LONDON -- It's not every University of Maryland English professor who finds his work ridiculed on the front page of a British newspaper. But then, few have ever courted controversy like William A. Cohen, whose book outlines a sexual reading of works by Charles Dickens.
Cohen's "Sex Scandal: The Private Parts of Victorian Fiction," was panned by the Observer recently in an article headlined "Coded erotica of 'filthy' Dickens."
The article claimed "The lunatics have taken over the asylum" of American academia, and went on to quote Dickens scholar John Sutherland of London University, who exclaimed: "Any ordinary Dickens fan reading Cohen will think he's a Martian."
The flap shows the affinity the English still have for Dickens, the 19th-century author of such classics as "Oliver Twist," "David Copperfield" and "A Tale of Two Cities." When Cohen's book was published in the United States late last year, it caused hardly a ripple.
In one chapter of his book, Cohen provides an alternate view of Dickens, claiming the chronicler of the Victorian Age inserted references to masturbation in such works as "Great Expectations."
Among the examples Cohen cites is Pip's stealing buttered toast and hiding it down his trousers, where it becomes his "secret burden," until he "deposited that part of my conscience in my garret bedroom."
He also points to a character from "Oliver Twist" called Bates, whom Dickens referred to as Master Bates.
"Dickens was no dummy," Cohen says. "He knew what he was doing."
Despite the criticism he has received in Britain, the 32-year-old Cohen stands by his work.
"The book as a whole investigates the ways in which sex became a taboo subject in the 19th century," he says. "I argue that sexuality becomes this extraordinarily prohibited subject, largely by virtue of its appearance in two popular narrative forms -- newspapers and realist fiction.
"The book as a whole makes the argument that these kinds of publications produced sexuality in its modern form, something that is secret, shameful and unspeakable," Cohen says.
To many British academics, Cohen's work is simply ridiculous.
"Well, this is the sort of thing that is getting written now by some people in the groves of American academia," says David Parker, curator of the Dickens House Museum in London.
"What happens is people get paid rather good salaries for doing not a tremendous amount of work," he says.
"Some of them feel a need to defend this by writing indigestible, difficult to understand books that are incoherent. The other thing they try to do is rack the secret of the universe every so often. And the secret has to be so dazzling. The great custom in the West ever since Freud came along is to say it all has to do with sex," Parker says.
Malcolm Andrews, editor of the Dickensian, says Cohen's book is treated with disdain. Like many of his counterparts here, he says he hasn't read the work, just some provocative passages.
Andrews says, "The reaction in this country is this: If it's not helpless laughter, then it is resentment that someone is making these extraordinary hypotheses based on very slender evidence.
"This is just one particularly spectacular version of long-running battles between the theoretical avant-garde and the more conservative academic establishment in relation to the limits of critical theory," he adds.
But Cohen does have a potential backer in Stephen Connor at the University of London.
"His argument strikes me as interesting and in a certain way plausible," Connor says. "There are passages in 'Great Expectations' where there is enormous anxiety about what is in your trousers and the prospect of you losing what is in your trousers. Those passages are very dreamlike and strange and could easily, for a Victorian reader, drift into the areas of the sexual and the forbidden."
Dickens scholar Sutherland, who did a critical review of the work, says it still merited being published, and should not inhibit Cohen's ability to gain tenure at the University of Maryland's College Park campus.
In his review in the Times Literary Supplement, Sutherland claimed Cohen didn't "go far enough" to uncover the private parts of Victorian literature. He wrote Cohen overlooked the Victorian novelists' "deliberate sexual winks, nudges and innuendo."
On the whole, though, Sutherland says the book has done a great service.
"Anything that gets people talking about Dickens is good," Sutherland says. "And this book has people talking. When was the last time Dickens got on the front page of a British national newspaper?"
Pub Date: 2/24/97