Coviello, Peter. Intimacy in America: Dreams of Affiliation in Antebellum Literature.
Erkkila, Betsy. Mixed Blood and Other Crosses: Rethinking American Literature from the Revolution to the Culture Wars. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. xii + 272 pp. Cloth: $55.00.
Peter Coviello's Intimacy in America: Dreams of Affiliation in Antebellum Literature(2005) and Betsy Erkkila's Mixed Blood and Other Crosses: Rethinking American Literature from the Revolution to the Culture Wars (2005) explore the representation of interpersonal and group emotional attachment in classic American texts from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Both Coviello and Erkkila suggest that queer, interracial, and illicit sexual desire underwrites literary depictions of sympathetic identification and group cohesiveness. Further, each argues that portrayals of non-normative erotic desire perform a complicated dance with racialist and nationalist sentiments. Connecting literary artistry with cultural imperatives, Coviello and Erkkila assert that many canonical American authors explore the idea that the true promise of democracy entails a radical expansion of sexual norms. Specifically, they suggest that sexual desires that dared not speak their names inform our classic authors' conceptions of white male political solidarity.
In Intimacy in America, Coviello uses the term "intimacy" to cover a lot of ground--from sexual desire to sympathetic friendship to community cohesiveness to nationalist belonging. Coviello invokes Foucault to claim that in the mid-nineteenth century--the period of his focus--traditional definitions of sexually-charged terms blurred and altered. The various shades of meanings gave texts such as Moby-Dick and Leaves of Grass resonance in their time and continue to intrigue us today. Indeed, Intimacy in America is most interesting not when addressing matters of nationality and race, but when confronting subjects long the source of speculation and titillation: Poe's pedophilia, the homoeroticism of Moby-Dick, and the masculine promiscuity of Whitman's "adhesiveness."
Regarding Poe, Coviello begins at a familiar site: the frightening portrayals of adult gender erotics in stories such as "The Fall of the House of Usher." Drawing on poems such as "Annabel Lee," Coviello suggests that Poe found safer emotional ground depicting unconsummated relationships between men and young women. From this relatively solid beginning Coviello speculates about Poe's attitudes on race and nationalism. The estrangement between sexes, Coviello claims, furnishes the logic by which we can understand Poe's racism: "[A]s women are incontestably and absolutely different from men, so are whites absolutely different from blacks" (83). These forbidding boundary lines in place, Coviello asserts that Poe found nationalist sentiment among white males equally horrible, perhaps even impossible, to contemplate: "Poe has no register in which to describe any bond between persons--let alone a bond extending mysteriously between unsuspecting strangers--that is not fundamentally terrifying" (89). Thus, Coviello ends somewhat flatly, Poe's relative quiet on the literary and political nationalism issues that engrossed peers such as Evert Duyckinck and William Gilmore Simms.
Coviello raises the stakes when he turns to Melville. A chapter entitled "Bowels and Fear: Nationalism, Sodomy, and Whiteness in MobyDick," reiterates arguments first made by D. H. Lawrence that Melville troubled antebellum beliefs in white supremacy. Coviello advances this argument by suggesting that Melville early in Moby-Dick explores the notion that homosexual affinity might serve better than race consciousness to conceptualize a united citizenry. For evidence, Coviello cites Ishmael and Queequeg's odd friendship and the eroticized fraternity of the Pequod's crew. Coviello asserts, however, that Melville ultimately forecloses on this vision of sexually-charged male solidarity. Ahab's galvanizing of the crew to chase the white whale, Coviello writes, demonstrates the "terrific power of whiteness as a vehicle for unyielding social allegiance" (125-26), and the Pequod's destruction at story's end the inevitable consequence of such a pursuit.
In Intimacy in America's most provocative chapter, "Loving Strangers," Coviello asserts that Whitman also used homosexual desire to help imagine national collective feeling among white males. Coviello claims that understanding the pervasive literalness with which Whitman portrays male-to-male physical attraction "perfectly" and "magisterially" (148) explains much that is either obscure or has been suppressed by generations of "priggish" (149) critics. Most significantly, this "gay recognition" (147) allows us to see that something akin to our contemporary notion of "cruising" (155) is afoot in Whitman's frequent portraits of fleeting but intense contacts between male strangers. These moments, claims Coviello, underwrite Whitman's vision of the "utopian relation of citizen to citizen--the relations, that is, of nationality" (155).
