Naomi Wolf’s latest book, Outrages, was supposed to be released in the United States on June 18, 2019. In May 2019, BBC host Matthew Sweet had Wolf on his show and challenged her misinterpretation of a key legal term. One argument in the book is that legislative changes in 1857 institutionalized homophobia in the United Kingdom, increasing the number of men executed for same-sex sex crimes after 1861. If correct, this would be a major intervention in Britain’s nineteenth-century history of the policing of same-sex sex, as historians agree that the last man executed for sodomy died in the 1830s.
Spoiler alert: it is not correct. Sweet told Wolf on-air that she misunderstood the term “death recorded.” By the nineteenth century, most death sentences were overturned by royal pardon. So where Wolf assumed “death recorded” meant “So-and-So’s death is written in this book,” it was actually a way for the judge to say the official sentence associated with that crime while not actually passing a death sentence that would be overruled. This practice remained until an 1861 law reduced the number of capital crimes, thus reducing the number of capital punishment sentences needed. (Helpfully, someone created a Wikipedia entry for “death recorded” shortly after Wolf’s interview aired. Priceless.) This all means that her assertion of a major shift starting in 1857 lacks a basic understanding of the field. On the heels of the epically embarrassing interview, publisher Houghton Mifflin recalled all copies of the US edition from retailers. They’ve now pushed publication back a full year, to be released — pending major changes to address the shortcomings of the original “finalized” manuscript — in June 2020.
Everyone at Nursing Clio listened to the interview and collectively cringed. We’ve had our issues with Wolf’s work before — you should read all of the essays responding to Vagina — but jeez, gotcha journalism is savage. Matthew Sweet would have made Pawnee’s Joan Calamezzo proud.
Outrages is, in its entirety, an examination of the queer life of J.A. Symonds. Wolf’s biography centers on his correspondence with Walt Whitman and what she perceives as the impact of British anti-sodomy laws on Symonds and his contemporaries. As Emily Rutherford notes, there are some good, even moving passages in the book, particularly when she focuses on biographical elements and where she presents syntheses of existing scholarship. I’ll disagree in a moment on how well she synthesizes, but Rutherford is right: where she stumbles, in addition to getting some historical facts incorrect, is when she tries to make a historiographical intervention, bridging literary and historical scholarship on the history of same-sex desire in nineteenth-century Britain.
I have an entire notebook full of questions and concerns. If I were Reviewer #1 (the “nice” reviewer) in the peer-review process, I would address some of the bigger issues and suggest the author should “Revise and Resubmit” to the publisher/editor. When the scholarship is salvagable or interesting enough to recommend for publication, Reviewer #1 usually includes some compliments. Wolf makes some solid points. For example, I like her connection of the ridiculously narrow and restrictive divorce law of 1857 to broader systemic misogynies that propped up the patriarchy and were, in many cases, responses to “first-wave” feminism. Her arguments that nineteenth-century commentators discussed sodomy as more “heinous” than any other sex crime is interesting.1 And in some places her writing is very accessible.
If I were Reviewer #2 (the notoriously harsh peer reviewer), my comments would channel my frustration with her high-handed and incorrect reading of a well-developed historiography on the history of nineteenth-century British same-sex desire. Her bibliography is very long, but her engagement with the existing scholarship is shallow at best. Each chapter reads more like one of my podcast episodes, a synthesis of other scholars’ work with a few primary sources thrown in for good measure. The major difference between one of my episodes and this book, however, is that I don’t tell experts that they are wrong.
According to Wolf, “Many current historians believe that 1835 was the last year that men were killed for sodomy in Britain…We shall see, though, that this is not true.” This is the assertion that Sweet challenged, and rightfully so. Certainly, in the same summer that Cokie Roberts decided that since SHE couldn’t find abortifacient ads in a Google search of nineteenth-century newspapers then historians must be wrong about their existence, this is exasperating.
There are some serious historiographical issues that the book needs to address, in addition to the “death recorded” snafu — and everything that means for her argument. Presumably she is addressing this in the revision for American publication.
Wolf contends that an 1857 obscenity law and the divorce statute passed in the same year fundamentally changed the way same-sex sex was policed and prosecuted in the UK. Her argument is built on her reading of the “increased” policing of same-sex sex after 1857. H.G. Cocks has already established that policing appeared to increase after the 1861 Offenses Against the Person Act, which took sodomy out of the capital crimes bracket.2 Wolf bases her argument on her reading of cases at the Old Bailey. She also says her search of the British Library newspaper archive for “sodomy” pulled up very few results.3 But Chuck Upchurch has shown that the term “sodomy” was rarely used in the papers in the nineteenth century, and rather discussed in euphemism: as a “nameless offence,” the “crime not to be named by Christians,” or “unnatural crime.”4
The Old Bailey is a treasure trove for historians and teachers of London from 1674–1913. The details in the Old Bailey online records, however, are not always the most robust. For historians of the period, it’s common to supplement heavily with extensive cross-referencing research and visits to the physical archives.5 Wolf did her doctoral work in England. Surely she had access to the physical archives, but that’s not evidenced in this version of the book.
