Gender Protest and Same-Sex Desire in Antebellum American Literature: Margaret Fuller, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville.
For over a decade, David Greven has contributed prolifically to the fields of queer, gender, and sexuality studies--taking up a range of media and genres from the nineteenth-century short story to film noir to contemporary teen comedy. In his provocative new volume, Greven focuses on "imaginative literature" in order to address a persistently controversial question: how gender and sexuality related to one another in the antebellum United States. What he finds is a rhetorical pattern that links "gender protest" and "same-sex desire"--a network of "suggestive instances in which mourning for one's own lost and sundered gendered possibilities, on the one hand, and protesting against one's gendered curtailments, on the other hand," could also be "indicative of a longing for emotional or sexual intimacy, and perhaps sometimes both, with someone of the same gender" (39). Sexual identity and gender identity are of course not "synonymous," he is at pains to stress, and the one does not always emerge from the other, "but many important texts link the two" (6). Fuller, Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville command his attention because their works "make particularly salient the gender politics of same-sex desire in the period" (5). The connected discourses of gender and sexual disruption, he further discovers, are often imbricated with discourses of race and slavery: "An extraordinarily intricate relationship exists between race/racism and gender/sexuality/queer sexuality in antebellum texts" (71). "Interconnectedness" emerges as both organizing principle and overarching theme in the course of the book.
The broad intellectual current in which Greven works is the ongoing debate about whether we can legitimately speak of homosexuality at all in our studies of antebellum American literature. The Foucauldian line of thought, which long carried the force of orthodoxy, holds that to do so is to slide into anachronism: texts could not register homosexuality, in this view, before taxonomies of sexuality--and therefore sexual identity itself--were invented later in the nineteenth century. Greven disagrees. Making common cause with such critics as Valerie Rohy who in recent years have challenged this still-influential historicist argument, he uncovers in literary texts "an incipient queer desiring presence' (4) that was no less real in the first half of the nineteenth century than in the latter half, for all that it went "unnamed." Queer sexual possibility can arise from gender struggle and show itself in unlikely places and characters--in, say, a Ligeia or a Redburn or a Hester. We can see it, Greven maintains, if we take the trouble to look slant. Limited as resources for expressing same-sex desire were in early nineteenth-century America, imaginative literature is fertile ground to search for such expression because of its special capacity to "g[i]ve voice to both repression and discursive incitement" (47).
Gender Protest chiefly concerns itself with the "emotional" and the "aesthetic" aspects of literary representation (4)--a coupling that makes its treatment of sexuality and gender all the more revelatory. From Greven's vantage point, readings in the "new aesthetic," as in the material-historicist vein, leave aside human realities of affect, the emotional messiness--uncertainty, frustration, pain, turmoil--that often attended same-sex desire in the antebellum United States. A return to psychoanalytic theory equips Greven to fill this absence. Extending recent criticism that finds new value in some aspects of psychoanalysis, he draws creatively on Freud, Lacan, and such feminist re-visionaries as Judith Butler to bring close textual reading and affective insight together. Versions of narcissistic desire, shame, mourning, melancholia, phallic imagery, and sexual and gender identification turn out to be freshly relevant to key antebellum works, among them Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, Poe's "Ligeia" and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century and Summer on the Lakes, and Melville's Redburn.
Greven's study begins and ends in The Scarlet Letter (1850), on the scaffold with Pearl, Hester, and Dimmesdale. It seems a perverse place to start, this heterosexual family tableau at the novel's climax, but the transformation to which Hawthorne brings Pearl not only makes her a (marriageable) woman but unmakes what she had been, less definably, before. Greven suggests that the tears she sheds at her father's dying kiss may intimate, among other newly developed sympathies, grief at her own loss of what Greven names "phallic girlhood" (2)--her self-involved solitude and aggressive, unruly behavior, her freedom to play outside the gendered boundaries of Puritan and antebellum America. Remaining outside would mean perpetual "battle with the world" (1), but it would also preserve untold possibilities. Early on, Hawthorne establishes the connections between "normative gender roles" and "the foundation of normative sexual desire" (2); when Greven returns to Hester at the conclusion of his book, he will show how Hawthorne--and Freud--register both the power of that regime and the losses it inflicts.
In between, Gender Protest proceeds through chapters organized around each of its main authors, not in a disjointed series but in a gradually building network that sometimes brings authors and texts into surprising affiliation--one of the book's most compelling features. The first of these pairs is Margaret Fuller and Edgar Allan Poe. Their surprising affiliation lies in negative phallic imagery, primarily in Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) and Poe's "Ligeia" (1838). Cogently, Greven asks what is at stake when the author using phallic imagery is a woman, or when the author is a man associating such imagery with a female character (43-44). Reading the Fuller and Poe texts in company with health and sexual reform literature, Greven locates evidence of "a rhetorical system, coded and allusive, for the discussion of non-normative sexualities" (40), and figuring large in that system are multivalent phallic signifiers, which Greven analyzes in Freudian, Lacanian, and feminist terms oriented to his own purposes. Appropriated forms of the phallus, sign of (white, heterosexual) male power, unsettle rigid gender codes in texts by both women and men--and thus engender queer possibility, whether as threat or promise.
In the health reform literature of such writers as Sylvester Graham and Mary Gove Nichols, the failure of men to be manly issues in all manner of sexual deviancies, sharing as common signifier the diseased penis. In Fuller's feminist book--a radical critique of "phallic monism" (which strikes Greven as "uncannily Lacanian-feminist" )--the "cankering worm" of patriarchy (58) must be pulled clean away from the root of society so that not only women but also, ultimately, men can enter a utopia of gender fluidity that would seem to allow for sexual fluidity as well. And at the final crisis in Poe's tale "Ligeia," the title character rises up as the "phallic feminine" (71), riveting and yet terrible in the male narrator's eyes, destructive of heterosexual and lesbian desire alike. Greven goes so far as to call her "post-identity" (94). That antebellum texts so different in genre betray a queer presence gives cumulative weight to Greven's core claim.
The utopian social vision Fuller expresses in Woman is both uncompromising in its reformism and humane at its heart, in Greven's view. Her gender protest on behalf of women (pushing back in part against the "Cult of True Womanhood") opens to a larger sympathy for liminal and otherwise suffering groups: "old bachelors and old maids," for example, who were at the time sexually suspect in their nonconformity (64); and people oppressed because of their skin color, whom she explicitly relates to women. What Poe dramatizes in "Ligeia" is hardly utopian--gothic violence shapes his "phallic feminine"--but Greven sees in the tale's gender upheavals the signs of non-normative sexuality. Ligeia, the narrator's deceased first wife, returns to defeat death--"the Conqueror Worm"--by overpowering and inhabiting the body of Rowena, his second wife, in a convulsive embrace that kills the possibility of lesbian relation at the very moment of its birth; and the narrator finds himself, along with his masculine authority and heterosexual claims, irrelevant in the face of Ligeia's towering self-possession. Race plays a lead role in this protest drama: in the struggle between the fair Rowena and the dark-haired, dark-eyed Ligeia (whose "racialized aspects" are "precisely" the ones her husband "fetishizes" ), Greven reads an allegory of unstable relationships between slave mistress and female slave--a striking and provocative connection to make. Bringing Harriet Jacobs and Harriet Beecher Stowe into the picture, he is able to discern "a pre-Civil War lesbian register located specifically within encounters between white and non-white women" (40).
"The queer potentialities of [both] Fuller's and Poe's work," Greven suggests, "stem from their awareness of the contingent and constructed natures of gender and sexual normativity," which is in part to say, these early nineteenth-century texts are already formulating concepts that will later be named and codified by psychoanalysis (56). Identification, narcissism, and melancholia, among those concepts, are prominently at play in Fuller's travelogue Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 (1844), which has attracted surprisingly little notice as a queer text--though Fuller herself is increasingly considered a lesbian writer. Digressing from her travel narrative, Fuller spins a semi-autobiographical tale of two girls at boarding school, one an exotically colorful and tragic adolescent and the other a shy child who idolizes and courts her unsuccessfully (Fuller's child-persona, though both have something of the author in them). According to Greven, "in the fictional character of Mariana and through her evocation of female narcissism, Fuller created one of the most moving lesbian figures in nineteenth-century literature" (40).
Recalling Ligeia, Mariana is a bold gender nonconformist with mixed-race heritage, a "Spanish-Creole" from New Orleans. (Fuller frequently "explor[es] gender ambiguity through racialized figures," Greven observes .) In Greven's reading, Mariana's gender protest emerges in her defiant performance of hyperfemininity--exaggerated make-up and clothing, self-centering theatrics--in response to the fascinated scorn her difference provokes in most of the other female students. Desire has turned inward, and Mariana in her narcissism mourns the homoerotic connections that have never come to life--much like Hawthorne's Pearl. When, after her schooling concludes, the aggressively passionate young woman pursues and marries the indifferent Sylvain (bringing Hester and Dimmesdale to mind), she enters into a variety of relationship that Greven argues should receive larger play in a more capacious understanding of queer experience: "marriage between a heterosexual woman" and, in modern terms, "a closeted gay male" (115).
The two ocean-going narratives Greven turns to next--Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838) and Melville's Redburn (1849)--bring male gender protest and homoeroticism to the fore. Things that cannot be expressed on land, it seems, can come closer to expression at sea. In Pym, it is grief over an undiscoverable country of all-male community that signals queer desire. And Greven finds this gender trouble organizing the narrative at its uppermost level of structure: the first half of the novel mourns collective loss; the second half, because homoerotic mourning in a homophobic society cannot reach closure, falls into melancholia and dry-eyed blankness. In the application of revised Freudian theory reflected in this analysis, Greven "both extends the study of Poe's representation of male sexuality, a much needed effort, and joins the growing body of new queer critical revaluations of melancholia" (127).
At the launch of the narrative, Pym escapes to sea by disguising himself in order to fool his grandfather--introducing the recurrent queer figure of the self-reinventing hypocrite and joining other men who are on the lam from patriarchal constraint and compulsory socialization. In the adventure story that follows, the ship's crew members come together onboard but treachery and death almost immediately begin to pull them apart; male bonds erode, and along with them, in Greven's account, the potential for homoerotic desire. This failure appears in the sacral language of "intimate communion" (a turn on Emersonian "soul-unity") (132-33), which devolves into narcissism and cannibalism--the swallowing of the other into the self that, as in Fuller's Mariana, can signal queer pain and possibility. Failure also appears in the grotesquery of gender theatrics (as in Marianas self-display and Ligeia's "Conqueror Worm"); the debility of uncontrolled male tears (here wonderfully linked to Susan Warner's sentimental 1850 novel The Wide, Wide World); and the hybridity of the "double-phallic" Dirk Peters, who "embodies racial and sexual anxiety" even as he embodies homoerotic desire (135). Finally, the white figure that towers enigmatically in front of Pym, Peters, and the black Tsalalian native Nu-Nu at the novel's climax can signal "gender ambiguity, male sexuality, and a privileged racial category" all "at once" (161). But most profoundly, in Greven's reading, it also stands as the blankness of melancholia, the erasure of queer possibility. Greven argues not that Poe is an "anti-racist" or a supporter of homosexual freedom--or, as "Ligeia" shows, a thoroughgoing feminist--but that he is "attuned to the costs and implications of ideological strongholds, even if he also supports the maintenance of these strongholds" (161). Elsewhere in Greven's narrative, versions of this assessment apply to Hawthorne and Freud as well.
Themes of desire between men run insistently through Melville, and Greven advocates for "fresh attention" to Redburn in this vein--"as a critique of the construction of gender and sexuality in post-Jacksonian America" (165). Queer evocations in Melville sometimes speak of the sublime, as in the famous sperm-squeezing passage, but more often they speak of torment: here, in Greven's reading, homoeroticism primarily makes itself felt in the predatory sway older men can have over vulnerable boys, particularly in the shipboard threat of sodomitical rape. Greven's focal points are the satirical representation of Andrew Jackson in a fictional character of the same last name; Redburn's experience at sea under that character's regime; and his interpretation of the 1813 Nelson Monument in Liverpool. The nineteenth-century contexts that inform these analyses--yielding a "repertoire of images and tropes" for same-sex desire (170)--are discourses of sodomy, queer Hellenism (a register Fuller also uses), and abolition.
The gender protest that Melville vests in Redburn is the latter's nonconformity, which puts him in a vulnerable position. Henry Jackson, a physically weak sailor who nonetheless bullies the ship's crew, embodies the brutal enforcement of the "masculinist code" in post-Jacksonian America (175), and he particularly directs that brutality at the handsome young Redburn. The other sailors follow suit, ridiculing Redburn for effeminacy. That the novel's protagonist both mourns his exclusion and hates his tormentors, both desires and dreads them, according to Greven, points to the common nautical practice of sodomy--source of a coded language of violation or pleasure on which Melville draws to represent the difficulties of male-male intimacy.
Redburn's ekphrastic reading of the Nelson monument interleaves these discourses of gender and homoeroticism with a more direct discourse of race and slavery. This monument in the classical style shows a nude Admiral Nelson standing in victory atop the chained nude figures of four white male prisoners, while a skeletal figure of death slyly "grop[es] after his heart" (186). Melville gives his protagonist the ability, in Greven's words, to "read allegory allegorically" (188): the victory of Nelson, in itself a sculptural allegory, explicitly becomes the oppression of African Americans in slavery, which implicitly becomes Redburn's abjection to an abusive older man aboard ship--all inspired by a Hellenist art that celebrates the beauty of male physicality. In Redburn's "proto-abolitionist rhetoric" (188), Melville critiques the slave trade and at the same time, no more or less importantly, allegorizes same-sex desire; "the difficult topic of race," Greven repeatedly and perhaps controversially suggests, "could serve ... as an available coded means of exploring the even more difficult, perhaps, question of same-sex desire (which is to say, more difficult in a rhetorical and discursive sense)" (25). Such ambivalent homoeroticism as Melville registers in Redburn's monument scene and sodomitical culture, according to Greven, also finds voice in the language of the shudder: in scenes where one man gazes or thinks on another man, Hawthorne and Poe as well as Melville use shuddering as code for both the fear and the pleasure of queer desire.