Erkkila, in Mixed Blood and Other Crosses, is interested in many of the same issues, authors, and texts as Coviello, and even more aggressively asserts their complicity in establishing a nefarious white male patriarchy. Examining texts ranging from Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia to Emily Dickinson's poetry, Erkkila seeks out "scenes of mixture and crossing, miscegenation and incest, doubling and hybridity, inversion and rehearsal" (ix). Understanding such passages as revelations of "phobias and fantasies," she argues that images of "blood mixture and contamination" (xi) are fixtures in the nation's collective imagination. Embedded but suppressed in our individual and national psyches, these anxieties reinforce a political inequity in which "dark, savage, sexual, and alien others" are marginalized by the "disciplinary logic of the Western Enlightenment and its legacy of blood in the Americas" (xii).
This phenomenon, Erkkila posits, found original expression in Jefferson's efforts to catalog the natural, demographic, and cultural features of Virginia. Eager to demonstrate the superiority of American republicanism, Jefferson was sure he might "constitute and fix men, bodies, sexualities, races, laws, and nationalities" (61) on behalf of a white male aristocracy. But, claims Erkkila, the difficulty of defining the new nation's "fluid, unsettled, and still contested meanings" (61) unsettled Jefferson as he wrote. In particular, Jefferson was spooked by the fact of miscegenation and acutely aware--how could he not be?--of its frequent occurrence at Monticello. The result, according to Erkkila, was a paranoiac subtext within the Notes in which Jefferson wrestles with the fact that white racial purity and, hence, white cultural authority, has already been compromised.
In Erkkila's view, Poe's project was much the same. Arguing that Poe's art for art's sake ethos and notions of purity and beauty were grounded in a cultural inclination to valorize whiteness, she claims that Poe tried to "create forms of white beauty, white art, white writing, and white culture against and beyond time, history, the body, the black, the other" (104). Fear of black bodies and sexuality energized Poe's "aestheticization of whiteness" (104) and underlies many depictions of terrifying blackness in the poetry and fiction. Poe's agenda had nationalist implications, according to Erkkila. An attempt to "unite a fractured nation and an increasingly atomized world on the common ground of culture," Poe's concept of pure beauty "cannot finally be separated from the question of race and the ongoing historical struggle over the color of American skin" (127).
Turning to Whitman, Erkkila argues even more strenuously than Coviello that both Whitman's poetics and vision of national solidarity depended on queer sexual desire. "I want to argue that Whitman's sexual love of men cannot be separated from his work and vision as the poet of American democracy" (133) she writes. She has the pictures to prove it, too--a discussion of the "chum" (149) photographs Whitman had taken of himself with much younger male friends is fascinating. Erkkila has a keen sense of the stakes involved in polemically asserting that understanding Whitman depends on recognition of his queer poetics. Scholars and teachers have long addressed or avoided as they saw fit the biographical question of Whitman's sexual desire. Now, according to Erkkila (and Coviello, too), not acknowledging the queer in the text represents a failure to fully explain Whitman's vision of America. Contentious as this idea may or may not be in scholarly circles, Erkkila documents how it is already beginning to play out explosively at the level of museum exhibits and public ceremonies honoring Whitman. The initial returns are not promising: curators and officials will go to great lengths to suppress anything that impinges on the public memory of Whitman as the "good gray poet."
Erkkila's fiery language sometimes troubles, but overall hers is a richer, more compelling study than Coviello's. Chapters that take advantage of the "Other Crosses" portion of her title especially excel. For example, a discussion of Abigail Adams and Phyllis Wheatley posits a literary and cultural high point of possibility in the early republic just before the forces of patriarchy consolidated their power. Erkkila also engagingly, if maliciously, exposes Dickinson as an aristocratic enemy of the mob and the market. The conclusion of Mixed Blood and Other Crosses traces the career and writings of C. L. R. James, the Trinidadian Melville scholar whose politically-charged, cosmopolitan criticism Erkkila finds admirable.
Poised at the intersection of queer and whiteness studies, Intimacy in America and Mixed Blood and Other Crosses advance theses that stimulate and provoke. At times, however, each author speculates on somewhat sketchy evidence or premises. Coviello's assertion that Moby-Dick's "sodomitical" (120) vision collapses when Pip prays that God "preserve him from all men that have no bowels to feel fear" (123)--with a heavy emphasis on the word "bowels" to connote anal erotics--seems labored. For her part, Erkkila claims that Poe's raven expresses the "cultural terror of the black body" (123), yet sidesteps extended discussion of the equally terrifying white body at the end of Pym.
Quibbles aside, Intimacy in America and Mixed Blood and Other Crosses compellingly articulate the erotic suggestiveness discoverable at many points in America's classic literature and politicize it by linking it to conceptions of national identity.
United States Military Academy at West Point
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|Title Annotation:||Mixed Blood and Other Crosses: Rethinking American Literature from the Revolution to the Culture Wars|
|Publication:||Studies in American Fiction|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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