Greven, David. Men Beyond Desire: Manhood, Sex, and Violation in American Literature.
At the center of David Greven's Men Beyond Desire: Manhood, Sex, and Violation in American Literature is an intriguing question: what happens if, when looking at American fiction of the nineteenth century, we shift the emphasis from the compulsory nature of heterosexuality, with its attendant panics and resistances, to the possibly compulsory nature of homosociality? What new configurations emerge when we begin to consider both the forms of social order that make male bondedness and intimacy something less than voluntary (Jacksonian nationalism, industrializing capitalism--to name two) and the sorts of anxiety and enmity between men that these pressures incubate? For Greven what emerges most consequentially is the figure of the inviolate man, resistant to the compulsions both of matrimony and male bonding, defensive, remote, a man whose refusals carry, in Greven's reading, the force of critique. Indeed, for Greven, "The inviolate male is a queer figure in that he refuses, rejects, and repudiates normative modes of sexual identity and performance" (28).
Greven pursues these formulations in readings of the works of several canonical figures: Irving, Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville, as well as Stowe and Cooper. Much of the value of the book in fact lies in its willingness to read, as relevant to the history of sexuality in America, authors and texts not immediately associated with such concerns. Especially valuable in this respect are Greven's readings of Hawthorne and of Irving. Here the multi-faceted resistances to sociability we find in both authors' work attain new significances. In his account of Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," for instance, Greven reads Ichabod Crane as a figure persecuted perhaps most of all by the homosocial, "a field of competitive cruelty" and "mutual, rivalrous enmity" (40, 43). On this score what makes the story interesting to Greven is "its critique of the homosocial, its figuring of the ostensible hero Ichabod Crane as an isolate, excluded Other, vanquished by the forces of male competitiveness and hostility" (41-42). Greven reads Hawthorne in a similar vein, noting, of the eponymous hero of Hawthorne's first (and later repudiated) novel Fanshawe, that he is a man in flight as much from a compulsory form of homosociality as from the compulsions of reproductive heterosexuality. A man who desires above all his solitude (and as Greven shows is in this way marked by pathologies of character suggestive of onanism), Fanshawe neatly "exposes the fundamental incoherence of self-made manhood's rise within a heteronormative, homosocialized culture that was equally insistent on compulsory marriage and compulsory same-sex ties and yet committed to a model of self-made individuality predicated on ... complete self-sufficiency" (77). This sets the stage for a lovely reading of the torturous relation of Chillingworth to Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter, a reading that brings the vexations of what Greven calls "homointimate relations" in Hawthorne into stark relief (125). "This is one of the most affecting portraits of a bad marriage in American literature," Greven writes. "No marriage has ever been less healing, less loving, less wholesome, less holy" (126).
Of course a book whose thesis is as sweeping as Greven's is bound to run occasionally aground. The reading of Uncle Tom's Cabin is perhaps the least persuasive portion of the book, inasmuch as Greven's chief point of contention--that Tom's hard and masculine sexuality, and not its absence, is "a profound and ever-present force ... in the novel," though cagily "obfuscate (d)" and "cloak(ed)" (154)--is never distinguished with much sharpness from the position, articulated most sharply by critics like James Baldwin and Hortense Spillers (with whom Greven does engage), that Stowe is not in fact "cloaking" Tom's sexuality but refusing it, that Tom must suffer a comprehensive emasculation as the price of his supreme virtue in Stowe's narrative economy.
But the more basic difficulties of the book are conceptual, not readerly. The reliance on a notion of compulsory homosociality, for instance, begs a number of methodological questions about just what shall be counted compulsion, and why. These questions are methodological, I think, because the book's conceptualization of compulsory homosociality is rooted in a specific style of historicism. It is sustained, that is, by a set of presumptions about the nature of the relation between persons and their contexts. In this instance, that historicism is compounded of a reading of context as more or less equivalent to "discourse," on the one hand, and on the other of a particularly Gothicized understanding of persons as forever in the terrorized, unyielding grip of those discourses. "Rather like Gulliver strapped down by tiny yet inescapable ropes fixed around him by swarming Lilliputians," Greven writes, "the white male in the antebellum era experienced the teeming grasp of innumerable forces determined to pin him down" (12). That these "forces" might be at once culturally prominent and something less than hegemonic or inescapable, and that persons might sustain toward those forces a whole array of attitudes and dispositions, is not a possibility that finds much room for itself here. It is I think this turn of mind, this methodological presumption, that assures that, where there are discourses that promote bonds between men, so too will there be a "compulsory homosociality."
A related concern has to do with the elision of one of the most crucial aspects of homosociality. Greven worries over "the potential erasure of the ever-growing violence and aggression, the pervasive conformity and rapidly hardening ideals of effeminacy-free homosociality" in accounts that move too quickly toward the queer radicality of homosocial bonds, and this is a salutary point (127). But to think of homosociality as so strictly compulsory, as a form of Jacksonian capitalist mandate, such that a desire to remain inviolate stands as a critique of such capitalist / nationalist fraternity, is to elide the very specific terror--the selt-terror--that homosociality generates. Greven writes as though excruciating fear had not been a key component of early theories of homosociality, but of course it had. Indeed Sedgwick's landmark point was that, in world where bonds between men were at once mandatory and reprobated, a man could never himself be certain that his own intimacies had not somehow migrated beyond the perimeter of the licit. That the inviolate male may be less a figure of critique than one in the grip of an acute self-fear, less in flight from the compulsions of others than from the range of unruly desires they provoke in the self, is again a possibility little provided for by the book. (This absence is most acute in the reading of The Blithedale Romance, whose narrator Miles Coverdale is nothing if not afraid of what he desires.)
Still, there is much to value in Greven's work. Beyond the strong readings, of Irving and Hawthorne in particular, and beyond the keen sense it shows of the collision between Jacksonian ideals of the self-made man and reformist insistences on purity and sentimental propriety, the book offers a bracing take on the dynamics of male intimacies in the nineteenth century, one that recognizes the presence of a variety of sentimental modes but insists too on the rivalry, fear, violence, and enmity that made the world of homosociality no less perilous, for the sexually nonnormative, than the world of reproductive heterosexuality.
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|Publication:||Studies in American Fiction|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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