- From Rogue Circulation to Queer Novel
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018. xviii + 320 pp.
What is queer about literary history? Queer theory's long-standing answer has been: not so much. The recovery projects of gay and lesbian studies have been seen as the least sexy work one might undertake, and the last major history of the "homosexual novel," Roger Austen's Playing the Game: The Homosexual Novel in America, was published in 1977. Contesting this dismissal, Natasha Hurley's remarkable Circulating Queerness: Before the Gay and Lesbian Novel reveals that the queer novel's world-making agencies are central to the history of sexuality. This history can only be gleaned, Hurley contends, through the "rogue circulation" of literary objects. Moving toward the fin de siècle, Circulating Queerness denaturalizes two seemingly inevitable logics of the nineteenth century: queer sexuality is an interior property of the self; and the gay and lesbian novel emerges subsequently to express this interiority. Instead, queerness moved from the outside in, narrated initially as an effect of social encounters. Thus Hurley argues that the queer novel does not appear after the homosexual but is its textual condition of possibility.
To retrace this history, Hurley marshals an impressive range of nineteenth-century literature, juxtaposing canonical figures, such as Henry James, with putatively "bad writers," such as Charles William Stoddard. This juxtaposition disrupts queer theory's tendency to locate queerness within "line-by-line formal cleverness" (27). Undoubtedly, Hurley's chapters are grounded in incisive textual analyses. Yet she rightly questions whether style alone can capture queer literature's world-making capacities. Instead, Circulating Queerness cannily emphasizes [End Page 657] the "proliferation" of sexual discourses that Michel Foucault diagnoses in the period, noting that queer theory has overlooked the questions of scale begged by his characterization. "Rogue circulation" illuminates this discursive explosion within literature. Inspired by such theorists as Mikhail Bakhtin, Sigmund Freud, and Greg Urban, rogue circulation assumes that texts condense vestigial social histories while creating, through their material movements in the world, the conditions for new modes of sociability to emerge. Hurley's method has affinities with Bruno Latour, Franco Moretti, and Heather Love. Yet Circulating Queerness provides the first truly compelling example of how queer theory might incorporate sociologically inflected paradigms without sacrificing its commitment to the agencies of aesthetic form. For Hurley, cultural objects are "rogues" precisely because their uptakes are unpredictable and their formal condensations create surprisingly queer possibilities.
Chapter 1 establishes the unintended consequences of circulation through a reading of Herman Melville's Typee and its queer incorporation of missionary and travel writing. Read now as a queer novel, Typee "acquired queerness" through its textual circulation, which engendered the "queer hermeneutics … by which it comes to be read" (45). Chapter 2 turns to Stoddard, a prolific writer who socialized with Melville, Walt Whitman, and other luminaries of the period. Although derided as too sentimental, Stoddard's prose innovates a mode of "anthological reading as a sentimental literary embrace," generating queer sociability through an intertextual traffic in queer literature (83). Chapter 3 traces the figure of the "Old Maid" as she circulates in short fiction by authors such as Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Edith Wharton, and Rose Terry Cooke. Rather than reading the Old Maid as subversive or repressive, Hurley asks why she emerged as an early analogue for the lesbian in the first place. Developing a theory of "type complication," this chapter shows how the Old Maid's circulation enables the emergence of the lesbian as a distinct figure (110). As accumulations of detail enable type complication and separation, chapter 4 turns to James's description and narration in The Bostonians, often seen as a forerunner of the lesbian novel. Where many readings of Jamesian style focus on "what is missing, untold, or unspeakable" (175), Hurley shifts attention to the "sheer quantity of language" (174) that James devotes to defining characters through particular places in Boston, which condense histories of female sexual sociability prior to the "standardization of a language of sexuality" (154). The novel thus dramatizes the formal processes by which sexual types are created as well...