Gershon Legman  

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"When your wind-blown, electronic-ukelele toting, motorcycle-riding, marihuana-smoking "folksinger" or composer hears the word Intellect, he too reaches for the safety-catch of his automatic, as earlier remarked by Baldur von Schirach, head of the Hitler Jugend."--"The Fake Revolt" (1967) by Gershon Legman

"Sexual humor is a sort of whistling in the dark, like Beaumarchais' Figaro, who 'laughs so that he may not cry.'" --Rationale of the Dirty Joke (1968) by Gershon Legman, p. 18

“the first erotic work in French actually in the novel form” was Le Rut, ou la pudeur éteinte (Rutting, or Modesty Discarded, 1676) by Pierre-Corneille Blessebois (1646?–1700), the “Casanova of the 17th Century”."--The Novel: An Alternative History

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Gershon Legman (1917 – 1999) was an American social critic and folklorist. His magnum opus is Rationale of the Dirty Joke: (An Analysis of Sexual Humor), a tour de force of erotic folklore. Other important works include a Love and Death: A Study in Censorship, a history of sexual censorship, as well as the literary journal Neurotica. Legman sought to establish a motif-index of erotic humor.



Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania to Emil and Julia Friedman Legman Eastern or Central European Jewish descent; his father was a kosher butcher. Although he was an independent scholar, without institutional affiliation (except for the time -- 1964/5 -- spent as a writer in residence at the University of California at La Jolla), together with Alan Dundes and Vance Randolph, he pioneered the serious academic study of erotic and taboo materials in folklore.

As a young man he acquired a number of interests including sexuality, erotic folklore, and origami, and worked for a time under the pen-name Roger-Maxe de la Glannege (an anagram of his real name). For a period of time he was a bibliographic researcher with the Kinsey Institute; and, in 1949, he published Love and Death, an attack on sexual censorship. During this period he also published a little magazine (actually so informally it was rather like a fanzine), Neurotica, which featured notable contributions and had some influence disproportionate to its circulation. Neurotica was published as a collection in a book and had some influence on Marshall McLuhan. The Horn Book was a collection of assorted writings from the 1950s and 1960s. He was a prolific writer of essays, reviews and scholarly introductions, including the anonymous Victorian erotic memoir My Secret Life (1966), Aleksandr Afanasyev's Russian Secret Tales (1966), and Mark Twain's The Mammoth Cod (1976).

In 1953 Legman left his native United States for a farm Le Clé des Champs in the village of Valbonne in the South of France, where he was able to pursue his intellectual interests with greater freedom. In 1955 he organized an exhibition of Akira Yoshizawa's work at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

Legman spent several decades compiling specimens of bawdy humor including limericks. In 1970 his first volume of over 1700 limericks (published in France in the 1950s) was released in the United States as The Limerick. He followed this with a second volume, The New Limerick in 1977, which was reprinted as More Limericks in 1980. His magnum opus was Rationale of the Dirty Joke: (An Analysis of Sexual Humor), a tour de force of erotic folklore, succeeded by No Laughing Matter : Rationale of the Dirty Joke: An Analysis of Sexual Humor, 2nd Series for which a subscription had to be paid to support publishing as no publisher would touch it after Grove did volume one in 1968. Near the end of his life, he edited Roll Me in Your Arms and Blow the Candle Out, two volumes of bawdy songs and lore collected by Vance Randolph (both 1992). Other achievements include his edition of Robert Burns' The Merry Muses of Caledonia (1965).

Gershon Legman died in early 1999 in his adopted home country, France, after several years of debility.


Legman was in many senses a radical, but never identified with the movements of his time, decrying the sexual revolution, for example, in The Fake Revolt (1967), and leaving countless irascible obiter dicta on such topics as women's liberation, rock and roll and the psychedelic movemement's use of mind-altering substances. However, he claimed to have been the inventor of the famous phrase "Make love, not war," in a lecture given at the University of Ohio in 1963 (Dudar, H. (1984, May 1). Love and death (and schmutz): G. Legman's second thoughts. Village Voice, pp. 41-43). He remained essentially an individualist and an idealist: "I consider sexual love the central mystery and central reality of life," he wrote. And "I believe in a personal and intense style, and in making value judgements [sic]. This is unfashionable now, but is the only responsible position" (Nasso, C. (1977). G(ershon) Legman. In C. Nasso (Ed.), Contemporary authors (Rev. ed., vol. 21/24, pp. 525-526). Detroit, MI: Gale). Brottman (23-24) offers the consensus view of Legman as, in many ways, his own worst enemy, exacerbating his rejection by the academic community with vitriolic attacks upon it.

