Sex Wars: A Novel of the Turbulent Post-Civil War Period, By Marge Piercy, Morrow, 411 pp., $24.95
The post-Civil War era in America was a time of great divisions, and nowhere were these more exaggerated than in New York City. Economic opportunities abounded, yet a vast chasm persisted between the few very rich and the many who were destitute. In the fast-growing metropolis, wealthy residents were busy building mansions in the untamed areas around Central Park, well away from the downtown tenements crowded with immigrants.
Debates raged over whether white women should gain the vote before free black men. The family was ''adored in public," yet Manhattan hosted countless brothels whose clientele included as many married men as single ones. A woman's place was in the home, yet thousands of women toiled in sweatshops, in conditions that shortened their lives.
As in any era, new technology brought promise and problems. The ticker-tape machine and Teletype fueled the growth of Wall Street brokerage houses. The camera helped develop a burgeoning pornography industry.
This is the harsh and enthralling world of Marge Piercy's ''Sex Wars," a resonant tale of public and private lives during a time of staggering societal shifts.
To women of a certain age, Marge Piercy is not just an author, she's a cultural touchstone. Few writers in modern memory have sustained her passion, and skill, for creating stories of consequence. Her considerable literary catalog includes 15 other novels, 16 books of poetry, and a memoir.
''Sex Wars" encompasses nearly 40 years of tinderbox topics. In the style of Piercy's 1988 bestseller, ''Gone to Soldiers," this novel blends four story lines into one large saga. Three of the four main characters are historical figures, and real events shape the intertwined stories.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton is the famous wife, mother, and tireless women's rights activist. Her life is an oft-told tale, but Piercy goes beyond the familiar to reveal Stanton at home, in her multilayered relationship with her husband, her joy in her children, and the decades-long conversation that was her deep friendship with fellow activist Susan B. Anthony.
Victoria Woodhull is the free-love advocate who also earned a comfortable income as a spiritualist. Viewed from today's vantage point, her seances to connect families with deceased relatives might seem comical, but Piercy highlights how common it was to lose loved ones to disease or work accidents. Many people, rich and poor, sought ways to contact those who had departed all too soon.
Woodhull's philosophies on open marriage sound like they could be from the 1960s rather than the 1860s. But the 1960s had no one like Anthony Comstock, who waged a one-man campaign against moral depravity.
Piercy deftly shows Comstock's development from private citizen outraged at the many lewd dance halls and pornographic bookstores to unstoppable government official who viewed any information about the human body as indecent. In 1873, the Comstock Law was passed, making illegal the distribution or advertisement of any birth control, pornographic material, and many kinds of medical information.
Piercy infuses ''Sex Wars" with an impressive amount of period details. They're everywhere without being overwhelming, just as in real life: the roles of servants in the middle class; the aromas, and odors, of big-city streets; public bathhouses where you could wash, fully clothed, in a roped-off section of the river; and the dramatic 19th-century Manhattan skyline.
The one primary character that is fictional seems at least as authentic as the historical ones. Freydeh Levin is a young widowed Russian immigrant who leaves a starvation-wages job to start her own business: manufacturing condoms. In the changing social climate of the nation, this kind of venture brings prosperity and peril.
This is a big American story. It feels most American in its dissension, in its struggles, and in its ultimately hopeful tone. ''Sex Wars" shows, in the way a deeply felt tale can, the roots of the battles we still fight today.