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Sex and the revolution: Utah author delves into historical bawdiness

Published October 10, 2012 2:47 pm

Profile • Novelist launches iPad app about America's "first sexual revolution," teaches class in making storytelling apps.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

With a nod to the founders of our nation, Dorothee Kocks at first thought about calling her new ebook The Fondling Fathers.

She settled instead on Such Were My Temptations: Bawdy Americans, 1760-1830. Still, her point is the same: the country's early citizens, including the Puritans we often define as prudish, were part of what some scholars call "America's first sexual revolution."

"Words of freedom filled the air," writes Kocks about the Revolutionary War period and the decades that followed. "The pursuit of happiness became a national agenda. In this context, people questioned the rules about sex and marriage." Her ebook is a short compendium of often shocking drawings, engravings, poems and other erotica from that period. Most of it is fairly tame, by modern standards, although surprising nonetheless.

This foray into the sexual proclivities of early Americans came as a surprise to Kocks. She has a PhD in history from Brown University, has authored a scholarly book of non-fiction, and was an assistant professor of American History at the University of Utah. And then one day she picked up an accordion.

The word accordion may make you think of Lawrence Welk and polkas. But to Kocks, the instrument was a revelation. "The way the bellows breathed against my chest. . ." she says with a sigh now, remembering the moment. "It made me feel more alive." The accordion, she came to realize, was a perfect mixture of "oompah and melancholy."

That was 10 years ago. Today, Kocks is an accordion player, the creator of The Accordion Monologues, a novelist, the founder of Beware The Timid Life Publishing, and the creator of the ebook about early American mores. She is now teaching others how to create interactive storytelling apps (see box for class information).

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Not long after Kocks first picked up the accordion, she was in the Salt Lake downtown library looking for some accordion CDs and came upon a CD of glass harmonica music.

The glass harmonica is as much like the harmonica we're used to as, say, the bass guitar is like the bass drum. Invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761, it uses a series of nesting glass bowls, a spinning axle and water to produce something like the effect of running a wet finger around the rim of a glass.

During its brief popularity around the turn of the 19th century, the glass harmonica (sometimes called armonica) apparently made women swoon. It was said by one critic at the time to produce music that was "celestial ravishment," and was banned in several German towns. It was used by Franz Mesmer to mesmerize his patients.

Entranced by the history of the instrument and the history of post-Revolutionary War, pre-Civil War America, Kocks eventually quit her post at the U. to write a novel about a woman who played the glass harmonica in Puritan New England.

The book, The Glass Harmonica: A Sensualist's Tale, was a finalist for the 2011 Utah Book Award, and inspired Kocks to create the Such Were My Temptations ebook, which is available for the iPad.

It actually wasn't till after she finished The Glass Harmonica that she heard a glass harmonica being played in person, even though she had listened over and over to the instrument on CDs. She was moved to tears. "The difference," she says, "is that in person it's like standing next to a bell; you feel it in your bones." It's also eventually cloying. "You can't listen to it very long," she admits.

Kocks is the kind of writer who lets her characters introduce themselves to her as she writes. So she was astonished, as she began writing The Glass Harmonica, to discover that her main character's husband was making a living selling bawdy books throughout Puritan New England.

At this point, Kocks realized that her book would be about music but also about the changing sexual climate of the time.

"What amazed me the most was this was not a namby-pamby sexual revolution," Kocks says. "It was a real pants-on-fire historical moment. You could print things you couldn't before, travel places you couldn't before, marry people you couldn't before. It was a time of ferment that coincided with a period of inventing new standards and laws for a new nation. What's so hard for us to imagine is that this was a time of real change."

She started compiling the ebook app shortly after finishing The Glass Harmonica, partly as a way to help her New Zealand publisher, Rosa Mira Publishing, market the novel, and partly to prove that the books and images she talks about in the novel were factual. "The reason I persisted is that it's such a surprising story and I'm enchanted by the glimpse into the humanity of our founding fathers and mothers that it provides," she says "I like to think of how they wrestled with these questions."

The ebook is meant to be an introduction to some of the best readings on these topics. "It's mostly a museum with captions," she says, while including links to further reading. It also includes videos, such as Salt Lake actor Jennifer Waterhouse reciting a bawdy poem of the time.

Although we typically think of Puritans as repressed, in fact "they thought sex was really important," Kocks says. They believed women needed "the shudder of delight" to conceive a child. Of course, they also tried to control who had sex and who could marry whom. For example, an apprentice could marry only with his master's consent. And sinners were still made to confess their transgressions in public.

So, on the one hand, Aristotle's Masterpiece — which Kocks calls The Joy of Sex of its time — was believed to be the third most purchased book in America after the Bible and Noah Webster's The American Spelling Book. And there were suddenly cheap printing presses, and copyright law hadn't yet been invented, which meant it was no longer just the rich who were exposed to ribald images.

On the other hand, books like Fanny Hill — which the Massachusetts Legislature eventually banned in 1821 — were usually sold with fake covers.

This "first sexual revolution" died out not long after that banning, in part, Kocks says, because of the rise of the privacy ethic. The communal notion of guilt and repentance gave way to the notion that what happened behind closed doors was nobody else's business. And, too, photography made erotica more pornographic; the word itself was coined in the mid-19th century.

Is Such Were My Temptations pornography? The ebook is interactive, so there is a chance to weigh in if you read it and think so. The disclaimer on the book's first page notes that "This book is intended for adult viewing only."

"If I could control people's attitudes about what I'm putting out, I would hope people would approach it with a sense of humor and a sense of interest about the people who came before us," Kocks says. " I think it's enchanting that they didn't have it easier. It's a human thing to have to navigate this border."


Storytelling for new media

Dorothee Kocks will teach a DIY Book Apps course about creating content for the iPad, Kindle Fire and other tablet devices. It's intended for storytellers of nonfiction, fiction, comic books, children's books, historians, museum curators and educators, "or accountants with alter-egos of any of the above," says Kocks, a historian and writer. The class begins at 10 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 13 and continues on Saturday mornings through Nov. 10. The cost is $100, or $35 per webinar. To register, visit http://www.BewareTheTimidLife.com.