- Circulating Queerness: Before the Gay and Lesbian Novel by Natasha Hurley
Within the last several decades the world of queer studies has rocketed through several stages, from the discovery (or rather uncovering) of gay writing of the past, through analysis and digestion, to become finally the grist of theory. In such an extremely short passage of time, these stages inevitably overlap and sometimes run headlong into each other, so that the work of the so-called anthologists—still ongoing, as Natasha Hurley acknowledges—is being published alongside that of the theorists, often before a full exploration of its substance. Circulating Queerness hovers, sometimes uneasily, between these several stages, not quite sure where it will alight. Clearly adapted from a dissertation, its insistence on the latest theoretical jargon occasionally hampers a wise and adroit study that nevertheless remains well worth the serious scholar's study. After a mandatory opening chapter of theoretical matter underpinning the book's thesis that it was the literary circulation and recirculation of certain literary tropes that eventually brought the experience of same-sex attraction into existence, the book examines (and well) two particular examples of such tropes: the use of place as symbol and origin of homosexual writing (focusing on the South Seas) and, more particularly, the image of the "old maid" as it evolved from a latent to a direct expression of homosexuality.
Foucault's idea that homosexuality did not really appear until its definition by the medical establishment is under fire here—and about time. Hurley uses the ideas of Mikhail Bakhtin and his examination of social influences on literary development as her foundation, although another critic, Harold Bloom and his so-called anxiety of influence, seems an unacknowledged and equally strong source for Hurley's insistence on the development of gay writing as a ricocheting between works and writers within the restricted literary realm of same-sex affection. The idea is an old one, but Hurley provides a compelling argument for how to re-vision the so-called genesis of gay writing. Certainly, past writers circumnavigating homosexuality were wont to usurp literary genres for their own purposes, such as medical studies as a way to legitimize homosexual experience or westerns as a way to explore homosocial attraction. But Hurley goes back even farther with the idea of using literary tropes such as places or figural types to describe gay authors' means of intervention. She develops this idea in a logical and compelling light by directing our attention to the influence gay writers had on each other and by describing how their social and literary usurpation of repeated themes or devices developed whole new levels of meaning. She thereby opens up a potentially exciting area for queer studies. The writings [End Page 118] themselves clearly influenced each other, one easily imagines, but her emphasis on social influence adds something intriguing and new. Thanks to the gay anthologists, we now often trace authors' direct interaction with each other. Joaquin Miller knew Charles Warren Stoddard, who knew Henry James, who knew Howard Overing-Sturgis, while George Sylvester Viereck knew George E. Woodberry, who knew Edward Prime-Stevenson, who knew just about everybody . . . and so on. Hurley's book sets us on a refreshingly new course, quite likely to spawn further studies. And there is some irony to it, since it sends anthologists back for a second and third look at (particularly) American literature of the past to see what might have escaped previous notice.
Hurley's examples for study are illuminating. Thanks to Herman Melville's Typee and Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Charles Warren Stoddard was able to write what might arguably be called America's first gay work, beginning with his South-Sea Idyls. Hurley gives us further reason for a contemporary reevaluation of this bold, idiosyncratic, and undervalued author. Following that, she takes us on a similar trajectory by tracing what she calls the "surfeit" of old maids in nineteenth-century writing (particularly in popular short fiction) and its various...