Feminist author Naomi Wolf (Vagina: A New Biography and The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women) has experienced what is every writer's ultimate nightmare: having a foundational error in a new work unmasked on a national outlet, while you sit haplessly by, clearly unprepared to defend the research.
Wolf’s latest book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalization of Love, is about the alleged executions of dozens of male homosexuals after 1857 by the gay-hating Victorians. The Guardian sums up Wolf’s theme:
In the book, Wolf argues that in 1857 there was a brutal turn against consensual sex between men, with an increase in executions influencing the lives of Victorian poets such as John Addington Symonds.
Just one problem: Wolf seems to have gotten a key term in legal documents wrong. She mistakenly thought a term referred to an execution, when almost the opposite seems to have been the case.
Wolf first learned about her lapse in a hugely uncomfortable interview with Matthew Sweet on BBC Radio:
The errors in Outrages were first identified this week on BBC Radio 3, when the historian Dr Matthew Sweet challenged Wolf on air when she said she had found “several dozen executions” of men accused of having sex with other men.
. . .
“I don’t think you’re right about this,” Sweet told Wolf on Thursday, identifying the case of one Thomas Silver in her book. Aged 14 when he was convicted, his sentence was noted as “Death recorded”, which Wolf interpreted as meaning that Silver had been executed.
It was great radio—but not for Wolf. New York Magazine (which I would have expected to find some mitigation in Wolf’s mishap) captures the atmosphere:
There’s a shocking silence on-air after Sweet says he doesn’t think Wolf is right about the executions Outrages delves into. Sweet looks at the case of Thomas Silver, who, Wolf wrote in her book, “was actually executed for committing sodomy. The boy was indicted for unnatural offense, guilty, death recorded.” Silver, as Sweet points out, was not executed.
“What is your understanding of what ‘death recorded’ means?” Wolf asked him on-air, mere moments after he had already explained to her how Old Bailey, London’s main criminal court up until 1913, defined it. Sweet pulled up his own research — news reports and prison records — showing the date that Thomas Silver was discharged.
Death recorded, he says, “was a category that was created in 1823 that allowed judges to abstain from pronouncing a sentence of death on any capital convict whom they considered to be a fit subject for pardon.” And then the blow: “I don’t think any of the executions you’ve identified here actually happened.”
Before Sweet delivered the punch, Wolf was audibly ready to speak about the “several dozen” similar executions she noted in her book, many of which rely on her completely wrong understanding of the term “death recorded.” But there is no historical evidence that shows anyone was ever executed for sodomy during the Victorian era, Sweet said on Twitter. Which means … much of the premise of Wolf’s entire book is just false.
I must admit that I am surprised that trendy publications such as New York Mag are piling on Wolf—I might have expected them to say something like, “Well, maybe they didn’t execute the dozens of men Wolf claims they did, but the Victorians hated gays.I mean, really, the essence of what she said was right.”
But few seem to be coming to Wolf's defense, at least at this writing.
Oddly, one of the most interesting responses to Wolf’s predicament came from conservative blogger Rod Dreher. “I can’t say that I mind too much watching a crusading lefty being hoisted on her own progressive petard,” Dreher admitted, before adding of Wolfgate:
I gotta be honest: as a writer, when I first heard about this, my first thought was, There but for the grace of God go I. That was Alan Jacobs’s too. He writes:
Wouldn’t you — wouldn’t anyone — assume that the phrase “death recorded”means “death sentence carried out”? I know that’s what I would assume. Now, someone might say, “Well, she should have looked it up.” But we only look words or phrases up when we have reason to think that we have misunderstood them.
Jacobs, Dreher notes, began to “backtrack” when Wolf, who is now defending the book, started to blame professional historians for not catching the mistake.
Having done research for several books, I am wondering if there weren’t a few moments when Wolf should have mused, “Something is not adding up here.”
Victorian society was no picnic for homosexuals. Everybody knows the tragic story of Oscar Wilde, who was ruined and ended up in gaol because of homosexual acts.
I wonder if a lot of authors today don’t start with the notion that Western society is wicked and oppressive and simply proceed from there. Facts that might counter the thesis are ignored.
If so Ms. Wolf is simply one of the rare ones who got unmasked.