- Gender Protest and Same-Sex Desire in Antebellum American Literature by David Greven
David Greven’s Gender Protest and Same-Sex Desire in Antebellum American Literature highlights the prevalence of figures in American romanticism who “do battle with the world,” a phrase the author borrows from The Scarlet Letter to describe the cultural combat undertaken by the gender variant and sexually other (1). This book aims to show that the expressions of frustration and defiance it calls “gender protest” often accompany homoeroticism, arguing that antebellum literature is haunted by “an incipient queer desiring presence” (4). Indeed, Greven goes further to assert that “a same-sex desiring identity was present in early nineteenth-century texts” (98). This departure from the widely accepted timeline of the emergence of sexual identity as theorized by Michel Foucault is one of the book’s bold methodological claims. Another is its defense of psychoanalytic theory as equally valuable and not categorically opposed to the field’s dominant historicist mode. Reading Freud reparatively, Greven grants that “classical psychoanalytic accounts of homosexuality” are “tied up with pathologizing agendas” (110–11) but suggests that these can and “must be separated out from their insightful suggestiveness” (111).
As part of his critique of rigid adherence to Foucault’s historical account, Greven diagnoses a scholarly tendency to romanticize the purportedly untamed intimacies and sex acts in this period before sexuality’s emergence: “Some critics continue to present an idealizing view of the possibilities of same-gender friendship in the pre-taxonomical period without addressing the considerable tensions and often violent discord within literary representations of such relations” (20). As a corrective, the introduction reminds us that “compulsory homosociality” was a core component in gender formation that many of the texts examined in Greven’s volume represent as stifling and disciplinary (9). This claim challenges influential work in recent decades that dismantled the “separate spheres” model of nineteenth-century life. While acknowledging the overlap of these gendered realms, Greven asserts, “it is important to keep in mind that the broad homo-socialization of men and women entrenched the essentialist, binding views of the sexes as entirely distinct from one another” (9). [End Page 193]
Chapter 1 reads phallic imagery in works by Margaret Fuller and Edgar Allan Poe in relation to antebellum health reformer Sylvester Graham’s anxious treatment of this biological representation of male dominance as also “a symbol of depravity and horror” (48). Greven argues that Fuller uses phallic imagery as a core strategy of her feminist critique: “Fuller discovers that the seeds of her culture’s self-destruction lie within its phallocentrism. For her, the phallic power of the masculinist social order is, in fact, the very sign of its fragility and failure” (61). Chapter 2 continues this discussion with an analysis of phallic womanhood in Poe’s “Ligeia,” featuring a key reading of the title char-acter’s poem, “The Conqueror Worm.” An exemplar of gender protest, Ligeia ultimately enters another woman’s body, conquering death, the male narrator, and the narrative itself.
Although most of the book reexamines canonical texts, chapter 3 turns to Fuller’s neglected work, Summer on the Lakes, in which, Greven claims, she “created one of the most moving lesbian figures in nineteenth-century literature” (40). The queer figuration of the character Mariana centers in her “theatrical self-presentation” and the affective excess of her narcissism (106). Presaging performativity theory, Fuller depicts a “brazenly self-dramatizing performance of femininity,” a “satirically deconstructive gendered performance, an aggressive send-up of conventional femininity in which the subject is both outside and inside of gendered identity. Playing herself is Mariana’s greatest, showiest role” (114). As a contribution to scholarship on American women writers, this appealing reading should attract further attention to this text in both criticism and the classroom. In its treatment of male and female authors alike, Greven’s book models approaches to antebellum representations of women and girls that highlight facets of gender performance that are usually overlooked, such as queer flamboyance, masculinity, and...