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  • The Blithedale Romance's Queer Style
  • Jordan Alexander Stein (bio)

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From The New and Improved Illustrated Bartenders' Manual, by Harry Johnson (New York, 1888), facing 80.

Collection of The New-York Historical Society, negative no. 82546d.

When reading The Blithedale Romance for the first time, my undergraduates commonly report surprise that the novel is, as they put it, "so gay." Their reactions are not unfounded. It would require a fair amount of will to read the narrator's unequivocal statements—for instance, that relocation to the novel's socialist utopia "seemed to authorize any individual, of either sex, to fall in love with any other, regardless of what would elsewhere be judged suitable and prudent"1—as something other than frank claims about probable homoerotic relations. Or, at least, it would for those readers since the late nineteenth century who can be expected to see a referent—call it "homosexuality"—in the novel's description. In contrast, the initial reviews of Blithedale concerned themselves principally with felicities and infelicities of plot and character ("between his characters and the reader falls a gauze-like veil of imagination," lamented the American Whig Review) and with the novel's satirical relation to Brook Farm (it is "the history of an odd experiment of American Socialism," according to the British Literary Gazette).2 If these early readers missed the homoeroticism, which now so clearly gazes back from Blithedale's pages, they perhaps did so because, in 1852, homoerotic relations did not yet enjoy social recognition via the shorthand of "homosexuality."3 In the moment of its iteration, Blithedale's frank description failed to be frank, insofar as it failed to refer to anything recognizable.

The dilemma by which a text now seems gay but formerly had not has been a constitutive one for the inquiry called "the [End Page 211] history of sexuality." On the one hand, modern, self-ascriptive sexual identity (calling oneself "a homosexual" in order to find others, for instance) was all but unknown in the Euro-American world before the late nineteenth century. On the other hand, there is no plausibility whatsoever to the idea that persons before the late nineteenth century steered clear of a range of homoerotic thoughts or actions simply for lack of a discourse about them. Straddling this dilemma, recent critics of frankly homoerotic texts like Blithedale have often recognized the text's now unavoidable homoeroticism as anticipatory—seeing it as what, in Robert K. Martin's phrase, "would become dominant in sexology in two generations' time."4 James Creech offers a stronger version of this logic, proposing that "our conceptual arsenal contains instruments still too unrefined to catch the nuances of attitude and behavior in the mid-nineteenth century which, mutatis mutandis, might be profitably considered the functional equivalents of that complex of self-knowledge or behavior which we call 'coming out.'"5 While both accounts imagine that sexuality requires sensitive historicism in order to be understood fully, my concern in this essay is that both accounts also imply that sexuality most counts as sexuality when it dares to speak the name "homosexuality." The assumption that these critics make follows the most familiar aspect of Foucault's History of Sexuality: in order to be observable, "homosexuality" requires a discourse.6 By this logic, a text like Blithedale would belong to the history of sexuality only because it now appears "so gay."

The present essay is less an attempt to overturn such a discursive model than to recuperate some of its limits. It aims to collect into the history of sexuality versions of queerness that never accede to discourse. By "queerness" I refer to a variety of social, sexual, or stylistic aberrances distinguished by some particularity irreducible enough that they would be difficult to collect into generic categories. Such queerness might categorically or experientially overlap with "homosexuality" but would not be reducible to it, such that, to return to the example of Blithedale, "any individual, of either sex, [falling] in love with any other" cannot be made to anticipate sexological discourse without some distortion to both the text and the discourse. [End Page 212]

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