The fairly classical (though not uncritical) Freudian framework of his interpretation probably strikes many present-day readers as quaint, but his legacy was one of opening vistas of scholarship: in Bruce Jackson's view "Legman is the person, more than any other, who made research into erotic folklore and erotic verbal behavior academically respectable" and who made accessible to other scholars material that scholarly journals had long been afraid to publish (Scott, J. (1999, March 14). Gershon Legman, anthologist of erotic humor, is dead at 81. New York Times, p. 49). According to his obituary in The London Independent, in a childhood incident, classmates "wrote the word "kosher" in horse-shit juice across his forehead." He would insist throughout his life that violence and sadism so prominent in American culture resulted directly from the suppression of sex.

Gershon Legman died February 23, 1999 in his adopted home country, France, after several years of debility, and a week after suffering a massive stroke.

Legman's Sexuality

According to George Chauncey's book Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (1994), Legman was a homosexual. However, Brottman (7-10 et passim) holds that he was exclusively heterosexual, accounting for both the abandonment of his proposed volume on fellatio as well as, possibly and in some measure, for his contempt for Alfred Kinsey. He was married for many years to Beverley Keith (died of lung cancer, 1966), married briefly to Christine Conrad (Brottman 29) a possibly bigamous relationship, ended either by annulment or divorse , then to Judith Evans, with whom he had a son. Autobiographical asides in his works note multiple heterosexual relationships, including at least two engagements; moreover, in Rationale of the Dirty Joke, he consistently speaks of homosexuality as a "perversion," and Frank Rector (The Nazi extermination of homosexuals. New York: Stein and Day, 1981) claims that homosexuality was in Legman's mind connected not with a democratic gay liberation movement, but with the Nazi Ernst Rohm. His obituary in the London Independent lists three marriages, two sons and two daughters. Brottman lists a daughter, Ariela Legman (b. 1956), by an unidentified Dutch woman, as well as Legman's children by Judith: David Guy Legman (1968), Rafael (1971) and Sara Felicity (1973), and identifies Louise "Beka" Doherty as the great love of Legman's life.


By Gershon Legman

  • The Language of Homosexuality: An American Glossary,in George W. Henry, Sex Variants (New York: Paul B. Hoeber, 1941)
  • Love and Death: A Study in Censorship, (1949)
  • Bibliography of paper-folding (1952)
  • Neurotica: No. 9 The Castration Complex (ed., with Alvin Lustig) (1952)
  • The Compleat Neurotica: St. Louis - New York 1948 - 51 (ed., with Jay Irving) Landesman (1963)
  • Guilt of the Templars (1966)
  • The Intimate Kiss (Paperback Library, 1971)
  • Rationale of the Dirty Joke: An Analysis of Sexual Humor (New York: Grove Press, 1968); reprinted in hardcover by Indiana University Press (December 1982)
  • No Laughing Matter: An Analysis of Sexual Humor (1982)
  • Limerick (Hardcover - Sep 11, 1991)

About Gershon Legman

  • Funny Peculiar: Gershon Legman and the Psychopathology of Humor, by Mikita Brottman (2004)

In which Gerson Legman is Cited

  • Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, by George Chauncey (1994)

Linking in as of 2022

69 (sex position), Akira Yoshizawa, Armpit fetishism, Cunnilingus, Doc Rankin, Group sex, History of origami, Jacob Brussel, Jay Landesman, Laius complex, LGBT linguistics, Ligia Montoya, Limerick (poetry), List of humor research publications, Make love, not war, Mikita Brottman, My Secret Life (memoir), Neurotica (magazine), Oragenitalism, Rationale of the Dirty Joke, Ribaldry, Robert Harbin, Robert Warshow, Samuel Roth, Scranton, Pennsylvania, Sex position, Sex to Sexty, Sexology, Stop Me If You've Heard This, The Kreutzer Sonata (painting), Tijuana bible, Ubu and the Truth Commission, Ubu Roi, William Chaney


Mikita Brottman. 'Funny Peculiar: Gershon Legman and the Psychopathology of Humor' Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press, Inc. 2004.

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