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  • The Heart of Whiteness: Normal Sexuality and Race in America, 1880-1920
  • Michael Pettit
The Heart of Whiteness: Normal Sexuality and Race in America, 1880–1920. By Julian B. Carter. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007. Pp. 232. $79.95 (cloth); $22.95 (paper).

In this provocative new study Julian B. Carter does much to explicate how in certain quarters white, heterosexual, marital love has come to be assumed as the bedrock of the American republic. He seeks to come to grips with how whiteness and heterosexuality became equated with each other and defined as the "normal," hence disappearing as contestable categories during the first half of the twentieth century. Carter's is an ambitious book, for he has undertaken the task of writing the history of what was often left tacit, assumed, and unspoken in the very moment of its ascendancy. Rather than examining challenges to the ruling racial and sexual formations, he seeks to understand whiteness and heterosexuality precisely when their status was rendered invisible under the rubric of innocuous "normality." He quite consciously focuses exclusively on the dominant, normalizing discourses of marital advice, sexology, and sex education in order to have the norm speak its own name and reveal itself as historically particular. [End Page 343]

Much of the earlier literature on whiteness argued for the hollowness or blankness of this category, and responding to this problematic stance is one of the major achievements of this book. By focusing on and unpacking the overlapping discourses of sexuality, normality, and modernity, Carter has done much to give whiteness both content and historical concreteness. His lengthy introduction, constituting about a quarter of the book, allows for eloquent reflections on the complex but infrequently overlapping historiographies of whiteness and sexuality. A keyword in his analysis is "elision." The concept allows for the explanation of how elites could silently refer to whiteness and heterosexuality without mentioning them outright merely by invoking normal, modern persons. Carter seeks to challenge this race-and power-evasive discourse by revealing its troubled past. He persuasively argues that influential popular science accounts of both race and sexuality have been governed by the narrative structure of an evolutionary epic where white, heterosexual love contained within the confines of marriage is read as the success story of human development. In the twentieth century the contested and controversial notion of "civilization" was replaced by the more politically acquiescent language of normality.

In the first substantive chapter he revisits a favored topic for scholars of both gender and whiteness: the neurasthenic epidemic of the late nineteenth-century. From the 1860s on American physicians began diagnosing the fatigue found among their "brain-worker" patients as the product of industrial modernity. The "advanced" and "civilized" members of the race were collapsing under the heightened strains that the epoch placed upon their minds and bodies. The chief importance of including neurasthenia in his narrative is to highlight a moment in U.S. history when sexualized whiteness was equated with weakness rather than security and complacency. Carter's reading of the publicity surrounding the Beecher-Tilton marital affair against the contemporaneous neurasthenic discourse is particularly effective. E. L. Godkin, editor of the Nation, blamed the damaging effects of the affair on the circulation of stories and images in the emerging mass media of the press. Similarly, Anthony Comstock, the great policeman of obscenity, sought to curb the circulation of information through the nation's communication network of the mail. Both asserted that modern technology disrupted the evolution of civilization and respectability.

In contrast to the nineteenth-century spermatic economy, which saw modernity's excesses as a threat, the moderns repackaged the same features into a stabilizing normality. Reflecting on skyrocketing divorce rates among the old stock, observers held that technology and the forces of modernization were ripping couples apart by accentuating their sexual differences and confining them to separate social spaces. In response, authors of early-twentieth-century sex advice manuals argued that the greatest challenge facing couples was that they were temporally out of sync. To overcome the threat of modernity, couples had to cultivate a passionate and loving [End Page 344] intercourse that would bind them tightly together, even...


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pp. 343-346
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