Sex Wars: A Novel of Gilded Age New York

Sex Wars: A Novel of Gilded Age New York

3.6 11
by Marge Piercy

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Post–Civil War New York City is the battleground of the American dream. In this era of free love, emerging rights of women, and brutal sexual repression, Freydeh, a spirited young Jewish immigrant, toils at different jobs to earn passage to America for her family. Learning that her younger sister is adrift somewhere in the city, she begins a determined search

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Post–Civil War New York City is the battleground of the American dream. In this era of free love, emerging rights of women, and brutal sexual repression, Freydeh, a spirited young Jewish immigrant, toils at different jobs to earn passage to America for her family. Learning that her younger sister is adrift somewhere in the city, she begins a determined search that carries her from tenement to brothel to prison—as her story interweaves with those of some of the epoch's most notorious figures: Elizabeth Cady Stanton; Susan B. Anthony; sexual freedom activist Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president; and Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, whose censorship laws are still on the books.

In the tradition of her bestselling World War II epic Gone to Soldiers, Marge Piercy once again re-creates a turbulent period in American history and explores changing attitudes in a land of sacrifice, suffering, promise, and reward.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This rich novel set in post-Civil War New York stars a true-life cast of characters that includes Victoria Woodhull, the spiritualist turned first woman to run for the U.S. presidency; passionate suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton; the aged Cornelius Vanderbilt, who sits atop a $100-million fortune as he tries to make contact with his dead son; and Anthony Comstock, a crusading moralist who dedicates his life to outlawing pornography and "obscene objects made of rubber." As they each vie for different kinds of sex-based power, the consequences of their actions echo from the halls of Congress to Manhattan's back alleys. Piercy (Gone to Soldiers) powerfully dramatizes the early feminists' zeal and the high stakes of the gender wars it set in motion, and offers a wealth of period detail, including tips on using an outdoor latrine when living in a fifth-floor walk-up and the cost to bathe (fully dressed, no soap) in the East River. Most poignant among the invented characters is Freydeh Leibowitz, a young Russian-Jewish widow, who, far from the scandalous headlines and saloon gossip of the times, makes a living for herself and her adopted children, penny by penny, as a manufacturer of reliable condoms. Stylistically, the narration and dialogue don't wow, but the people, their ways of living and the ways they are marked by sex certainly do. (On sale Nov. 22) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In 1868, thousands of immigrants streamed into New York City in search of the American dream and instead found crushing poverty. Among this influx is recently widowed Freydeh, a Russian Jewish girl who must learn how to survive and finance her family's passage to the United States by herself. As an immigrant, Freydeh is barred from respectable trades and forced to juggle several abysmal jobs. While toiling away, she learns that one of her sisters is already in the city and seemingly lost. Woven into Freydeh's story of survival is the real-life fight for women's rights, with cameos by historical figures like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Poet, novelist, and essayist Piercy (Gone to Soldiers) deftly weaves both story lines into a novel that will please historical fiction fans. It coincides with the 85th anniversary of the passage of 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, and this will likely boost interest. Recommended for all public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 8/05.]-Marika Zemke, West Bloomfield Twp. P.L., MI Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A panoramic novel that pits the fledgling women's-rights movement of the 19th century against a growing conservative religious movement. Among the historical figures whose lives Piercy (The Third Child, 2003, etc.) intertwines, the most familiar are Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The unmarried, all-business Anthony pales as a character next to Stanton, who juggles her domestic and political responsibilities with joie de vivre. Like Stanton, Freydeh, the primary fictional character, is working for the rights of women. A widowed and penniless Jewish immigrant, Freydeh goes into business making condoms to survive. She raises a family and becomes a real-estate owner despite a year in prison, where she was sent by hellfire-and-brimstone protestant Anthony Comstock as punishment for selling condoms. Most compelling here is Victoria Woodhull, who with her younger sister Tennie, Cornelius Vanderbilt's lover, begins the first women's brokerage house and campaigns for president with Frederick Douglass as her running mate. Coming from a family of scam artists, Victoria wants material wealth and power, but she is also a sensualist, a sincere spiritualist and an idealist who knows how to be a loyal friend, a passionate lover, a devoted mother. Comstock's legal case against Woodhull (for sending obscene material through the mail) results in her financial and political ruin. Woodhull subsequently creates a new life for herself and her family in England. Piercy's writing lacks elegance and her characters' interactions often feel forced, but she paints the politics of the post-Civil War era in broad, bright strokes.
Tapestry magazine
“A riveting account...gripping, informative and haunting.”
Washington Post Book World
“Fascinating and only too relevant...Piercy has a gift for conjuring the texture of an historical era.”
Hartford Courant
“Succeeds remarkably in bringing history textbook characters to fully realized, fiery and memorable life.”
Naomi Wolf
"Piercy does beautifully render some of the details of women’s lives in the 1860s."
Tapestry Magazine
"A riveting account...gripping, informative and haunting."
Naomi Wolf in ELLE
“Piercy does beautifully render some of the details of women’s lives in the 1860s.”

