- Identifying (with) the Queerness of Melville’s Pierre
James Creech’s Closet Writing/Gay Reading is a remarkable book in several ways. First, it offers a significantly new interpretation of Melville’s enigmatic novel Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852), which has increasingly been viewed as marking a crucial turning point in Melville’s career, gaining the status of a major if equivocal work of nineteenth-century American fiction. Creech’s reading of Pierre adds much to previous work on homosexuality in Melville’s writings, making an important contribution to the history of Melville criticism. Supported by a shrewd, detailed analysis of the novel, and some surprising extratextual evidence, he argues compellingly that Pierre is preoccupied with the closeting of gay identity and with the tenuous possibilities for homosexual self-expression in a repressively heterosexual culture. Nevertheless, as its subtitle suggests, Pierre is a work that advertises its own ambiguity with a high degree of ironic self-awareness. Creech’s claims about it, made with a certain bravado, though accompanied by many hesitations and caveats, seem at times to diminish the complexity with which the novel itself explores the problem of identity.
In addition to its interest as a reading of Pierre, Closet Writing/Gay Reading also represents a provocative statement within the wider context of critical and theoretical work on homosexuality, staking out a position that resists both the problematizing of identity performed by queer theory and the historicizing aims of much recent gay studies work. Creech elaborates the notion of “identificatory” or “camp reading” with great self-consciousness about its place in the critical landscape, so that it is as much a reaction to various theoretical positions as a stance in its own right. It is the combination of this critical hyperawareness, as if continually looking over one’s shoulder, and a kind of willed innocence with respect to interpretive problems that is most extraordinary, and it is worth exploring further.
If one of the book’s aims is to add to a theory of the closet, it is also concerned with describing a poststructuralist theory that is in complicity with the suppression or emptying-out of homosexual meaning. Creech’s argument that deconstruction in particular has been blind to homosexual content contains in its margins a personal narrative of his own emergence from a theory closet. One of the strategies of Creech’s reading is to make his coming-out story converge with the one that he attributes to Pierre: his unambiguous claim for Pierre’s gay identity is simultaneously an avowal of a critical approach no longer in conflict with his own sexual identity. He alludes to his early and lingering attraction to deconstruction, the subsequent discovery that its influence, inhibiting unequivocal identity claims, prevented him from affirming his sexuality, and his tentative, incomplete, but increasingly assured rejection of that influence. Creech [End Page 30] asserts more than once that an analysis of Pierre’s impossible mourning would be valuable, but the story of his own critical history begins to sound like an account of the identifications, losses, and self-reproaches typical of melancholia. In this light Closet Writing/Gay Reading is interesting not because it is itself representative of recent gay criticism, but because it is a highly original, idiosyncratic, and suggestive response to a representative set of critical pressures surrounding the problem of identity.
The central methodological claim of Closet Writing/Gay Reading is that identification is the form of reader response necessary to bring closeted homosexual meaning to light. Creech argues that the task of gay literary criticism is to counter the reductiveness of traditional, straight criticism by “putting homosexuality back in its rightful place, reimagining the text from which it has been censored, within which it has only been allowed an encrypted and ciphered status, or out of which it has been abstracted” . Gay literary criticism faces the interpretive problem of recovering homosexual meaning that may have become nearly invisible through the combined effects of the restrictive cultural imperatives under which the author was writing and the reductiveness of later criticism...