Steven Marcus

Biography of Steven Marcus

Steven Marcus is an American academic and literary critic. He is George Delacorte Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at Columbia University.

One of the founders of the National Humanities Center, he is a former Fellow (1980-2) and a current Trustee.

Marcus is notable for his book The Other Victorians: a Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England (1966). Key works studied are The Romance of Lust (1873-6), My Secret Life, The Indices of Henry Spencer Ashbee, and William Acton's work. The study is psychological in nature — relying much on the work of Sigmund Freud, and Marcus invents a word to describe the sexual activities in pornographic literature, “pornotopia”. Marcus describes “pornotopia” as being like a place where “all men … are always and infinitely potent; all women fecundate with lust and flow inexhaustibly with sap or juice or both. Everyone is always ready for everything” (p. 276). Given the libidos of the characters, the comment is apt. Because of the often unrealistic description of sexual activities and positions in The Romance of Lust, Marcus uses the word vector to describe the mechanical sex acts. He also speaks of emotional deprivation in conjunction with the work, because the characters do not interact with one another as real, thinking, and feeling persons would do.

Criticism of The Other Victorians as voiced by historian Brian Harrison includes the argument that Marcus aims with pornotopia to seek out "the common characteristics of pornography at all times" (p. 248), but draws only from samples ranging from 1828 to 1884, disregarding the pornography of the 20th century completely. Harrison also challenges Marcus' viewpoint, which is at times permissive, and at times moralising and pitying (p. 249), but never objective.

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