Dirty Jokes and Bawdy Songs

The Uncensored Life of Gershon Legman
Author: Susan G. Davis
Laughing in the gutter with the larger-than-life dean of blue humor
Cloth – $110
Paper – $27.95
eBook – $14.95
Publication Date
Paperback: 10/28/2019
Cloth: 10/28/2019
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About the Book

Collector of sexual folklore. Cataloger of erotica. Tireless social critic. Gershon Legman's singular, disreputable resume made him a counter-cultural touchstone during his forty-year exile in France. Despite his obscurity today, Legman’s prescient work and passion for the prurient laid the groundwork for our contemporary study of the forbidden.

Susan G. Davis follows the life and times of the figure driven to share what he found in civilization's secret libraries. Self-taught and fiercely unaffiliated, Legman collected the risqué on street corners and in theaters and dug it out of little-known archives. If the sexual humor he uncovered often used laughter to disguise hostility and fear, he still believed it indispensable to the human experience. Davis reveals Legman in all his prickly, provocative complexity as an outrageous nonconformist thundering at a wrong-headed world while reveling in conflict, violating laws and boundaries with equal abandon, and pursuing love and improbable adventures. Through it all, he maintained a kaleidoscopic network of friends, fellow intellectuals, celebrity admirers, and like-minded obsessives.

* Publication of this book was supported in part by a grant from the L. J. and Mary C. Skaggs Folklore Fund.

About the Author

Susan G. Davis is a professor emerita of Communication and Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of Parades and Power: Street Theatre in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia and Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience.


"A vigorous. . . intellectual biography of [Legman's] peculiar, relentless career." --Times Literary Supplement

"This new biography is a worthwhile addition to the would-be discipline of folkloristics. . . . Using a trove of unpublished or difficult-to-access resources, Susan G. Davis constructs a detailed account of the career of Gershon Legman." --Journal of Folklore Research

"This book is both a highly entertaining biography of a colourful iconoclast and the tragic story of a scholar manqué. Susan Davis tells Legman's extraordinary story with great brio, sympathy, and critical distance." --European Journal of Humor Research

"Dirty Jokes and Bawdy Songs is the product of extensive research: interviews with Legman's family (most notably his widow Judith), and his extensive network of correspondents; and investigations into his archives in France and at the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, Indiana. Her account of Legman's life and work is absorbing; she is generous but also judicious. She uncovers his blind spots and self-delusions." --Journal of American Folklore

"Davis is throughout strikingly patient with and sympathetic toward her difficult subject. . . Dirty Jokes and Bawdy Songs is in every way an excellent work--for its meticulous research, its well-organized and clearly written prose, and, most of all, for its generosity of spirit. Legman was an insistently offensive presence, a difficult, even impossible man to like, despite his obvious accomplishments." --Arkansas Historical Quarterly

"An exhaustive, clear-eyed biography of a sometime folklorist, rather than a study of folklore itself. Gershon Legman, who died in 1999, was a mainly independent scholar who spent his life fascinated by--obsessed with, might be more accurate--jokes, sex, and origami, contributing significantly to their respective literatures" --Folklore


"A more difficult subject is hard to imagine—a self-taught, little-known, irascible scholar who with little support and great opposition delved into some of the darkest corners of culture. Yet this remarkable and utterly engaging biography is the epic story of an unlikely hero as well as a lesson in just how much one person can accomplish in one lifetime. It also evokes an era, one uncomfortably like our own, in which scholars, theologians, politicians, and police wrestle with the unresolved issues of love and death."--John Szwed, author of Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth