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Gershon Legman

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Gershon Legman

Gershon Legman
Born November 2, 1917
Scranton, Pennsylvania
Died February 23, 1999(1999-02-23) (aged 81)
Opio, Canton du Bar-sur-Loup, Alpes-Maritimes
Occupation Writer, folklorist

Gershon Legman (November 2, 1917 – February 23, 1999) was an American cultural critic and folklorist.


  • Life and work 1
  • Autobiography 2
  • Evaluation 3
  • Legman's sexuality 4
  • Books 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Life and work

Legman was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania to Emil and Julia Friedman Legman, both of Hungarian/Romanian Jewish descent; his father was a railroad clerk and butcher. According to an obituary by his friend Jay Landesman in The Independent of London, in a childhood incident, classmates "wrote the word 'kosher' in horse-shit juice across his forehead." He regarded the event as formative, and he would insist throughout his life that violence and sadism so prominent in American culture resulted directly from the suppression of sex.[1]

Legman was an independent scholar without institutional affiliation, except during 1964–1965 when he was a writer in residence at the University of California, San Diego, in the first year of the new campus' undergraduate programs. He pioneered the serious academic study of erotic and taboo materials in folklore. He also was a talented raconteur and could spin out tales non-stop for hours.

As a young man he acquired a number of interests including sexuality, erotic folklore, also origami—for which he was a pivotal figure in founding the modern international movement.[2] In 1940, at age 23, he wrote Oragenitalism, Part I: Cunnilinctus under the pen-name Roger-Maxe de la Glannege (an anagram of his real name).[3] Nearly all copies were seized by the police and destroyed. For a period of time he was a bibliographic researcher with the Kinsey Institute.

In 1949, he published Love and Death, an attack on sexual censorship, arguing that American culture was permissive of graphic violence in proportion to, and as a consequence of, its repression of the erotic. Legman published and shipped the treatise himself, although he ran afoul of the United States Post Office Department authorities, who stopped his deliveries due to the supposed "indecent, vulgar and obscene" content.[4] The book also included a chapter that attacked contemporary comic books as harmful to children; because his critique drew about his view that it was a consequence of the aforementioned cultural permissive views toward violence he wasn't a leading voice during the subsequent debate about the impact of comics that instead was dominated by Fredric Wertham.[5]

Love and Death was an outgrowth of the little magazine Neurotica, edited by Jay Landesman and published in nine issues between 1948 and 1952. Legman was a regular contributor and eventually took over from Landesman as the editor.[6] Other contributors included John Clellon Holmes, Larry Rivers, Carl Solomon, Judith Malina, Allen Ginsberg, Marshall McLuhan, and Kenneth Patchen, which gave it influence disproportionate to its small circulation of a few thousand. The magazine had a few clashes with the authorities, and closed after the censors objected to an article on castration written by Legman.[7]

The full set of Neurotica was reprinted in one volume by Hacker Art Books, New York, in 1963. The Horn Book : Studies in Erotic Folklore and Bibliography was a collection of assorted writings from the 1950s and 1960s. Legman was a prolific writer of essays, reviews and scholarly introductions, including those for the anonymous Victorian erotic memoir My Secret Life (1966), Aleksandr Afanasyev's Russian Secret Tales (1966), and Mark Twain's The Mammoth Cod (1976). He supplemented his income at times through the sale of rare erotica.

On account of his trial[8] for violating United States Post Office regulations in his distributing his book Love & Death, Legman found it prudent to depart out of the United States.

In 1953 Legman left his native United States for a farm La Clé des Champs in the village of Akira Yoshizawa's origami work at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

Legman spent several decades compiling specimens of bawdy humor including limericks. In 1970 his first volume of over 1700 limericks (published in 1953 by Les Hautes Etudes, Paris) was released in the United States as The Limerick. He followed this with a second volume, The New Limerick in 1977, which was reprinted as More Limericks in 1980. His magnum opus was Rationale of the Dirty Joke: (An Analysis of Sexual Humor), a tour de force of erotic folklore, succeeded by No Laughing Matter : Rationale of the Dirty Joke: An Analysis of Sexual Humor, 2nd Series for which a subscription had to be paid to support publishing, as no publisher would touch it after Grove did volume one in 1968. Near the end of his life, he edited Roll Me in Your Arms and Blow the Candle Out, two volumes of bawdy songs and lore collected by Vance Randolph (both 1992). Other achievements include his edition of Robert Burns' The Merry Muses of Caledonia (1965).


