Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.3&4 (2001) 564-566
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Margaret Mead Made Me Gay:
Personal Essays, Public Ideas
Margaret Mead Made Me Gay: Personal Essays, Public Ideas. By Esther Newton. Series Q, edited by Michèle Aina Barale et al. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000. Pp. 360. $18.95 (paper).
Esther Newton is widely known as the anthropologist who pioneered the scholarly study of gay culture with her dissertation on female impersonators, which was published as Mother Camp (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1972). As Judith Halberstam says in her preface to this collection, since that time Newton's "work on drag, camp, gender performances, and lesbian masculinities . . . has been foundational and fundamental to the development of an interdisciplinary project of tracking and identifying lesbian genders" (p. ix). Margaret Mead Made Me Gay provides readers with a comprehensive selection of Newton's contributions to queer studies. The collection covers considerable territory: its four sections (drag, lesbian-feminism, butch, and queer anthropology) incorporate twenty essays that range from academic ethnography and history to personal memoir, manifesto, and eulogy. Most have not been substantially revised for this collection. The book as a whole, then, is a retrospective of Newton's intellectual journeys over the course of three decades of passionate activity both in the academy and in the larger queer and feminist worlds.
This open, inclusive textual structure lends the volume a conversational tone, which is one of the book's more attractive qualities. Newton often manages to convey the impression that she is soliciting us to join in a huge, heated discussion about women, queers, and academic politics. The essays circle around this handful of themes, approaching them from different vantage points and with different interpretative tools in just the way that friends talk out an idea or experience over a bottle of wine. As often happens when the wine flows, this conversation is not a consistently scholarly one. The essays vary a great deal in length and address. They sometimes repeat stories without apparent gain; they don't all seem to be contributing to a larger point. Rather than crafting her insights into a streamlined argument, Newton has presented us with comparatively fragmented materials that resemble the transcript of an oral interview or the loosely related contents of a box in an archive.
Some academic readers will see these characteristics as serious flaws in the design of the volume as a whole. But while there is no overt central argument to this book, Newton's conversational style connects the essays by addressing the culturally situated character of knowledge and the communal aspects of its production. For Newton, knowledge is inseparable from the people who produce it and the specific situations in which they do so. In essay after essay she documents and describes the people whose conversation has shaped her life and work---her girlfriend from the summer of 1959, her advisor and a prematurely deceased colleague from graduate school, the women in her CR groups and the feminist faculty members who [End Page 564] fought for her tenure, her best friend since college, her informants for Mother Camp and for her 1993 study of Cherry Grove, Fire Island. Newton names these people and often quotes them directly, a technique that lends rhetorical support to her reiterated belief that community is what gives individual lives shape and meaning. By extension, her conversational presentation testifies that her work and her life are neither purely private nor professional phenomena but are complex and personal expressions of the wider cultural contexts in which she has lived.
These essays, in fact, are a sort of self-ethnography. As such, they offer a fascinating window into the historical and individual development of (mostly academic) sexuality studies in the late twentieth century. In the last ten or fifteen years, the commitment to challenging the distinction between personal and professional engagement has emerged as a hallmark of queer scholarship (and of self-reflexive anthropological practice). But long before that, Newton was drawing on feminism in...