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Tomorrow's Parties

Sex and the Untimely in Nineteenth-Century America

Peter M. Coviello

Publication Year: 2013

Dazzling intelligence radiates here, out from sentences giving such pleasure, yielding the finest devotion I've seen to literature's own theoretical force. Coviello listens, carefully, brilliantly, for the flickerings, the liquid meanderings, all too easily explained as "sexual"-or never even perceived at all. Here is a critic as joyful as Whitman, with his dark core fully afire."
-Kathryn Bond Stockton, Distinguished Professor of English at University of Utah

In nineteenth-century America-before the scandalous trial of Oscar Wilde, before the public emergence of categories like homo- and heterosexuality-what were the parameters of sex? Did people characterize their sexuality as a set of bodily practices, a form of identification, or a mode of relation? Was it even something an individual could be said to possess? What could be counted as sexuality?

Tomorrow's Parties: Sex and the Untimely in Nineteenth-Century America provides a rich new conceptual language to describe the movements of sex in the period before it solidified into the sexuality we know, or think we know. Taking up authors whose places in the American history of sexuality range from the canonical to the improbable-from Whitman, Melville, Thoreau, and James to Dickinson, Sarah Orne Jewett, Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, and Mormon founder Joseph Smith-Peter Coviello delineates the varied forms sex could take in the lead-up to its captivation by the codings of "modern" sexuality. While telling the story of nineteenth-century American sexuality, he considers what might have been lostin the ascension of these new taxonomies of sex: all the extravagant, untimely ways of imagining the domain of sex that, under the modern regime of sexuality, have sunken into muteness or illegibility. Taking queer theorizations of temporality in challenging new directions, Tomorrow's Parties assembles an archive of broken-off, uncreated futures-futures that would not come to be. Through them, Coviello fundamentally reorients our readings of erotic being and erotic possibility in the literature of nineteenth-century America.

Peter Coviello is Professor of English at Bowdoin College. He is the author of Intimacy in America: Dreams of Affiliation in Antebellum Literature and the editor of Walt Whitman's Memoranda During the War.
In the America and the Long 19th Century series

Published by: NYU Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Series Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quotes

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pp. 2-9


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xvi

A confession: the writing of this book was, if sometimes tiring, actually a great deal of fun. It is also true, though, that the period of its composition coincided, for me, with a lot of unforeseen, life-wide turmoil. To the people named here I want to say, first and above all, that the fact of this book existing, rather than not, is outrageously inadequate thanks...

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Introduction: The Unspeakable Past

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pp. 1-26

In the summer of 1914, from his sanctuary at Lamb House in Rye, England, Henry James wrote a small letter he addressed to “Mrs. Fields.” This was Annie Adams Fields, the widow of Boston publisher James Fields and, for nearly a quarter of a century, the intimate companion of another famed...

Part One: Lost Futures

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1. Disappointment, or, Thoreau in Love

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pp. 29-47

In the midst of the “Ponds” chapter of Walden, his much-polished opus of 1854, Henry David Thoreau offers up a wonderfully illustrative anecdote—wonderful because, though largely shorn of the leaning toward metaphor that characterizes so much of the rest of the book, the little passage nevertheless...

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2. Whitman at War

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pp. 48-63

In The Better Angel, a history of Walt Whitman’s war years, Roy Morris Jr. recounts the story of an exchange of letters between the poet and one William H. Millis, a soldier Whitman had come to know in the hospitals through which he daily toured from late 1862 through 1864. Millis wrote...

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Coda: A Little Destiny

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pp. 64-76

“The only excuse for reproduction,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “is improvement.” “Beasts merely propagate their kind.”1 This moment, from “Chastity & Sensuality,” suggests I think not the sexual squeamishness often attributed to him, but rather an insistence on sex as something other than an isolable property in the self, to be turned to...

Part Two: To Speak of the Woe That Is in Marriage

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3. Islanded: Jewett and the Uncompanioned Life

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pp. 79-103

“History,” Frederic Jameson tells us, in the famous phrase, “is what hurts.”1 It is, as theoretical pronouncements go, near on to indisputable, and not any less so in the case of women in the nineteenth century, ensnared as they must be (as Dickinson has already suggested to us) in the workings of a marriage plot not typically written for their benefit. For...

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4. What Does the Polygamist Want?: Frederick Douglass, Joseph Smith, and Marriage at the Edges of the Human

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pp. 104-128

What does the polygamist want? In a world already ordered by patriarchy, coverture, and the traffic in women, in a world in which the need for a clear dispensation of property along succeeding lines of men makes compulsory monogamy the rule for middle-class women in a way...

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Coda: Unceremoniousness

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pp. 129-142

The history of sexuality that Michel Foucault famously begins to outline in his introductory first volume is, of course, conspicuously European. The movement from Catholic pastoral to expert rational discourse, for instance, looks markedly different in an American context that begins with Protestant reform, and is convulsed across the nineteenth...

Part Three: Speech and Silence: Reckonings of the Queer Future

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5. The Tenderness of Beasts: Hawthorne at Blithedale

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pp. 145-167

What would it mean if, just this once, we were to read Hawthorne straight? With respect to The Blithedale Romance, nothing, it seems, has been less easily accomplished. In his famous preface to that novel of 1852—famous largely for its meditation on the perils and possibilities, for the “the American romancer,” of “Fiction” in its relation...

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6. Made for Love: Olive Chancellor, Henry James, and The Bostonians

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pp. 168-189

In the early course of her intimacy with Kate Croy—an “intimacy as deep as it had been sudden”—Milly Theale, death-stricken heroine of Henry James’s 1902 novel The Wings of the Dove, wonders over the labyrinthine silences that so strangely animate her new fast friendship.1...

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Coda: The Turn

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pp. 190-206

The Wilde trials, which unfolded in the spring of 1895, were gripping public theater. Henry James was among the captivated. Wilde and the scene surrounding him struck James, as he would aver in a letter to Edmund Gosse, as...


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pp. 207-246


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pp. 247-252

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About the Author

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pp. 253-253

Peter Coviello is Professor of English at Bowdoin College, where he has directed the programs in Gay and Lesbian Studies and Africana Studies. He is the author of Intimacy in America: Dreams of Affiliation in Antebellum Literature and the editor of Walt Whitman’s...

E-ISBN-13: 9780814717424
E-ISBN-10: 0814782779
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814717400
Print-ISBN-10: 0814717403

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 840482948
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Tomorrow's Parties

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Subject Headings

  • American literature -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • Intimacy (Psychology) in literature.
  • Sex in literature.
  • Interpersonal relations in literature.
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