The title Peregrine Penis of Gershon Legman's yet-unpublished autobiography was a sobriquet bestowed on him by his girlfriend Louise "Beka" Doherty, on account of the fact that he "used to travel to meet her in strange places."[9] The writing of Peregrine Penis, over "six hundred pages"[10] in length, was continually subsidized by[11] Larry McMurtry.


Legman was in many senses a radical, but never identified with the movements of his time, decrying the sexual revolution, for example, in The Fake Revolt (1967), and leaving countless irascible obiter dicta on such topics as women's liberation, rock and roll and the psychedelic movement's use of mind-altering substances. However, he claimed to have been the inventor of the famous phrase "Make love, not war," in a lecture given at the University of Ohio in 1963.[12] He remained essentially an individualist and an idealist: "I consider sexual love the central mystery and central reality of life," he wrote. And "I believe in a personal and intense style, and in making value judgements [sic]. This is unfashionable now, but is the only responsible position"[13] Mikita Brottman offers the consensus view of Legman as, in many ways, his own worst enemy, exacerbating his rejection by the academic community with vitriolic attacks upon it.[14]

In Bruce Jackson's view "Legman is the person, more than any other, who made research into erotic folklore and erotic verbal behavior academically respectable" and who made accessible to other scholars material that scholarly journals had long been afraid to publish.[15]

Gershon Legman died February 23, 1999 in his adopted home country, France, after several years of debility, and a week after suffering a massive stroke.

Legman's sexuality

According to vibrating dildo when he was only twenty.[16] However, Mikita Brottman holds that he was exclusively heterosexual, accounting for both the abandonment of his proposed volume on fellatio as well as, possibly and in some measure, for his contempt for Alfred Kinsey. He was married for many years to Beverley Keith (died of lung cancer, 1966), married briefly to Christine Conrad, a possibly bigamous relationship, ended either by annulment or divorce, then to Judith Evans.[17] Autobiographical asides in his works note multiple heterosexual relationships, including at least two engagements. In Rationale of the Dirty Joke, he consistently speaks of homosexuality as a "perversion," and Frank Rector claims that homosexuality was in Legman's mind connected not with a democratic gay liberation movement, but with the Nazi Ernst Röhm.[18] His obituary in the London Independent lists three marriages, two sons and two daughters.[1] Brottman lists a daughter, Ariëla Legman (b. 1957), by an unidentified Dutch woman, as well as Legman's children by Judith: David Guy Legman (1968), Rafael (1971) and Sara Felicity (1973), and identifies Louise "Beka" Doherty as the great love of Legman's life.

Beginning at the age of 65, Gershon Legman would sometimes "faint at orgasm."[9] He experienced a heart attack after "excessive sexual effort".[19]


  • The Language of Homosexuality: An American Glossary, in: George W. Henry, Sex Variants (New York: Paul B. Hoeber, 1941)
  • Love and Death: A Study in Censorship, (1949)
  • Bibliography of Paper-folding (1952)
  • Neurotica: No. 9 The Castration Complex (ed., with Alvin Lustig) (1952)
  • The Compleat Neurotica: St. Louis - New York 1948 - 51 (ed., with Jay Irving) Landesman (1963)
  • The Horn Book, Studies in Erotic Folklore and Bibliography (New York, 1964; repr. London, 1970: ISBN 0-224-61866-0)
  • Guilt of the Templars (1966)
  • Oragenitalism; an Encyclopaedic Outline of Oral Technique in Genital Excitation. Part I: Cunnilinctus. (NY: J.R. Brussel, 1940. 63 pp.). Nearly all copies seized by police and destroyed.
  • Oragenitalism (Julian Press, 1969. 319 pp.) reissued as The Intimate Kiss (Paperback Library, 1971)
  • Rationale of the Dirty Joke: An Analysis of Sexual Humor (New York: Grove Press, 1968); reprinted in hardcover by Indiana University Press (December 1982) ISBN 0-253-34777-7; ISBN 978-0-253-34777-0
  • The New Limerick: 2750 Unpublished Examples, American and British (New York, 1977, ISBN 0-517-53091-0)
  • Introduction to: The Private Case - An Annotated Bibliography of the Private Case Erotica Collection in the British (Museum) Library (Compiled by Patrick J. Kearney) (1981) ISBN 0-905150-24-4
  • No Laughing Matter: An Analysis of Sexual Humor (1982)

