- IntroductionCome Again? New Approaches to Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature
Click for larger view
View full resolution
From Newton Arvin's 1938 Whitman to Robert K. Martin's 1986 Hero, Captain, Stranger, gay and lesbian studies made sporadic appearances in the field of nineteenth-century U.S. literary studies, but never enjoyed the intellectual prestige sustained over the last two decades by queer theory. With unprecedented conceptual sophistication and in-your-face counter-intuitiveness, queer theory revised the focus and methodology of gay and lesbian studies, challenging previously held concepts of sexual identity as a true selfhood discoverable through individual acts of "coming out" into a life of often painful pride—recognizable in past authors and characters who had the same sexuality as those living in the present. Queer theory, following the Foucauldian shift to sexuality as a product of historically situated discourses, began to privilege temporal disjuncture and play rather than historical continuity and soulful discovery. Celebrating the permeable borders separating queerness and normativity, queer theorists have redeemed shame, inscrutability, and rage, articulated through often unpredictable gender performatives rather than "orientations" toward fixedly gendered objects of desire.
Although queer theory has produced some of the most innovative recent work on nineteenth-century U.S. literature, no collection of scholarship has yet come out of that intersection. It was in part to rectify this oversight and to acknowledge the scholarly contributions made by queer scholars of nineteenth-century [End Page 195] literature that we undertook this special issue of ESQ. We intended the title we chose—"Come Again?"—to capture some of the confrontational wit and sexual pleasure that we consider central to queer literary studies, to stir up connotations of surprise and query in keeping with queer scholarship's drive to (re)open the certainties of sexual "commonsense" to investigation and reformulation.
To a certain degree, the essays assembled here accomplish that task. For these critics, "sexuality" is neither transhistorical nor innate, easily discoverable (either across history or within the individual body) nor conventionally comprehensible. Rather, sexuality manifests itself in various, erratic, and capricious ways: in the fetishistic meditation on an amber necklace, in the rough isolation of the spinster, in the ironically gross voyeurism of a bachelor poet, in the nation-cohering embrace of dead presidents. Moving beyond the canonical authors—especially Whitman, Dickinson, and Melville—who preoccupied earlier generations of gay and lesbian scholars, these critics enact the same capacity they admire in authors and characters to find pleasure in unlikely and discredited places, turning to less canonical figures (Harriet Prescott Spofford, Sarah Orne Jewett), relocating the queerness in canonical texts (Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance), or turning away from literature to study the queerness of such artifacts of visual culture as the carte de visite. Richly queer in their eagerness to let sexuality be unpredictable, disturbing, confrontational, phantasmatic, illusive, and poignant, these essays well represent the important innovations queer theory has made in the field of nineteenth-century American literary studies.
The essays also suggest, however, a subtle and provocative turn away from queer theory, pointing the way toward a new moment in the development of sexuality studies generally and of nineteenth-century literature and sexuality studies in particular. For starters, contra the punning naughtiness of our title, these critics seem little interested in either sex or humor. Counter-intuitive as it may be to imagine sexuality-without-sex, they examine nineteenth-century sexuality entirely to the exclusion of sex acts, finding it rather in affects, styles, and cathexes that will leave readers who expect to find discussions [End Page 196] of newly discovered sex scenes asking, "Come again?" While the essays join queer theory in challenging sexual taxonomies—each takes as a given Foucault's claim that the categories "homosexual" and "heterosexual" are late nineteenth-century inventions with no clear corollaries in earlier historical moments—they are just as adamant in challenging some of the constitutive binaries of queer theory, including normativity/subversion, activism/passivity, shame/pleasure, solitude/pleasure, and corporeality/nationalism. The affects explored in this special issue—loneliness, depression, anxiety, resentment, frustration, distrust—are far from the prideful exuberance gay and lesbian studies posited...