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Scott Herring. Queering the Underworld: Slumming, Literature, and the Undoing of Lesbian and Gay History. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2007. xv + 278 pp.

The goal of queer history, Scott Herring contends, should be a kind of sexual unknowing: to unlearn what scholars think they know about the history of sex and eschew detective-style strategies designed to reveal its hidden secrets. He proposes that scholars of queer history [End Page 397] follow the lead of a small group of writers from the first half of the twentieth century—Jane Addams, Willa Cather, Carl Van Vechten, Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent, and Djuna Barnes—who frustrated their era's growing fascination for the presumed sexual knowledge provided by sexological classification systems. These writers emphasized unknowable sexual mystery by creating antisystemic representations of sex. They drew on the conventions of popular slumming literature to elicit readers' curiosities about mysterious underworld subcultures; yet their writings pointedly failed to deliver the secrets implicitly promised by these conventions.

Herring suggests that much lesbian and gay historical scholarship echoes the conventions of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century slumming literature. Exemplified by works such as Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York, this literature presented itself as "a demystifying tour guide" through subcultural underworlds (5). To this end, it "took [the] project of classifying social perversions and ran with it" (10). When certain writers used slumming conventions only to resist such classifications and thwart the expectations of revelatory knowledge they created, such writers implicitly represented a kind of unknowing—a deliberate mystification.

In describing such writers as queering the slumming genre, Herring emphasizes the sense of "queer" meaning to disorder or spoil: their writings thwarted or spoiled the detective work of modern sexology. He contends that they thereby potentially disorder the contemporary sense of lesbian and gay community that arguably developed out of that project. Systemic sexual classifications can imply sociopolitical groups, and he is opposed to both: he aligns himself with the anticommunal understandings of sex forwarded by scholars such as Lee Edelman and Leo Bersani.

Herring rejects the idea of community, which he associates with prescriptive group thinking. He contrasts such community with an expansively relational account of subjectivity (in his discussion of Addams); elsewhere, he also contrasts it with a narrowly individualistic account of subjectivity (in his discussion of Thurman). It is perhaps in keeping with Herring's antisystemic approach to queer history that he settles on no one term for the kinds of social connections he champions in opposition to "a communal politics of homosexual recognition" (21). He describes such anticommunalism as a form of cosmopolitanism, or the sense of being among a free-flowing and changeable company of wanderers, or a "loose model of friendship" (111). Carolyn Dinshaw offers a model for queer history as the construction of partial connections among various non-normative expressions of sex and gender; Herring seems to loosen such connections [End Page 398] by proposing a model that aims "to stop making sense" within the "discourses that continue to make up the idea of 'you' and 'us'"—even though he insists this aim has little hope of success (192). The queer history he imagines would therefore focus on continually disordering the classificatory systems created to define and explain the differences among sexual desires and practices.

The first chapter analyzes representations of a modern cosmopolitan sensibility that enabled evasions of sexual classification. Herring's primary example is the wealthy Chicago philanthropist Jane Addams, whose 1910 autobiography, Twenty Years at Hull-House, depicts an image of herself designed partly to deflect the sensationalist public fascination for the "mannish lesbian" (34). Unmarried adult women such as Addams were prone to being cast as a type—the perverted spinster—in the popular press. In response to this threat, Addams draws on slumming conventions in such a way as to undermine their implicit assumption of social types. She portrays herself as a cosmopolitan citizen of the world with an impersonal and thus unclassifiable sense of subjectivity by emphasizing her philanthropic connection to a wide range of humanity.

In the second chapter, Herring contends that Willa Cather's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 397-401
Launched on MUSE
2009-06-26
Open Access
No
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