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  • The Literariness of Sexuality: Or, How to Do the (Literary) History of (American) Sexuality
  • Christopher Looby (bio)

Some people would never have fallen in love if they had never heard of love [Il y a des gens qui n’auraient jamais été amoureux s’ils n’avaient jamais entendu parler de l’amour].

François de La Rochefoucauld,Maxims

Historians of sexuality rely heavily on literary evidence. Why should this be so? My argument is that sexuality is essentially a literary phenomenon. Following François de La Rochefoucauld’s maxim that “people would never have fallen in love if they had never heard of love,” I contend that people would never have had sexuality (never mind any particular sexuality) if novelists and others hadn’t invented it (and them). My evidence will be drawn chiefly from several American novels of the long nineteenth century, beginning with Charles Brockden Brown’s 1799–1800 Memoirs of Stephen Calvert (in which the protagonist declares that reading a certain book made him what he is, “a thing of mere sex”) and ending with Charles Warren Stoddard’s 1903 For the Pleasure of His Company: An Affair of the Misty City, Thrice Told, which self-reflexively aligns literary innovation and sexual self-invention in multiple ways. These are the bookends, so to speak, of a project of mine called “The [End Page 841] Sentiment of Sex,” which is about the literary history of American sexuality during roughly this period. It follows, for me, from the fact that sexuality is a literary phenomenon that its history must perforce be a literary history.

My subtitle alludes to David Halperin’s fine book, How to Do the History of Homosexuality (2004), and it alludes as well to Arnold Davidson’s essay, “How to Do the History of Psychoanalysis: A Reading of Freud’s Three Essays of the Theory of Sexuality” (1987)—and implicitly to another essay by Davidson entitled “Sex and the Emergence of Sexuality” (from the same year).1 Because I am treating some relatively unfamiliar literary texts, I won’t address merely theoretical issues in great detail here, but I want to signal my debt to Halperin and Davidson, both of whom in some ways derive their theoretical perspectives from the theory of “dynamic nominalism” articulated by the philosopher Ian Hacking (228), who connects his theory to the concept of “acting under a description” pioneered by his predecessor philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe (Hacking 230–31). The basic idea here is that an act is not a sexual act unless it is performed under that description; and a person is not, say, a homosexual unless that description (or label or category or identity) is available to him and he lives, so to speak, within its terms. According to Hacking, “people spontaneously come to fit their categories” (223). Or, to advert to a more historicized articulation of this position, “The claim of dynamic nominalism is not that there was a kind of person who came increasingly to be recognized by bureaucrats or students of human nature but rather that a kind of person came into being at the same time as the kind itself was being invented. In some cases, that is, our classifications and our classes conspire to emerge hand in hand, each egging the other on” (228). Like Sharon Marcus in her recent book Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (2007), I think “[t]he history of sexuality has depended disproportionately on trial records and medical sources that foregrounded pathology and deviance” (13), and that the literary archive offers a better ground for the history of sexuality, so I would quarrel a little with Hacking’s habit of deferring to “bureaucrats or students of human nature” as the arbiters of sexuality, unless he were to privilege novelists rather than sexologists as his “students of human nature.” And I think “hand in hand” sounds a little too neat as a figure for the way categories and the persons who inhabit them emerge together historically (I’m inclined to see a good deal more temporal misalignment than that figure would allow). But this is my general approach, nevertheless. Think here of Bill Clinton’s...


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