Wolf’s unravelling and reconstructing of these ‘sodomitical’ poems provides one of the most fascinating elements of her wide-ranging book ... Throughout the book, she instances cases in which ordinary working people were given savage sentences after being convicted of sodomy or even ‘attempted sodomy' ... Imaginatively researched, entertainingly written and enjoyably indignant, Outrages is a sobering and timely book.
Naomi Wolf’s long, ludicrous career has followed a simple formula. She audits herself for some speck of dissatisfaction, arrives at an epiphany—one that might contravene any number of natural laws—and then extrapolates a set of rules and recommendations for all women ... Always the books are lit by a strange messianic energy, shored up by dubious data ... What Wolf regarded as evidence [in Outrages] of executions—the notation of 'death recorded' on court records—indicated, in fact, the opposite, that the judge had recommended a pardon from the death sentence ... The mistakes matter because this book takes as one of its great subjects our duties as stewards of history, of the care and preservation of texts ... They matter because although there are stretches of the book that I enjoyed—there is a hint of A. S. Byatt’s Possession as Wolf plays literary detective in the archives, puzzling over Symonds’s codes and concealments—I don’t trust it. My woman’s brain...can’t quite overlook Wolf’s distinguished career of playing loose with facts and the historical record.
This book harnesses the electric power of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, the righteous energy of first-wave feminism and the terror of criminalized identities, in a style accessible to general readers. As the fight for LGBTQ rights continues, this book is as relevant as it is compelling ... Wolf's style is easy to read, and her research is authoritative: this book is in part adapted from more academic work on the subject, and some of the most captivating scenes involve primary sources in the archives. Outrages is not only an important history with lessons for the present, but also an engagingly told story. The instructive life of Symonds is for any reader who cares about history, civil rights or the power of poetry.
The research in these pages is indeed important; Wolf makes an excellent connection between the aims of the Obscene Publications Act and those of the Matrimonial Causes Act in the same year, in which some of the only grounds on which a husband could be divorced by his wife were if he had enjoyed relations with an animal or another man ... But the strength of the argument is undermined by the self-preoccupation of the author, who describes the 'journey' she has undertaken on the reader’s behalf. Added to which the narrative is disorganised, the paragraphs are repetitive, some sentences make no sense at all, and the index gets us nowhere. Had the book been better written, there would be more cause for Wolf to celebrate herself.
With intelligence and flair, Wolf uses the various responses to Whitman to show the levels of intense need in the decades after the publication of Leaves of Grass for images and books that would rescue homosexuality from increasing public disapproval ... The value of Outrages comes from Wolf’s constant placing of the brutal response to homosexuality in context.
...as a piece of scholarship, Outrages is definitely creative ... Although it is at pains to present itself as accessible – even raunchily inspirational, at key points – this book is substantially a rewrite of a doctoral thesis, Wolf’s own Oxford dissertation from 2015 ... Wolf’s binary slicing of history leads her into continual problems of tone – and some severe errors of fact. Most notably, as first pointed out by the BBC radio presenter Matthew Sweet, in her desire to paint the blackest possible picture of the past, she has misread the wording of some crucial court records of her period, a mistake which leads her to claim that substantial numbers of men were executed for the crime of sodomy in London during the formative years of Symonds’s writing life. Quite how this howler – which if it were true, would completely rewrite our understanding of British queer history – managed to get past the four-page swarm of academics and mentors, whom Wolf thanks at the end of the book for overseeing her work, is a mystery. Did no one see fit to question her momentous discovery, which fifty years of queer studies had failed to light on? Apparently not. And this is not Wolf’s only error ... Some of Wolf’s other errors are tiny in comparison; nonetheless, they nibble away at her credibility ... Wolf’s largest misrepresentation – again, whether this is wilful or not is hard to say – is that she presents Symonds as an author so terrorized by the oppression of his times that he has effectively had to wait for her to rediscover his bravery and pass it on to the waiting world ... Wolf prefers her gay men when they need rescuing, rather than when they rescue themselves. Although she clearly has the best of intentions, what she offers in the end is a reductive and even sentimental vision of queer history, one in which the past only exists to pave the way for the present, and in which queers and other sexual non-conformists can only ever live in one of two binary states, freedom or oppression.
... [Wolf's] remarkable book is a tour de force of research and insight into Symonds’ life and work and the related evolution of public and state attitudes toward homosexuality. Hers is an essential contribution not only to queer history but also to studies of nineteenth-century culture. It is not to be missed.
This lively, complicated work may not convince all readers of a causal relationship between feminist progress and persecution of gay Britons, but it will give them a fascinating look at this period and these writers.
Wolf provides engrossing accounts of Whitman and Symonds, yet her story is even more compelling in its wider portrait of the societies and institutions in America as well as England that served to shape the fears and prejudices that have lingered into our modern age ... An absorbing and thoughtfully researched must-read for anyone interested in the history of censorship and issues relating to gay male sexuality.