, 2016–17)

Minor Perverts book cover

The Book of Minor Perverts: Sexology, Etiology, and the Emergences of Sexuality

The University of Chicago Press, 2019

From the publisher’s website:
“Statue-fondlers, wanderlusters, sex magicians, and nymphomaniacs: the story of these forgotten sexualities—what Michel Foucault deemed ‘minor perverts’—has never before been told. In The Book of Minor Perverts, Benjamin Kahan sets out to chart the proliferation of sexual classification that arose with the advent of nineteenth-century sexology. The book narrates the shift from Foucault’s ‘thousand aberrant sexualities’ to one: homosexuality. The focus here is less on the effects of queer identity and more on the lines of causation behind a surprising array of minor perverts who refuse to fit neatly into our familiar sexual frameworks. The result stands at the intersection of history, queer studies, and the medical humanities to offer us a new way of feeling our way into the past.”

What are the most important things you want people to take away after reading The Book of Minor Perverts?

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, there existed what Michel Foucault calls a vast family of “minor perverts.” My book is the story of how we moved from these “thousand aberrant sexualities” to what many twentieth century Americans regarded as just one major one: homosexuality. By attending to these varied and surprising sexualities—shoe fetishists, statue-fondlers, and wanderlusters to name but a few—I hope people will come to know that there weren’t always just two dominant sexualities and that there are other ways of organizing desire. So many of us experience our desire as inchoate, inarticulable, and yet we try to wedge it into prescribed and normative instantiations of pleasure. I want my book to inspire people to explore the incommunicability and unnameability of their desires.

As you were working on this project, what did you discover that you found most surprising?

The story that we tend to tell about the origins of modern homosexual identity is that a group of activists, lawyers, and doctors in Germany advocated for the decriminalization of sodomy, arguing that people should not be penalized by the law for the way that they are born. However, as I was researching this book I was surprised to learn that these same doctors and legal professionals did not understand sexuality to be just innate but understood it to be acquired in a whole host of more unusual and less expected ways—drinking alcohol, looking in the mirror, wearing clothes of the opposite sex, traveling to foreign locales, and living in same-sex environments could all cause what they perceived to be sexual aberration. My book tracks what we see as the luminous strangeness of these explanations to see sexuality emerging not just from this civil rights discourse but also being theorized by a whole range of other actors—sex magicians, industrialists, phrenologists feeling for cranial bumps, visionary poets, and innumerable others. This is the zany story that The Book of Minor Perverts tells.

Producing a scholarly work involves innumerable details, minutiae, and references. Could you please point us to your favorite footnote and tell us more about it?

Just one—such a difficult choice! Note 91 in my Introduction is probably my favorite. Both scholars of American and German sexology tend to suggest that sexual science was invented by Germans (with Iwan Bloch coining the term in 1907). In this note, I lay out that actually the words “sexology” and “sexual science” were first used in America in 1867 and 1869, respectively. Almost 40 years earlier! Orson Squire Fowler, the most famous phrenologist in America, coined “sexual science” and published a book called Sexual Science in 1870 suggesting that our understanding of the scientific study of sex actually comes from phrenology! Since publishing The Book of Minor Perverts I’ve found even earlier usages of both terms, suggesting at the very least the co-emergence of the American and German invention of sexuality. This is what I love about research: it’s always opening new avenues to explore and now I am writing an essay about this twin emergence of American and German sexual science all growing out of this note.

What was the most difficult thing to leave out of the final version of your book?

Great question! The sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing describes a category of perversion that he calls “coupeurs de nattes” or “hair despoilers” who would cut locks from little girls’ hair and run off with them. I’d have loved to write a chapter running from Alexander Pope’s “Rape of the Lock” (1712) to Krafft-Ebing!

You worked on this project during your fellowship in 2016–17. How did your fellowship experience affect the work you ultimately produced?

The National Humanities Center amplified my project in innumerable ways as it does for so many people. The library resources are just unparalleled, the fact that the library team can literally help you to get anything helps you to dream bigger and imagine in bolder colors! They tracked down one-of-a-kind materials that I had been after for years. And the camaraderie of the fellows helped me to talk it all through to make everything sparkle. To be part of such an engaged vibrant community really inspires you to try out new methods, approaches, archives—it’s exhilarating. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Center’s baked goods, especially those cookies!

Now that this book has been published, what’s next for you?

