Trained as an American studies scholar, Brett Gary’s most recent research and teaching takes a historical approach to media and political communications with an emphasis on cultural battles over censorship of artistic expression, sexual information, and narrative representations of the nation's past. He teaches courses on Censorship in American Culture, Hollywood films and American History, changing conceptions of American manhood and masculinities, and a new course titled Resisting Dystopia, focusing on the recent past and the near future. 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.
Gary’s new book, Dirty Works: Obscenity on Trial in America's First Sexual Revolution (Stanford University Press, August 2021) is a study of U.S. censorship battles from the 1920s-1950s, 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. Dirty Works focuses on landmark legal cases engineered 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, Ernst and his colleagues brought high profile attention to the anti-censorship cause and extended free speech protection to a variety of censored works and causes, all addressing sexual knowledge. Their clients included 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 and Indiana University’s Alfred Kinsey. Ernst and his partners systematically challenged 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. Learn more about Dirty Works.
His first book, The Nervous Liberals: Propaganda Anxieties from World War One to the Cold War (Columbia, 1999), is a study of fears about public susceptibilities to mass manipulation in the aftermath of WWI and the eve of WWII. He examines how the demonstrable power of propaganda in WWI became a critical problem for democratic theory, and also the organizing problem for the still inchoate field of mass communications; that first generation of media scholars worked closely with federal government as it prepared for WWII, and tried to develop a strategy for controlling anti-democratic propaganda without traducing First Amendment commitments. He focuses particularly on the Department of Justice's efforts to put in place a propaganda control unit that might silence fascist threats to wartime unity.
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.
Prior to joining the NYU faculty, Gary taught at Drew University and the University of Colorado, Boulder. He earned his MA and PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, and his undergraduate degree at Montana State University.
- (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)
- Dirty Works: Obscenity on Trial in America's First Sexual Revolution (Stanford University Press, August 2021)
- The Nervous Liberals: Propaganda Anxieties from World War I to the Cold War
- “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.