Pursuing celebrity, ensuing masculinity: Morris Ernst, obscenity, and the search for recognition

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Silverman, Joel Matthew

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This dissertation examines the intersection of American law, celebrity and masculinity by focusing on the life and work of civil liberties attorney Morris L. Ernst (1888-1976). Specifically, I argue that at a time when the meaning of masculinity was in flux, Ernst gained acceptance as a man by tackling cases that advanced feminist clients and issues. Rather than follow the prevailing dominant masculine script, which idealized rugged men with “white” physical attributes, Ernst crafted his own script, and in doing so, fashioned himself as a modern man. During an era in which the legal world continued to be a predominantly male arena, the courtroom provided men like Ernst with the opportunity for intellectual sparring, thus enabling physically unassuming men to define their masculinity through words rather than deeds. Small, Jewish and insecure about his own physical attributes, Morris Ernst nonetheless forged a masculine script that enabled him to navigate around the dominant, Victorian-era masculinities that excluded him. Moreover, the arguments Ernst made in support of profeminist texts defied traditional gender definitions and ultimately benefited Ernst himself by expanding the potentiality of masculine identity. Through the analysis of primary sources, including memoirs, newspaper accounts, interviews and the vast Morris Ernst archive at the University of Texas, this dissertation uses Ernst’s life and career to offer new insights into the changing landscape of twentieth century identity politics.