I am working on a new book, growing out of Minor Perverts, on the concept of sexual aim, which is called Sexual Aim and Its Misses. Freud understands the sexual instinct to be composed of two halves—the “sexual object,” which is “the person from whom sexual attraction proceeds,” and the “sexual aim,” which describes “modes of gratification.” Sexuality studies has trained virtually all of its attention on sexual objects, but the aim-based sexualities like voyeurs, exhibitionists, sadists, masochists, and fetishists haven’t gotten nearly the same kind of attention. And when they have (the literature on masochism and fetishism is more substantial than the others) they haven’t been treated together as part of the same phenomenon in spite of the fact that sexologists and psychoanalysts see them as being of like kind. My study brings these sexual formations together for the first time and helps us to recast the histories of foreplay, fantasy, and normality.


Marixa Lasso (Fellow, 2013–14)

‘Erased’ book cover

Erased: The Untold Story of the Panama Canal

Harvard University Press, 2019

From the publisher’s website:
“The Panama Canal set a new course for the modern development of Central America. Cutting a convenient path from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, it hastened the currents of trade and migration that were already reshaping the Western hemisphere. Yet the waterway was built at considerable cost to a way of life that had characterized the region for centuries. In Erased, Marixa Lasso recovers the history of the Panamanian cities and towns that once formed the backbone of the republic.

“Drawing on vast and previously untapped archival sources and personal recollections, Lasso describes the canal’s displacement of peasants, homeowners, and shop owners, and chronicles the destruction of a centuries-old commercial culture and environment. On completion of the canal, the United States engineered a tropical idyll to replace the lost cities and towns—a space miraculously cleansed of poverty, unemployment, and people—which served as a convenient backdrop to the manicured suburbs built exclusively for Americans. By restoring the sounds, sights, and stories of a world wiped clean by U.S. commerce and political ambition, Lasso compellingly pushes back against a triumphalist narrative that erases the contribution of Latin America to its own history.”

What are the most important things you want people to take away after reading Erased: The Untold Story of the Panama Canal?

Hopefully, they will come out with a different understanding of the history of tropical Latin America. They will realize, for example, that terms like “Banana Republic” have a long and problematic history and have contributed to the erasure of political innovations in places like Panama. Few people know that universal manhood suffrage was established there as early as 1853, allowing black men to occupy positions of political authority at a time when democratic governments were only an aspiration in most parts of the world. I hope they will also realize that our ideas about black people of tropical Latin America have helped erase Panama’s historical richness as a centuries-old center of global trade and traffic. Perhaps the most important lesson of this book is that it provides a clear example of how our version of history shapes not only how we view ourselves, but also how we treat others.

As you were working on this project, what did you discover that you found most surprising?

Two discoveries stand out. First, that far from being a sparsely populated jungle, the area around the Panama Canal—what became the Panama Canal Zone—was the most densely populated part of Panama. It was a region filled with towns and municipalities with a rich political and economic history that came abruptly to an end, when the Isthmian Canal Commission reached the decision to depopulate the Panama Canal Zone in 1912. Second, that the decision to depopulate was a social and political decision, not a technical decision. There were two different processes: the construction of the Panama Canal and the construction of the Panama Canal Zone—the area around the canal. We tend to conflate both processes, but the depopulation was the result of decisions made about the Panama Canal Zone, not the Panama Canal.

Producing a scholarly work involves innumerable details, minutiae, and references. Could you please point us to your favorite footnote and tell us more about it?

Probably, it is footnote 72 in chapter five. It is a long letter addressed to George Goethals—the Canal’s Chief Engineer—and signed by “various victims.” I found it at the U.S. National Archives and what makes it rare and special is that it is one of the very few documents that reveal the feelings of people displaced by the 1912 depopulation order. One of the things that struck me about this document is that it says “destroy duplicate,” which indicates that contemporary Canal authorities considered it a problematic, if not dangerous, letter.

What was the most difficult thing to leave out of the final version of your book?

I wonder if I am a very fortunate author, because I did not have to leave out anything that I considered important.

You worked on this project during your fellowship in 2013–14. How did your fellowship experience affect the work you ultimately produced?

Having the opportunity to share my research with top-rated scholars from different disciplines and who studied in different regions of the world was very stimulating. For example, I had no experience doing oral history when I started this project. My fellow anthropologists at the National Humanities Center gave me both crucial advice and encouragement for this part of my research. I also remember fondly many formal and informal conversations about topics as varied as the similarities between Turkey, the Soviet Union, and Latin America, the marginalia in medieval texts, or the relationship between health and race in the United States. These conversations shaped my thinking in important ways and were particularly useful for thinking about the significance of this case study for our general understanding about the history of the world.

