- Queer WestsAn Introduction
Bret Harte’s 1860 sketch “The Man of No Account” ends as many of his stories do—in the death of its protagonist, David Fagg. In this story, this character’s fatal accident coincides with his dissent from marriage, a choice that engenders narrative incomprehension and reveals the complexities of a historically particular homoerotic and queer social imaginary that emerged during the California gold rush.1 A despondent young man of twenty-five, David Fagg lacks “manliness and spirit” and is initially unsuccessful as both a miner and a suitor (Harte 131). After two long years in California, he strikes it rich, and as he tentatively woos the daughter of a hotel proprietor, the narrator sees this act as a valiant attempt to redeem David’s manhood. “I thought,” he says, “it would be a good thing for Fagg if he should marry and settle down; that as a married man he might be of some account” (135). But David defies this conventional wisdom: he gives up his suit and decides to head back East, angering the narrator for his indifference to social expectations. “David Fagg,” he says “with sudden severity,” “you’re of no account!” Astonished, the narrator watches Fagg’s “face bright[en]” as he admits, “Yes … that’s it! I’m of no account! But I always knew it!” (137). Embracing this language of disrepute, the young man suddenly sees his failure to negotiate successfully the demands of the marriage market as something worth celebrating. After his foray into the strange world of the California mining camps, he lauds himself as a man who quite simply doesn’t count in the reproductive matrix of nineteenth-century middle-class US culture. But two weeks after David triumphantly boards the next steamer bound for the East Coast taking his new awareness with him, the narrator [End Page 129] reads about an “awful shipwreck” and mournfully notes, “I was the first to read the name of David Fagg. For the ‘man of no account’ had ‘gone home!’” (138).
David Fagg’s joyful embodiment of not counting opens up and illustrates just one of the many queer Wests that this special issue of Western American Literature explores. Within this region’s expansive geography, the locations of queerness are many. Over the course of its literary and cultural history, the American West has provided a rich and varied terrain within which to situate and proliferate a range of desires, sexual subjectivities, and embodiments that might fruitfully adhere in some way to the term “queer.” From the mining camps of California, to the alkaline desert of Death Valley, from Laramie, Wyoming, to East Los Angeles, the queer Wests within the essays that follow make a compelling case that the particularity of place, especially of western places, powerfully shapes our understanding of queerness, and that these queer imaginaries play an important role in our ever-evolving sense of the American West. As readers of this journal know, locations matter. Situating our understanding of the multiplicity of queer desires and subjectivities that defy, resist, or otherwise take up alternatives to heteronormativity and even homonormativity within the history, literature, and cultures of the American West raises important questions about the relationship between what it means to be queer and where we imagine such queerness within this region. It’s a relationship that has received surprisingly little critical attention, an absence we hope the following essays will help remedy.2
As one dramatic point of departure, David Fagg’s refusal to marry illustrates many queer figures’ striking defiance of what Elizabeth Povinelli calls the “genealogical imaginary,” which structures modern forms of subjectivity vis-à-vis the controlling and generative power of sexuality. For Povinelli, modern social intelligibility depends in large part on how the intersecting grids of genealogy and intimacy coordinate subjectivity and render it visible, most often through the form of the “elementary family,” which is presupposed upon “sex difference and heterosexual reproduction” (233). The family tree thus serves as the legitimizing metaphor through which US culture has often recognized and valued human beings, specifically as their affective and sexual practices constitute and [End Page 130] sometimes undermine...