OUTRAGES BEGINS in the rare book room of the Morgan Library in New York, where Naomi Wolf has gone to read the manuscript of an unpublished poem that Victorian critic John Addington Symonds wrote at Oxford after falling in love with a classmate—though you might also say that the book began the day Wolf was still a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and was handed two volumes of Symonds’ letters by her advisor with the words: “You should read these.” Read them she did, and now, years after publishing such bestsellers as The Beauty Myth and Vagina, Wolf has returned to her doctoral thesis.
Although it has been considerably expanded to cover the history of English law on the subject of pornography, sodomy, divorce, the age of consent (which was, incredibly, ten until 1885), Outrages is still about John Addington Symonds—including the correspondence he carried on with Walt Whitman for over two decades. But it’s also about 19th-century England’s attempt to police sex, which takes us into the subjects of cholera, sewage systems, feminism, sodomy, pornography, child prostitution, censorship, cross-dressing, the arrest of the artist Simeon Solomon in a public toilet, Whitman’s reputation among writers like Algernon Swinburne and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and what Wolf believes were the first stirrings of England’s movement for homosexual rights. Many people think that movement began with the trials of Oscar Wilde, but Wolf argues that it can be traced back to two pamphlets by Symonds: A Problem in Greek Ethics and A Problem in Modern Ethics. The latter inspired Henry James, of all people, to call Symonds one of “the great reformers,” “the Gladstone of the affair,” the affair being the campaign for homosexual legal rights.
Andrew Holleran is the author of the novels Dancer from the Dance, Nights in Aruba, The Beauty of Men, and Grief.