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Sex Wars

A Novel of the Turbulent Post-Civil War Period
By Marge Piercy

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Marge Piercy
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060789832

Chapter One

Victoria was reading the enormous book their landlady on Greene Street kept in her parlor. She was lying in bed with her temporary lover, Charlie, who was sleeping in on his back, snoring lightly. She doubted anybody else had bothered with the book, for some pages were still uncut -- the Orations of Demosthenes, a great Greek speaker Victoria had begun to dream about since she and her sister arrived in New York. She could see him clearly at times and once in a while she began to hear his voice addressing her, a deep, resonant voice that thrilled her. She had seen visions and heard voices since she was a child. The same was true of her sister Tennessee, but Tennie was willing to fake it on demand, while Victoria refused. She considered herself chosen for some high magnificent fate. If life so far had been hard and sordid at times, she knew it was all about to change. She could feel it. Her voices strengthened her. They made her special in spite of her troubles.

A telegram from her husband Colonel James Blood lay on the night table. In two days, he was joining the sisters in New York. She knew it was only a matter of time before the rest of her Claflin clan found them. Money, they always needed money. Her father Buck had taken her on the revival circuit since she was old enough to stand, project her voice and fascinate a crowd; then Tennie with her clairvoyant act had taken over. The family cooked up patent medicines and practiced magnetic healing. Both sisters were good at the laying on of hands, which might prove useful if their plans, worked out in the Midwest, came to fruition -- as they must. The sisters and James had carefully studied Cornelius Vanderbilt, as much as they could learn from a distance. He was their best hope.

Charlie was stirring. She put the leather-bound book beside the bed, half pushing it under. He was a reporter on the Sun whom she had run into at a spiritualist meeting. He was a good informant on the city -- the Tweed ring, the flavor of the different newspapers, the scandals, where the wealthy lived, rode in their carriages, ate. He had served as a correspondent the last year of the Civil War, but now he reported on politics. His limp ginger hair falling over his high forehead, he snuggled into the pillows with a wide yawn that showed his plentiful gold teeth. She was not tremendously moved by Charlie -- as a lover he lacked talent -- but he had much to teach her. She wanted to keep him as a friend. When she was sure she had his attention, she touched the telegram and sighed heavily.

"What's wrong? Bad news in the telegram?"

She handed it to Charlie, saying nothing.

"Oh, rot. That is bad news. But maybe you can get away sometimes? There are some very pleasant houses of assignation I use sometimes."

"Let me see how things work out. Perhaps after a while. Especially if I introduce you as a friend, or as someone interested in Tennessee. That would make things easier for us."

She had not lied. If she told the truth, that she and James believed in free love, her lack of sexual interest might hurt Charlie's feelings. She genuinely liked him, but there was no spark. He was too plodding a lover, with -- as was the case with so many men -- no understanding of a woman's body. They did not know how to find, let alone stimulate, a woman's spot for pleasure.

Fortunately, he had to run off to work. Tennie was waiting in the hall for him to leave. "Listen, I met the most wonderful woman last night." Tennie looked absolutely radiant. Her beauty was quite different from Victoria's own -- not that she was vain, but being beautiful had clear advantages. Victoria's face was chiseled, refined. Her hair was dark and her complexion fair. Tennie was voluptuous and high-colored, with auburn hair and a figure men always wanted to get their hands on. All seven Claflin children had different appearances, although there was no doubt with their hyperreligious mother Roxanne that Buck was the father. He wasn't faithful, but Victoria was certain their mother was. Roxanne might be considered touched, as people said, but she had managed to feed them all under hellish circumstances, and she had loved them in her own way. She had never denied their gifts. Nor had Buck. He simply exploited them.

"So tell me about this woman." Victoria sat on her bed, mending a peacock blue frock of Tennie's. Victoria liked to wear black while her sister went in for vivid colors. Victoria sewed well -- in fact she had tried to make a living at it in San Francisco, but it paid so poorly, she had gone on the stage instead. Tennie paced back and forth in her chemise, crinoline and corset that pushed her breasts high -- up and out.

"Annie Wood. She runs an elegant whorehouse on Thirty-fourth Street. Only the real toffs go there. She's getting rich fast, because the toffs talk about the stocks and their investments. Annie chats them up and has her girls do the same, then she invests. It's a place the girls are treated swell, Vickie. You have to meet her. She's sharp."

"Maybe today. The Colonel is coming tomorrow." Victoria's second husband had been a real colonel in the Union army during the Civil War, and he had the wounds to show for it. He had returned from the wars scarred both inwardly and outwardly, uncomfortable in his life and no longer able to enjoy sex with his wife. He had come to see Victoria in her professional capacity as a magnetic healer about his headaches and had confessed his problems to her. The moment he had walked into the parlor where she was receiving patients, she had jumped as if something hot had been driven into her . . .


Excerpted from Sex Wars by Marge Piercy Copyright © 2005 by Marge Piercy. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Naomi Wolf in ELLE
“Piercy does beautifully render some of the details of women’s lives in the 1860s.”

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