Trained as an American studies scholar, Brett Gary’s teaching takes a historical approach to media, culture, and politics, with an emphasis on the cultural discourse about media power and fear of public susceptibilities; censorship battles and contested cultural expression; competing narrative constructions of the nation’s history in Hollywood films; and the constructions of American manhood and masculinities in Hollywood film. He has lectured internationally on the subject of Hollywood westerns, and is a recipient of both the Steinhardt School’s Teaching Excellence Award and NYU’s Distinguishing Teaching Award.
His first book, The Nervous Liberals: Propaganda Anxieties from World War One to the Cold War (Columbia, 1999), his courses, and intellectual engagements, are historical in orientation with interests in cultural and artistic expression, politics and media, legal history and censorship, and increasingly in issues of gender and sexual liberty.
Gary’s new book-in-progress, Sex on Trial: Battles over Obscenity and Censorship (under review, Columbia University Press) is a study of U.S. censorship battles in the middle of the 20th century and explores how civil libertarians, birth control activists and feminists, journalists, publishers, public health activists, and the ACLU struggled to curb cultural and sexual censorship. Sex on Trial focuses on landmark legal cases lead by New York Lawyer and longtime executive board member and general counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Morris L. Ernst, who, along with his partners Harriet Pilpel and Alexander Lindey, paved the way for the modern libertarian culture we inhabit today. Working on behalf of a roster of high profile clients, including the American birth control activists Margaret Sanger and Dr. Hannah Stone; feminist and sex education pioneer Mary Ware Dennett; British birth control activist and writer Marie Stopes; English novelist Radclyffe Hall, and most famously, James Joyce’s Ulysses on behalf of Random House and later Indiana University’s Alfred Kinsey and his Institute for Sex Research in a battle with Customs, Ernst and his colleagues brought high profile attention to their anti-censorship cause and extended free speech protection to sexual matters. Ernst and his partners drew upon parallel developments in First Amendment law to systematically challenge federal and state obscenity law statutes to extend progressive free speech ideals to matters sexual, making cultural and literary expression inexorably bound up with the First Amendment’s promised protections.
Prior to joining the NYU faculty, Gary taught at Drew University and the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is also a Faculty Fellow in Residence at Brittany Hall, a first year Residence hall, where he along with his spouse and fellow NYU professor, Amy Bentley, offer cultural programming for first year student residents.
- (Summer 2019) NYU Global/MCC Global Travel Research Grant: “Exploring the Hollywood Western and its Afterlife in Germany and the Czech Republic”
Presentations and Keynotes:
- Keynote Address, “World War I Speech Catastrophes and the Postwar Struggle for Free Political and Sexual Speech,” delivered as Constitution Day lecture and opening reception for the World War I and Copper Country Symposium, Michigan Tech University, September 13, 2018.
- United States Embassy Higher Education Speaker Program, Paris France, December 3-7, 2018. Invited by US Embassy in Paris to deliver lectures titled "Hollywood's Histories of the American West: Conquest and Conflict, 1850-1890” at: Université Nice Sophia Antipolis, Nice; Prépas du Lycée Masséna, Nice; University of Avignon, Avignon; Sorbonne, Paris; Prépas du Lycée Henri-IV, Paris; Prépas du Lycée international de Sèvres, Sevre (12/7); Prepas Jean-Jaurès Montreuil, Montreuil (12/7)
- Introduction and discussion of John Sayles’ Lone Star, as part of the 2018-2019 Western Film Series, Ivan Doig Center, Montana State University, March 2019
- Muhlenberg College, Banned Books Week Lecture: “How Did We Get from the Comstock Laws to ‘Anything Goes’ Culture? A Short History of Anti-Censorship Liberalism in the 20th Century,” September 2012
- The Stanley Burnshaw Lecture, Harry Ransom Humanities Center, University of Texas, Austin, “The Importance of Being Morris Ernst: The Man Who Took on the Censors and Freed Ulysses,” September 2011
- Workshop Leader and Lecturer, National Endowment for the Humanities Teaching American History Workshop, “Teaching Censorship in American History, ” Crescent City, CA (Aug 9-11, 2010)
- “Guessing Oneself into Jail,” in Obscenity and the Limits of Liberalism, The Ohio State University Press, 2011, edited by Loren Glass and Charles Francis Williams, pp. 50-68.
- “The Search for a Competent Public: The Hutchins Commission and post-WWII Democratic Possibilities,” in Democracy and Excellence, Praeger Books, Greenwood Press, 2005, edited by Joseph Romance and Neal Riemer, pp 75-90.
- "The Pitiless Spotlight of Publicity: LIFE Magazine and the Pre-war Surveillance of American Extremists," in Erika Doss, ed., Looking at LIFE: Framing the American Century in the Pages of LIFE Magazine, 1936-1972, Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001, pp 77-99.
- The Nervous Liberals: Propaganda Anxieties from World War I to the Cold War