I don’t get it. Is it arrogance? Is it laziness? It’s baffling.
I’m writing this review on the heels of the inaugural Queer History Conference. When Jim Downs gave a paper about same-sex desiring men in the nineteenth-century British empire, he spent extra time defining key terms and concepts from the period. He paused to explain that, in the era of Naomi Wolf, he wanted to be sure he was correctly representing ideas and legal terms as they were used and understood in the nineteenth century. We all had a good laugh, at Wolf’s expense (sorry, Naomi), but probably also a little uncomfortably, questioning if and when we might have made a similar mistake. We’re not infallible. Every time I open my dissertation and start reading, I find errors. At the QHC, Downs, a senior historian, devoted a quarter of his limited speaking time to reassure the audience that he was not making those same mistakes.
Wolf sets herself apart from the “academy,” snidely commenting that the ideas and interpretations of history that she is peddling are only known within the high walls of the Ivory Tower. But the thing is, even as Jim Downs meticulously explained terms and historical concepts to a room of peers, if he was getting something wrong, we would have helped him catch it. Whether there at the conference — hopefully kindly and with tact — or in an email follow up; or when he sends it to colleagues from our field for fresh eyes and honest critiques; or when he sends the manuscript for publication consideration, Reviewer #1 or #2 would catch it. Peer review, by peers in the field Wolf presumes to “revolutionize,” is essential to the process and production of knowledge. We aren’t a convent of cloistered academics. We are a community of scholars who help each other work out the problems before we present our work to the world. Sure, most of our books start at $120 for hardcover first printings, and articles are behind paywalls. But there are plenty of us who break into the trade press scene and seek feedback and peer review even from the books and projects on which we hope to turn a small profit. Jill Lepore, Megan Kate Nelson, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. are just a few of the many historians who publish with trade presses without abandoning the importance of peer feedback on their public scholarship.
I’ve had the rebellious thought that peer review is gate keeping. Who, after they get the comments from the dreaded “Reviewer #2,” hasn’t?6 But the importance of peer review is made all the more poignant for me now. In her introduction, Wolf says she handed the manuscript to some queer friends for vetting. Why, then, didn’t she send the manuscript to H.G. Cocks or Chuck Upchurch or Jeff Weeks or any expert in this field to vet her history and methods? Peer review, while sometimes a little soul-crushing, is important for reframing, contextualizing, and strengthening our scholarship. If you’re going to publish a book with a trade press that doesn’t have a reviewer process, it falls to you as the scholar to seek peer review.
This is a book that claims to be a work of history. This book absolutely needed the peer review of historians knowledgeable in this content area. If she wants to do “right” by Symonds, by the fight for the right to love, and all that she insists this book — and her future books — strive to do, Wolf needs to seek peer review from experts in the field.7
- Naomi Wolf, Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love, (New York: Houghton Mifflin) 62. Note: this is the edition that would have been published in the US, before the publisher decided to delay the release pending changes. Return to text.
- H.G. Cocks, Nameless Offences: Homosexual Desire in the 19th Century, (London: Bloomsbury, 2009). Annoyingly, in her bibliography, she has the publication date of H.G. Cocks’ Nameless Offences listed incorrectly. And Cocks, if no one else, should be central to the narrative she is trying to tell. His book is about the exact same period, the same population, the same laws and restrictions. She first mentions his work on p. 62, and only to say that Cocks and Sean Brady report that the most intense persecution of the century took place decades before the Oscar Wilde trials of 1895, and that her work “supports this revision.” Okay. Cool. Cocks and Brady have done it already. I somehow doubt that they were waiting for Naomi Wolf’s validation. Return to text.
- Wolf, Outrages, 59. Return to text.
- Charles Upchurch, “Full-Text Databases and Historical Research: Cautionary Results from a Ten-Year Study,” Journal of Social History 46, no. 1 (2012), 89–105 Return to text.
- See, for example, the brilliant Dr. Marissa C. Rhodes’s dissertation on wet-nursing in Philadelphia and London. Return to text.
- And there are many gates meticulously guarded in this cult of academia, but I digress. Return to text.
- Thanks to R.E. Fulton and Laura Ansley for thoughtfully peer-reviewing this piece. Return to text.