See also


  1. ^ a b Landesman, Jay (March 26, 1999). "Gershon Legman (d.1999)". The Independent (London). Retrieved 2009-04-04. 
  2. ^ Ever enthusiastic, Legman was in close communication with Argentine folder Ligia Montoya, served as an active link among international paper-folders, and introduced Akira Yoshizawa to Europe. See David Lister's account in "External Links" below, and for a short version, Lister's section, "The beginnings of modern origami" in his online short history.[2]
  3. ^ Martha Cornog; Timothy Perper (August 1999). "In memorium: Make Love, Not War: The Legacy of Gershon Legman, 1917-1999". Journal of Sex Research 36 (3): 316–317.  
  4. ^ Susan Davis, "Eros Meets Civilization: Gershon Legman Confronts the Post Office"; Jim Holt. Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes. W. W. Norton & Company. 2008. p. 32
  5. ^ Bradford Wright. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001, pp.91-92
  6. ^ William Griomes "Jay Landesman, Beat Writer and Editor, Dies at 91", New York Times, 28 February 2011
  7. ^ James Campbell , the short-lived journal of the Beats"Neurotica"Behind the Beat: Remembering , Boston Review, October–November 1999
  8. ^ as detailed by Susan Davis in "Eros Meets Civilization:Gershon Legman Confronts the Post Office" in Cockburn & St. Clair 2004, pp. 260-269
  9. ^ a b Brottman 2004, p. 38
  10. ^ McMurtry 2008, p. 175
  11. ^ McMurtry 2008, p. 176
  12. ^ Dudar, H., "Love and death (and schmutz): G. Legman's second thoughts," Village Voice, May 1, 1984, pp. 41-43.
  13. ^ Nasso, C., G(ershon) Legman. In C. Nasso (Ed.), Contemporary authors (Rev. ed.), vol. 21/24, Gale, 1977, pp. 525-526.
  14. ^ Brottman, Mikita. Funny Peculiar: Gershon Legman and the Psychopathology of Humor, Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press, Inc. 2004, p. 23-24.
  15. ^ Scott, J., "Gershon Legman, anthologist of erotic humor, is dead at 81," New York Times, 1999, March 14, p. 49.
  16. ^ Chauncey, George, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, 1995, p. 52; Susan Orlean, "The Origami Lab", New Yorker Magazine, February 19, 2007, p. 118.
  17. ^ Brottman, p. 7-10 et passim, 29
  18. ^ Frank Rector, The Nazi Extermination of Homosexuals. New York: Stein and Day, 1981
  19. ^ Brottman 2004, p. 37


  • Mikita Brottman : Funny Peculiar : Gershon Legman and the Psychopathology of Humor. Analytic Press, Hillsdale (NJ), 2004.
  • Susan G. Davis, "Eros Meets Civilization: Gershon Legman Confronts the Post Office," in Alexander Cockburn & Jeffrey St. Clair : Serpents in the Garden : Liaisons with Culture and Sex. Counterpunch & AK Press, Edinburgh, 2004.
  • Larry McMurtry : Books : a Memoir. Simon & Schuster, New York, 2008.

External links

  • Gershon Legman and American Folk Humor
  • British Origami Society: David Lister on Gershon Legman's contribution to paperfolding
  • An appreciative essay by Martha Cornog and Timothy Perper
  • Obituary : Gershon Legman
  • The Legacy of Gershon Legman
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