Now that this book has been published, what’s next for you?

I am still playing with ideas. But I am very interested in studying the creative ways in which people in tropical places have used architectural design to deal with heat and humidity before the invention and popularization of the air conditioning.


Cara Robertson (Fellow, 2004–05; Fellow, 2005–06)

‘The Trial of Lizzie Borden’ book cover

The Trial of Lizzie Borden

Simon & Schuster, 2019

From the publisher’s website:
The Trial of Lizzie Borden tells the true story of one of the most sensational murder trials in American history. When Andrew and Abby Borden were brutally hacked to death in Fall River, Massachusetts, in August 1892, the arrest of the couple’s younger daughter Lizzie turned the case into international news and her trial into a spectacle unparalleled in American history. Reporters flocked to the scene. Well-known columnists took up conspicuous seats in the courtroom. The defendant was relentlessly scrutinized for signs of guilt or innocence. Everyone—rich and poor, suffragists and social conservatives, legal scholars and laypeople—had an opinion about Lizzie Borden’s guilt or innocence. Was she a cold-blooded murderess or an unjustly persecuted lady? Did she or didn’t she?

“The popular fascination with the Borden murders and its central enigmatic character has endured for more than one hundred years. Immortalized in rhyme, told and retold in every conceivable genre, the murders have secured a place in the American pantheon of mythic horror, but one typically wrenched from its historical moment. In contrast, Cara Robertson explores the stories Lizzie Borden’s culture wanted and expected to hear and how those stories influenced the debate inside and outside of the courtroom. Based on transcripts of the Borden legal proceedings, contemporary newspaper accounts, unpublished local accounts, and recently unearthed letters from Lizzie herself, The Trial of Lizzie Borden offers a window onto America in the Gilded Age, showcasing its most deeply held convictions and its most troubling social anxieties.”

What are the most important things you want people to take away after reading The Trial of Lizzie Borden?

I think the Borden case gives us a unique window onto the Gilded Age. The celebrated true crime writer Edmund Pearson declared it “without parallel in the criminal history of America.” All trials are revealing of a society’s codes: each side presents a narrative of events to a jury designed to represent the community at large and, in so doing, reveals what stories that community wants and expects to hear. But in Lizzie Borden’s trial something larger than the fate of a particular defendant seems to be stake in the outcome. The idea that a woman who seemed to tick all the boxes of middle-class respectability hacked her father and stepmother to death with a hatchet was a threat to the social order.

As you were working on this project, what did you discover that you found most surprising?

It surprised me how closely the anxieties of the Gilded Age mirror our own. I suppose I should not have been surprised at the contemporary relevance. The case has served as a cultural Rorschach for more than 125 years, each generation finding its own meaning and, thereby, its own solution.

Producing a scholarly work involves innumerable details, minutiae, and references. Could you please point us to your favorite footnote and tell us more about it?

Asking me about my favorite footnote is a little painful. I had to convert my footnotes into trailing endnotes. There is no way to do that automatically so it was a bit of a slog. Substantively, my favorite endnote attempts to round out the portrait of Lizzie’s ill-fated stepmother Abby Borden. Though Lizzie’s hatred of Abby figures as the presumed cause of the murders, Abby Borden herself is largely absent from the trial. Staying faithful to transcripts of the legal proceedings seemed to recapitulate that absence. Little is known of her, but from all contemporary accounts, she was a mild-mannered person who accepted her less than enviable lot in life. The endnote records her only known instance of pique, in which she apparently said, in response to the unexpected arrival of her brother-in-law before the murders, “I suppose we will have him on our hands all summer.” As it happened, she had less than a day left to live so I thought it was especially poignant.

What was the most difficult thing to leave out of the final version of your book?

I originally discussed Lizzie Borden’s suspected kleptomania in the first section of the book. But I realized that I did not have a reliable contemporary source. There was a lot of local gossip after the trial, but only one verifiable instance of theft before the murders, and that theft, the daytime purloining of a few items from her father and stepmother, had none of the characteristics of kleptomania. It seemed quite pointed and occurred under uncannily similar circumstances to the murders.

You worked on this project during your fellowships at the Center. How did your fellowship experiences affect the work you ultimately produced?

I most enjoyed my interactions with other Fellows from whom I learned a great deal.

Now that this book has been published, what’s next for you?

My next project is about an eighteenth-century legal controversy involving the mysterious disappearance of a servant girl and the novelist Henry Fielding in his capacity as magistrate.