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American Literature 74.2 (2002) 408-410
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These two books on same-sex relationships, dishearteningly enough, do much to strip the concepts friendship and sisterhood of the nurturing and selfless qualities that naïfs will tend to associate with both. Explored, amidst the stripping, in these decidedly unsentimental studies is the kind of cordial-but-strictly-professional intercourse that is always hard to free from the effects of rivalry, and a near-cult of male-male amity that resulted in significant literary output. As might be expected, Caleb Crain finds the bonds of male-male amity more fragile than those of the attenuated "sisterhood" that Deborah Lindsay Williams probes.
If fragile, I must add, intense and quite literally inspiring; so much so that I recommend Crain's highly engaging book to scholars who have wondered what it was that kept early U.S. citizens fascinated with the death of Major John André, or who have pondered Emerson's intense—but usually brief and disappointing—attractions to younger male protégées. Fans of Billy Budd and those curious about the creative surge that brought Charles Brockden Brown's ideas to print at the cusp of the nineteenth century will also want to acquaint themselves with Crain's study. Most broadly, though, American Sympathy has much to offer students of the history of masculinity, affect, and literary production during the heyday of sentimentality and to those aware of the curious phenomenon of writing diaries for the loved one to peruse. Crain's examination of two such diaries, written in the late eighteenth century by gentlemen of some leisure, is meticulous and wise—and what personages it reveals! Would that A&E or the History Channel would bring material like this to our TV screens.
Closer in spirit to traditional forms of literary history, albeit with a gender twist, Not in Sisterhood opens with a survey of letters exchanged between (never among) three critically respected women artists of the early twentieth century. Perhaps some who look into Williams's work will be most edified by her thoughts on a trio of female writers' divergent constructions of literary authority. But it seems to me that Williams's exploration of how women [End Page 408] of quite different political alliances handled the topic of military conflict has greater potential to redraw the maps of Wharton and Cather studies, and of early-twentieth-century letters more generally. Similarly, Williams's observation that Zona Gale was friendly with Jessie Redmon Fauset should spur further inquiry, even as her enthusiasm for Miss Lulu Bett sends lovers of understated wit back to the Wisconsin writer's best work.
Comparison of such different kinds of scholarship can only go so far. It is patent, for instance, that the focus of Not in Sisterhood is heavily thematic, whereas American Sympathy is more apt to investigate genre-based decisions, such as Brown's choice of the gothic and Melville's use of the palinode. In addition, and not incidentally, Crain examines fervent intimacies whereas Williams looks into relatively relaxed (but also relatively enduring) relationships that relied more heavily on pen, ink, and stamps than on extended visits and chats. Here students of gender should note the extent to which Crain's white male subjects seem to have been granted, by the spaces available in their culture(s), a same-sex concentration that might have been available to lovers in the era that Williams explores but that were risky when attempted in the context of other kinds of relationships. Questions raised about this difference could delve sexualities and same-sex affect. But other worthwhile inquiries could look into gender-based prerogatives or specific...