And here Gender Protest and Same-Sex Desire comes back to Hawthorne, Pearl, and Hester--comes back, in a telling sense, to heterosexuality. Greven's Pearl is an important if temporary queer presence in the days of her "phallic girlhood," but his Hester, oddly enough, is a more enduring queer presence over the long years of her illicit opposite-sex desire. Through the end of the novel, she sustains her difference, despite relentless pressure from the community that has ostracized her and the particular cruelty of its female members (except for a young woman who may later be the one to make Hester's scarlet letter throb, an image of sympathy that carries lesbian overtones). Hester keeps passionate faith with her erotic nature, and the sign of that self-affirming faith is her return to Boston to abide at the scene of her shame--and more powerfully, in Greven's reading, the scene of her unassailable desire for the lost Dimmesdale. Painfully as she struggles to embrace conformity, Hester comes back in the name of transgressive love. It is in this "representation of a denatured and criminal heterosexuality," Greven proposes, that Hawthorne "comes closest" to a "queer philosophy of sexual politics" (41).
Nonetheless, the vexing problem of The Scarlet Letter's final scenes demands its due. The price Hawthorne exacts from both Pearl and Hester for the queerness he has allowed them is indeed high, and the implications, Greven acknowledges, are deeply troubling. However, in response to such critics as Sacvan Bercovitch who judge conservatism to be the author's strict governing sensibility in the novel, Greven argues that they have mistaken Hawthorne's "social pessimism" for misogyny. The tribute Hawthorne pays to female sexuality is genuine, but like Freud (whose celebrated analysand Dora is brought into fascinating parallel with Hester), he holds a "tragic view" of the fate of gender and sexual protest (197). Both Freud and Hawthorne register the suffering inflicted by pressures to conform, but neither imagines a way out. The critical value of drawing judiciously on Freud to supply what Foucault and other historicists overlook makes itself powerfully felt in Greven's Scarlet Letter. His persuasive reading of Hester's return depends on conveying the intensity of her passion for Dimmesdale--the vivid complexities of the emotional life Hawthorne has given her--a task well-suited to such psychoanalytic resources as Freud's study of female desire in Dora. Greven's approach to queer desire in antebellum U.S. literature is richly generative. It extends important and timely strains of scholarship--reparative uses of psychoanalytic theory, studies of affect, new aesthetic approaches to text, critical studies of race--and, beyond the value of any single strain, their complex interconnectedness. It throws new light on scenes well known for the bedevilments they cause readers, prominent among them Hester's return to Boston and the looming white figure at the conclusion of Pym. And of particular salience to the audience of this journal, it ushers readers both into the critical narrative and out of it through The Scarlet Letter. While Greven makes clear on his next-to-last page that he intends to stake no special claim for Hawthorne in this rhetorical choice--the study "could have begun and ended at quite different places" (223)--scholars with special investments in Hawthorne may be inclined to ponder the question of placement further.
Greven, in any case, expressly refuses the "artificial sense of closure" that critical books by their nature invite and that a rhetorical circuit as neat as the one he creates can teasingly reinforce. He has aimed, rather, to "reopen the question" of "queer desire in antebellum literature"--"reopen it and leave it ajar" (223). The goal of perpetuating conversation is of course generally understood to be at work in academic scholarship, but Greven's commitment is unusually full-voiced. Throughout Gender Protest are signposts to paths of inquiry beyond those the author can travel himself. A few of examples out of many: transgender identity and antebellum queer desire; lesbian identity, lesbian panic, and "the latter-nineteenth-century figure of the female hysteric" (105 n. 29); and works produced by Melville, Whitman, Stowe, and Jacobs in the decade following Greven's stopping point--the "queer 1850s," a period during which a "queer desiring presence became less incipient and more palpable" (223, 224). To Greven's list I would add non-canonical authors and the matter of canonicity itself in light of Gender Protest's questions. Scholars piqued by this study's explorations will discover much in its pages to invite their own.
"Humane" is a word of particular praise Greven bestows on Fuller, and he is worthy of it himself. There is generosity, along with a certain humility (a trait not so characteristic of Fuller), in his critical temperament: not only the strong communitarian impulse that overflows his own project to encourage other scholars but also his commitment to honoring the complex struggles of queer emotional life that he finds intimated in antebellum U.S. literature. The "genius of desire," as he calls it, lies in "its resilience and tenacity and perverse stubbornness in the face of seemingly insuperable odds" (39). Recovering the record of such tenacity in an era when it supposedly didn't exist--that is work of high human value.
Washington State University
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|Publication:||Nathaniel Hawthorne Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2015|
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