Gershon Legman

By: Devin McKinney
November 2, 2014

Gershon

The renegade folklorist GERSHON LEGMAN (1917–99), in his 1968 pornographicum Rationale of the Dirty Joke: An Analysis of Sexual Humor — at some 800 pages an impressively long, large, and engorged work, tumescent with erudition — collected and analyzed thousands of japes and yarns about masturbation, cunnilingus, incest, bestiality, necrophilia, coprophilia, and all the other hues of the erotic rainbow. As a stroke book, Rationale (first published, appropriately, by Grove Press) is useless, but it sits with The Anatomy of Melancholy and The Pound Era as a work of encyclopedic obsession — too sprawling, eccentric, and non-narrative for most readers to ingest sequentially, into which one dips or dives according to mood. The pages are richly italicized with classical or colloquial witticisms to make you laugh or cringe, and any random passage may yield a mysterious, tantalizing word: “apotropaic,” “dysphemistic,” “irrumatio.” Legman’s analytic perception is as honed and precise — albeit as warm and generous — as an icepick, and he’s able to find psychic sense and human novelty in the filthiest, most flippant of two-liners and shaggy-bush stories, many of which are traced back to their Medieval (or earlier) origins.

A para-academic libertine, Legman (the name was real) was also a social paranoid, hysterically denunciatory in the ’60s of countercultural licentiousness, or what he called “propaganda for perversion” — of the very liberation movements, that is, one of whose corollaries was to construct a public arena with room for even such disreputable scholarship as his own. (See, or just be aware of, The Fake Revolt, 1967.) But grant the man his foibles and fetishes: he claimed a sizable corner of scholarly history for an archive of folk raunch that is unlikely ever to be outdone.

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Steve Ditko.

READ MORE about members of the New Gods Generation (1914-23).

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  1. Thanks for remembering Legman. I found my copy of Rationale in high school, remaindered at a Barnes & Noble in Manhattan, I believe. Its cover sporting then-“mod” computerish typeface. An eyeopener. I snapped up its companion volume–No Laughing Matter, similarly remaindered–as soon as I saw it. Granted, Legman was fairly well mired in Freudian interpretation of his subject, but his academic grounding and expatiations–Burton’s AoM is a good analogue–plus the fact that so many dirty jokes were crammed between two covers made it a book I’ve kept in my library since then.

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