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  • Constance Fenimore Woolson's Anthropology of Desire
  • Neill Matheson

Constance Fenimore Woolson has increasingly been recognized as a subtle and acute observer of cultural norms for gender and sexuality in late nineteenth-century America. Scholars have noted her ambivalent representations of heterosexual love and her recurrent interest in figures of social marginality and isolation: "spinsters," foundlings, outcasts.1 Her fiction often avoids conventional marriage plots, focusing on less socially visible desires, passions, and affinities. According to her friend Henry James, Woolson was "interested in general in secret histories, in the 'inner life' of the weak, the superfluous, the disappointed, the bereaved, the unmarried" (272), sympathetically exploring identities that have been defined by their failure to conform successfully to conventional middle-class values. What has received less attention, though, is how these thematic and cultural interests are inflected by racial and cultural difference, especially in her early local color fiction, written mostly in the mid-1870s. Her story "Felipa" is a particularly significant example: Relegating marriage to the status of subplot, this text explores same-sex love within the context of its young orphan protagonist's ultimately failed or refused socialization into normative femininity and heterosexuality. The story has been read as an important early expression of emergent ideas of sexual inversion, in which nonnormative sexuality is understood in terms of one sex taking on the gender identity of the other—as illustrated by stereotypes of the mannish lesbian or effeminate male homosexual.2 I argue, however, that the ideas about gender and sexuality that Woolson explores in "Felipa" are not reducible to the theory of inversion and can be fully understood only by taking into account the story's engagement with cultural alterity. The story's ethnographic dimension, its invocation of an imagined primitive culture, has received relatively little critical scrutiny, especially in relation to its more salient representation of nonnormative sexuality. Woolson projects a kind of magical thinking about sexuality onto its foundling [End Page 48] protagonist, whose heterodox beliefs blur distinctions between masculine and feminine, white and nonwhite, even self and others.

These textual meanings become more legible within the context of nineteenth century anthropology. I address them alongside the work of the evolutionary anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor, who provided highly influential theories of such relevant concepts as animism, fetishism, and idol worship. Anthropological constructions of primitive culture have substantial affinities with late-nineteenth-century American literary writing, particularly local color writing, with its interest in regional and cultural difference. Recent scholarly work has demonstrated that American regionalist writing in the decades after the Civil War shares significant aims and interests with nineteenth-century anthropology, taking part in a parallel exploration of new ways of thinking about race and culture.3 More specifically, the ethnographic imagination of literary regionalism complicates American histories of sexuality, loosely borrowing anthropological notions of primitive culture to fantasize about alternatives to prevailing cultural norms for sexuality and gender. Though anthropologists' investigations into the marriage customs or sexual practices of putatively primitive societies certainly privileged Western models, they also confronted readers with other ways of organizing sexual relations, making it possible to think of Western institutions as not simply natural and inevitable. Exploring the ethnographic imagination of local color writing—its fictional staging of encounters across cultural or racial difference—potentially brings to light literary attempts to re-imagine sexual desire, apart not only from normative heterosexuality, but also from such emerging scientific frameworks as inversion.

"Felipa" invokes ethnographic signs of primitive culture, mapping them onto the figure of a child not yet socialized into the norms and values of white middle class American culture. This remarkable story is well worth critical scrutiny in its own right, but I approach it as a representative text in which nineteenth-century anthropological theories and new ideas about sexuality converge in particularly rich and intriguing ways. The story's complex engagement with these broader cultural discourses becomes fully apparent only through close attention to the specific details and nuances of its language. "Felipa" offers a subtle but relatively expansive literary exploration of the intersection between ethnography and nonnormative sexuality. In many ways, the text enforces discriminations between white and nonwhite, cosmopolitan and primitive, masculine and feminine, proper...


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pp. 48-68
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