- Troubling Minds: The Cultural Politics of Genius in the United States, 1840–1890
“I have nothing to declare but my genius.” If there is a definitive utterance about genius, American style, this may well be it, allegedly spoken by the Irishman Oscar Wilde to a bewildered U.S. customs officer on the verge of his celebrated junket of 1882. Whether or not Wilde in fact made the statement, it is shockingly cheeky, on par with Gertrude Stein’s frequent self-application of this word that one should never self-apply. With little to his credit at this point other than his own celebrity—the tour promoted his caricature in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience—Wilde might well have said, I have nothing to show for my genius. Perhaps, then, what his sentence really means is that Wilde crosses the border with nothing save his talent for publicity. Unlike wizards of the public sphere, whose originality is adduced by more solid achievements, genius consists here solely in publicizing the performance of its otherness ex nihilo. What the sentence gets at is the core concern of Gustavus Stadler’s intelligent and wide-ranging book: the queerness of the rhetoric of exceptional “genius” when it is presented in bodily form and the hidden political work of this cultural address. In effect, the book tells a secret origin of the modern practice of spokespersonship, in which the public intellectual becomes, as Dick Pels has well observed, both a professional stranger and mass-mediated show person.
Today, we might find a word like celebrity more familiar than genius in this connection. When Time recently numbered the representative geniuses of our age, it counted Einstein, Marie Curie, Picasso, Bill Gates, Yo-Yo Ma, and Tiger Woods, not Chaplin, Marilyn, Elvis, Prince, or Paris Hilton. But, according to Stadler, by ignoring the more spectacular and sensational side of genius, we obscure the very political legacy of “the discourse [as it furthered] an increasing demand for writers and other cultural practitioners to perform emotional work for a citizenry made of cultural consumers” (xv). To this end, his book is not overly interested in the figures many would conventionally categorize as the representative (male) geniuses of the nineteenth century—the ex nihilo eggheads, Romantic autodidacts and artists, generals, and great men. Instead, he concentrates on what he calls “the genius as pathological subject,” explaining the emergence of “an increasingly detailed, psychologized, and sexualized notion of the individual genius” during the era framing the Civil War. In this peribellum period, he argues,
[Genius] becomes increasingly associated with a surprisingly diverse combination of people marked as alienated from the individualism fortified by ideologies of race, gender, and class in such forms as “free labor”: fugitive slaves, female performers, and queer flaneurs—cultural figures whose [End Page 216] symbolic value is so conflated with their bodies and internal “essences” that they can hardly be understood to work at all.(xvi–xvii)
Oscar Wilde, it should be mentioned, does not figure centrally in Stadler’s account, even as he hovers around the margins of several chapters. Wilde is cordoned off not so much because of the book’s American Studies purview (it includes chapters on the Swedish diva Jenny Lind and discusses a myriad of transatlantic encounters) but owing to a somewhat strained hypothesis that the less flamboyant forms of queer performativity associated with figures like Louisa May Alcott and Henry James play a more central role in the genealogy (152).
Along with Lind, James, and Alcott, Stadler considers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Parker Willis, and William Wells Brown. As this eclectic assortment of “cultural workers” suggests, Stadler’s conception of genius may depend on a suggestive analogy from queer performativity, but the usage does not operate solely as a synonym for queer sexualities. The term mediates and mobilizes forms and forces of racial and gender difference as well, in ways that extend the comparison of transgressive marginal subjectivities undertaken by works such as Siobhan Somerville’s...