Obituary: Gershon Legman

Jay Landesman
Friday 26 March 1999 00:02 GMT

GERSHON LEGMAN'S best-known work was a two-volume study of erotic humour, The Rationale of the Dirty Joke, published in 1968, and No Laughing Matter, which followed in 1975. Less well- known was his 1955 exhibition of Japanese origami paperfolding at the Museum of Modern Art in Amsterdam. At the time of his death last month on the French Riviera, he left behind an uncompleted two-million-word autobiography.

The son of a kosher butcher, he grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where his fellow classmates wrote the word "kosher" in horse-shit juice across his forehead. It left a deep impression on Legman. In a very early stage of his studies, he became appalled by the discovery that the increasing violence and sadism of American culture was the direct result of our society's relentless suppression of sex: "Murder," he wrote in Love & Death: a study in censorship,

having replaced sex in the popular arts, the glorification of one requires the degradation of the other so that we are faced in our culture by the insurmountable schizophrenic contradiction that sex, which is legal in fact, is a crime on paper, while murder - a crime in fact - is legal on paper.

The book was rejected by every publisher in America.

Several chapters from it were first published in Neurotica, a counter- culture magazine, in 1948. The next year he secured financial booking to publish it himself. The reviews of Love & Death were mixed. According to Legman it showed how the reviewers loved and hated the book in the same review. A typical example was Robert Warshow's notice in Partisan Review: "revolutionary truculence . . . sullen . . . dangerous . . . ill- conceived, ill-executed and vulgar". According to Legman, it only showed how schizophrenic the critics were.

Unknown to readers and critics, Legman had put a special dye in the cover ink that came off on the reader's hands when "they started sweating with guilt".

Legman worked out of a cottage in the heart of the Bronx, the former residence of another folklorist well known for his unorthodox views, Charles Forte. Books were Legman's main decor, thousands of them covering every foot of space, some even making up the furniture. So many books, he said, could induce irrational behaviour in a person. Once an enraged man crashed his car through his picket fence and front door. When he asked the confused driver why he did it, he mumbled, "It was the books that made me do it."

Legman supported himself by doing odd jobs of painting and wallpaper hanging, "like Hitler", he would tell disbelieving visitors. For a brief period he was employed by the Kinsey Institute as their official bibliographer but soon fell out with Kinsey over his method of research. In 1965 he was writer-in- residence at the University of California at La Jolla, where his reputation as controversialist and stylist won him the epithet "the conscience of American cultural criticism". He was a popular figure among the students.

Among Legman's other books and pamphlets that broke new ground in anthropology studies were On the Cause of Homosexuality (1950), The Limerick (1953), The Horn Book (1964), The Guild of the Templars (1966) and The Fake Revolt (1967). He left one of the rarest collections of erotica in the world.

Gershon Legman, folklorist: born Scranton, Pennsylvania 17 July 1917; three times married (two sons, two daughters); died Opio, France 23 February 1999.

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