restricted access Monumental Anxieties: Homoerotic Desire and Feminine Influence in 19th Century U.S. Literature (review)
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Reviewed by
Scott S. Derrick. Monumental Anxieties: Homoerotic Desire and Feminine Influence in 19th-Century U.S. Literature. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1997. xii + 259 pp.

The anxieties Scott Derrick examines are indeed monumental: nothing less than the Scylla and Charybdis of masculine development, the perilous rocks of femininity and homosexuality that men must negotiate in their path toward a fully realized manhood. Derrick participates in the growing scholarship on masculinity, joining critics such as Gail Bederman, Michael Kimmel, and David Leverenz, who render visible the processes by which masculine authority is created and affirmed. What differentiates Derrick from his predecessors—and makes his work an important contribution to this field—is his focus on the way manhood is defined within and against both homoeroticism and femininity, the mutually constituting components of masculinity.

Drawing upon insights from queer theory and feminist scholarship, Derrick analyzes the act of literary composition as a process wherein male identity is consolidated, since for the six American writers he discusses, Hawthorne, Poe, James, Sinclair, Crane, and Fitzgerald, the task of “authorial self-making enacts a literary version of the general cultural narrative of masculine development.” Becoming a writer is thus analogous to becoming a man, and Derrick traces the twinned sets of identifications and disavowals these writers negotiate in their quest for narrative authority. For even as these writers benefit from the “cultural debt” they owe to women, enveloped as they are within the “feminization” of nineteenth-century American culture, they finally erase the traces of this female labor. Derrick argues that the path to manhood similarly necessitates homoerotic identifications that must be compulsively denied, unspeakable desires that expose the limits of narration before they are repressed.

Some of this work has been done before: the acts of appropriation and denial that characterize Hawthorne’s and James’s relationships with their female contemporaries are by now a familiar story. Derrick is most insightful when he outlines the intersections between the dual narratives of feminization and homoeroticism in works by these two [End Page 991] writers, arguing that both Hawthorne and James consolidate literary authority through the production of a transcendent masculinity. In Derrick’s account, the authors construct narratives that ward off “feminine influence” within a set of masculine identifications, but in so doing unleash erotic energies that must themselves be contained through the reimposition of a normative heterosexuality.

For example, Derrick formulates a “chiastic” relationship among four James novels to chart, on one hand, the complicated mechanisms by which female characters secure an idealized “masculine ease” against the “disintegrating power of economic and commercial life,” and are themselves secured, their deaths an effective means of stabilizing their contributions, and on the other hand, the disruptive, homosexual desires that lack “relatively accessible narrative forms” and consequently endanger James’s pursuit of professional success. Only by subordinating this wayward eroticism within a heterosexual narrative can James achieve the literary authority he so desires. But Derrick astutely argues that James exposes, or at least calls attention to, his own sleight of hand, so that the losses accompanying the consolidation of “masculine power” become visible even in the act of their erasure.

If there is one weakness in Derrick’s argument, it is his tendency to privilege psychoanalytic accounts of masculine development over social and historical ones. Derrick’s first chapter locates his readings within nineteenth-century gender roles, but the breadth of his study—from the 1850s to the 1920s—demands closer attention to the shifts within cultural representations of masculinity. Absent is a more detailed account, one that would address particular inflections of race and class, so Derrick’s description of masculinity can appear ahistorical, sometimes glossing over the differences between, for instance, a Christopher Newman and a Jurgis Rudkus. Similarly, Derrick’s discussion of the anxiety about “feminine influence” relies too much upon an essentialized view of gender relations. Hawthorne and Sinclair may both measure their success against that of Harriet Beecher Stowe, but the “misogynistic fears of maternal women and their reproductive powers” that, in Derrick’s view, characterize The Jungle emerge within a discourse of evolutionary biology that differentiates Sinclair’s anxiety from his predecessor’s.

Despite this reservation, Monumental Anxieties...