- The Boston Years: Eve’s Humor and Her Anger
I’ll always be happy to remember that I was the junior member on the hiring committee that lured Eve Sedgwick to Boston University (BU) from Hamilton College. We were unanimously amazed with her essay on the Gothic veil, soon to appear in PMLA. But greater admiration would follow. Though it was not published until 1985, Eve wrote Between Men while she was at Boston University and living in an apartment on Deerfield Street, which is down the street and around the corner from this conference venue. We had the feeling in those days of great things taking place in our midst; we absolutely did understand that Eve was creating a new way of seeing things.
We heard Eve describe her theory of the male homosocial continuum—and its significance for literary history—as part of a wonderful paper on Adam Bede that she delivered at the English Institute. Later (also at the English Institute), we heard her interpretation of Willie Nelson singing the Baptist hymn “In the Garden” (in The Troublemaker, 1976), “I come to the garden alone / While the dew is still on the roses,” a song addressed to Jesus that Eve read as a prime example of male homosocial sentimentality. The Adam Bede lecture would later appear as a central chapter in Between Men. It made an argument for the condensation, in that novel’s plot structure, of a pivotal but long historical transition in gender relations, the transition from a time when women took an active part in the domestic economy and the larger social organization outside the home—like Mrs. Poyser running her dairy, like Dinah Morris preaching in the open field—to a later, Victorian moment when middle-class women were contained within the bourgeois home, like Dinah Morris is at the end of Adam Bede. Her reading of Willie Nelson’s rendition of the hymn would later become part of Epistemology of the Closet,1 where it figures centrally in Eve’s groundbreaking transvaluation of sentimentality. Again she offers a macronarrative of literary history, in which sentiment, a term of value for both [End Page 179] genders in the eighteenth century, becomes a denigrated, feminocentric term in the nineteenth century and, Eve argues, a term associated with male bodies in the twentieth. She redefines sentimentality as a relation of a spectator to an object, one important aspect of the epistemology of the closet.
Then, in a two-day extravaganza that drew huge audiences to BU, we heard Eve deliver lecture versions of chapters 1 and 2 of Epistemology of the Closet, the first centering in her reading of the Queen Esther narrative and the second centering in her reading of Billy Budd. So we in Boston—and especially we at BU—were among the first to appreciate the force of these arguments. Of course, BU President John Silber’s openly homophobic administration also provided a perversely energizing context for Eve’s antihomophobic analysis. How delicious it was, then, to those who had witnessed William Bennett’s role here at BU—as Silber’s demonic sidekick—to read Eve’s full frontal attack on him in Epistemology of the Closet. But Eve also found fellow travelers at BU, where she helped found the feminist group—the ID 450 Collective—a group that continues to influence the work of so many of us (and whose contribution to the symposium is also included in this special issue).
But in the space remaining here, I want to emphasize, as Eve does, the continuity in her theoretical project from the emphasis on gender in Between Men to the emphasis on sexuality in Epistemology of the Closet. Of course, she is interested in theorizing this conceptual shift in her own thinking. She explicitly attempts to retard the premature fusion of these two motives, and in the section of Epistemology of the Closet on Axiom 2 she distinguishes among dominant theoretical models for conceptually relating sex, gender, and sexuality (16). Thus, her antihomophobic argument begins by insisting on the irreducible entanglements of gender and sexuality—but also on their necessary separation.
But Axiom 2 crucially comes after Axiom...