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Reviewed by:
  • Philosophies of Sex: Critical Essays on The Hermaphrodite Edited by Renée Bergland and Gary Williams
  • Heather Barrett
Philosophies of Sex: Critical Essays on The Hermaphrodite Renée Bergland and Gary Williams. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2012. ix + 274 pp. $49.95 cloth.

A palpable current of excitement unites the diverse essays collected in Philosophies of Sex. Renée Bergland and Gary Williams account for the volume’s “generative richness” by observing that its focal point, Julia Ward Howe’s The Hermaphrodite, is “literally like nothing else in nineteenth-century American literary history” (12, 2). Howe’s tale of the ambiguously gendered Laurence only began to receive critical attention after Williams’s 2004 edition brought the novel into print. Philosophies of Sex constitutes the first book-length study of this text, but its editors hope that it will not be the last. The collection, they write, offers “alternative and sometimes sharply conflicting readings” of The Hermaphrodite in order to “foster an ongoing conversation among an infinite array of possible interpretations” (11). Despite their varied claims, the contributing scholars agree that any analysis of Howe’s text has implications beyond this individual work. As Bergland and Williams assert, The Hermaphrodite “forces us to reexamine what we thought we knew about the range of possibilities entertained by writers in Howe’s era concerning variations in sex, gender, and sexuality” as well as the possibilities in our own time (2). Ambitious in scope but grounded in responsible scholarship, Philosophies of Sex sets a precedent for sophisticated critical work on The Hermaphrodite and the topics it fearlessly engages.

Early readers of The Hermaphrodite understood it biographically as an expression of Howe’s marital and domestic frustrations. In the foreword to Philosophies of Sex, Mary Grant remarks upon the “extraordinary private voice” she first encountered thirty-five years ago (19). Essays by Marianne Noble, Joyce Warren, and Gary Williams enhance this understanding of Howe’s voice as mediated through Laurence’s narration. Noble suggests that Laurence enables Howe to articulate “the loneliness of a person who does not conform [End Page 136] to gender norms,” a loneliness Howe experienced because of her “supposedly masculine commitment to [her] own subjectivity” (49, 57). While Howe does envision a model of “intersubjective passion” through which Laurence can transcend bodily limitations to overcome this loneliness, this type of connection eludes him, just as it eluded Howe (70). Warren and Williams contextualize the narrative’s engagement with gendered solitude by drawing connections to contemporaneous gender-bending works: Warren considers Louisa May Alcott’s A Modern Mephistopheles (1877), first published under Alcott’s name in 1995, while Williams takes up George Sand’s Gabriel, which achieved transatlantic readership in the nineteenth century. Williams suggests that American writers drew inspiration from Sand and her compatriots, as “French fiction created a potent imaginative space to explore cultural paradigms alternative to those they lived within” (120). At the same time, Warren argues that the “alternative” texts penned by Howe and Alcott were “unpublishable during [their] authors’ lifetimes” because their radical content would have jeopardized their literary livelihoods (108). Warren also stresses that both Howe’s and Alcott’s androgynous protagonists die because “neither author was able to provide a satisfactory solution” to their texts’ gendered dilemmas (118). Williams corroborates this conclusion, noting that even Sand must kill Gabriel/le because “any other ending would have been unthinkable” (135).

Other contributors to Philosophies of Sex make further intertextual and interdisciplinary connections as they examine the cultural moment that produced Howe’s narrative. Renée Bergland attends to the motif of sculpture, which nineteenth-century Americans “associated … with sex’s contradictions” (160). For this reason, Howe’s thematic engagement with sculpture becomes “a useful strategy for understanding the issues of physicality and spirituality, anatomy and identity” that pervade her text (160). Betsy Klimasmith reads The Hermaphrodite as grappling with the ideological difficulty of reconciling sexual desire with antebellum America’s “restrictive norms of bourgeois marriage” (106). The imaginative, transatlantic relationship sustained by the characters Nina and Gaetano becomes an important touchstone for her argument, because their love can only survive in “a paradoxical space where the fantasy of perfect intellectual/soulmate love...