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Journal of the History of Sexuality 15.1 (2006) 151-156

Reviewed by
Erin A. Smith
University of Texas at Dallas
Cruising Modernism: Class and Sexuality in American Literature and Social Thought. By Michael Trask. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003.

Michael Trask's Cruising Modernism offers a new way of reading American literary modernism and the social scientific theories with which it was contemporary by focusing on the realities of cross-class exchange in the [End Page 151] United States of the early twentieth century. Eschewing more traditional self-contained aesthetic theories of modernism, Trask insists that literature is attached to life, though not in a simple, unmediated way. Around the turn of the century historical shifts in class relations—including the emergence of a consumer society and commercial leisure and the remaking of the working class by increasing numbers of women, foreigners, and casual laborers—brought upper-class or genteel Americans into increasing contact with their social inferiors. This cross-class contact created new representational problems that it was the task of modernist writers and intellectuals to tackle. Trask's particular angle is to investigate the ways the promiscuous intermingling of classes was articulated in and through a language of sexual deviance or perversion. He traces representations of certain "deviant" figures—prostitutes, vagrants, bums, casual laborers, queers—in American literature and social thought from 1900 to 1930. Trask describes his project as follows:

Just as discussion of social relations becomes stipulated in the idiom of the new psychology of sex, so mobility and desire in this period stipulate each other through the irregular bodies of the underclass. This book examines the implications of that reciprocity for American modernist literature. I am interested in the ways in which social thought alights on the figure of perverse desire to describe the evasive mobility of class others in early twentieth-century life, and I am keen to demonstrate how modernist authors exploit this explanatory circuit when their own writing fixes on the unfixed characters, the underclass floaters, who stray in and out of their texts.


Trask intends Cruising Modernism to be a bridge between two historically distinct bodies of literature about American modernist writing: that focused on labor and class structure (e.g., Michael Denning, Cary Nelson, and Paula Rabinowitz) and that focused on sexual and erotic transgression (e.g., Joseph Boone and Colleen Lamos). 1 Both what Denning calls "the laboring of American culture" during the early decades of the twentieth century and what Lamos calls "deviant modernism" have highlighted how untenable a purely aesthetic analysis of literary modernism is. Trask notes, however, that critics doing class analysis and critics doing queer analysis seldom talk to each other. Neo-Marxist critique most often considers sexuality a "private," individual issue largely irrelevant to (more important) class [End Page 152] and social politics. Queer theorists focus on unruly sexual desires and their challenges to the status quo, overlooking the class politics with which they are intimately enmeshed (13).

Trask is interested in the ways literary and social scientific texts between 1900 and 1930 worked together to articulate class and sexual difference for three reasons. First, he wants to participate in articulating a materialist literary history of modernism, one that recognizes that aesthetics and ideas are always implicated in the social and economic realities of their time. For example, Trask connects characteristics of "the modernist enterprise—in particular, its ideology of obscurity, or its notorious 'difficulty'"—with "the impasse to clarity provoked by cross-class encounter" (192). Second, he wants to challenge the dominant historical narrative about Progressive-era America as one of Taylorization, rationalization, and bureaucratization by restoring the profound investments of its social and literary theorists in desire, mobility, and flux. Third, he thinks that restoring how intimately class and sexuality structured the birth of modern social theory will help us—as cultural critics—to reimagine queer theory and class critique not as coterie endeavors (practiced by lesbians and gay men, on the one hand, and...


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pp. 151-156
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