It's not often that an interpretation of a text I think I know well sends me scurrying back to the original, but this is precisely what happened when I read David Greven's first major claim in this book. At the end of The Scarlet Letter, he says, Pearl cries not because Dimmsdale is dying or because her mother is sad, but because she is mourning her lost "boyhood" (1-3). Yes, I agreed that Pearl is wild, aggressive, and perhaps the most interesting character in the book, but it struck me as quite a leap to say, as Greven does, that "all this time what has chiefly and dangerously been kept in suspense [by the novel] is Pearl's gendered identity" (2). Another go at Hawthorne's last chapter did little to bring me over to Greven's argument. I had to wait until the last chapter of his book, and his return to Pearl, for the full interpretation. When he does elaborate, he is more convincing as he puts the novel, and specifically Pearl, into conversation with Freud's Fragments of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, or Dora. Indeed, when he asks literary and psychoanalytic texts to talk to each other, as he often does, the results are often striking and effective.
To frame his analysis of specific texts, Greven's introduction makes several basic claims: antebellum gender roles were strict and different; same-sex desire may be but is not always linked to gender nonconformity; in and out of literature, same sex relations were more constrained than heterosexual ones; and our readings of literary texts need not be limited to what their authors or historical moments might have allowed. Having stated these basic claims, Greven then identifies seven propositions for the study of queer sexuality in antebellum American literature: that the unnaming of same sex desire is a kind of naming; that race discourse, emotional excessiveness, and theatricality (counting as three propositions) can function as allegorical registers for same-sex desire; that homoerotic feeling can be glimpsed in the period's Hellenism; that transgressive heterosexual desire can indicate queerness; and that same-sex desire entails "attempts to challenge conformist models of gender identify" (36). By means of these propositions, Greven aims to challenge certain applications of a Foucauldian model of sexual history: applications which, Greven contends, foreclose conversations about the representation of same-sex desire. According to the Foucauldian model, sexual acts were distinct from sexual identities before the end of the nineteenth century, and in antebellum literary studies, this claim has prompted furious debates over who and what count as queer and homosexual characters, behaviors, and desires. Without getting mired in these historical debates, Greven re-opens that door to conversations about queer sexuality in the antebellum period.
In the six chapters that follow, Greven examines literary works along with examples of antebellum writing about sexuality and gender as well as psychoanalytic theories from Freud through today. Rather than merely applying psychoanalysis to literature, Greven shows how Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, Harriet Jacobs, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe speak to Lacan, Freud, Sedgwick, Butler, and Foucault, among others. Yet for the most part, Greven's arguments about the literature rely on psychoanalytic claims rather than close reading. Otherwise, tears would not clearly signify semen; the blood pouring from a gash in a man's thigh would not have to signify male ejaculate, menstrual blood, and afterbirth; and one woman gruesomely killing another would not have to be a "queer scene between women" (84) that gives "lesbian themes" to Poe's story "Ligeia" (75). Though Greven's reliance on psychoanalysis does not, to my mind, necessarily weaken his arguments about literary texts, I suspect that they presuppose readers who are already very sympathetic to a psychoanalytic framework.
Greven's treatment of same-sex desire especially relies on psychoanalysis. His literary examples of gender protest are quite satisfying, particularly when compared as they here with popular nineteenth-century discourse on gender. He makes some very interesting claims about gender--that "girl" and "woman" are different genders, and that a man can drag as a man-- but he does not interrogate in a similarly provocative way the terms "same," "sex," and "desire." Desire is much more difficult to talk about, as Greven readily and joyfully admits (30). Since we know so little about it, particularly about female desire, and since --as Greven clearly shows--the texts themselves do not and cannot explicitly represent same-sex desire, we need some sort of foothold to talk about it. Psychoanalysis provides that foothold, but it does not lead Greven to pressure "same," "sex," and "desire" in the way that his texts sometimes seem to be asking him to do.
For those less inclined to psychoanalysis, Greven's analysis of Melville's often overlooked novel Redburn sticks most closely to the text and makes a strong contribution to Melville studies. The novel's "Russian doll series of embedded allegories," Greven argues, critiques antebellum-era racism, compulsory gender roles, and the "perils and possibilities of sexual nonconformity" (166). Anticipating Simone de Beauvoir, Greven suggests, the novel shows us that men, like women, are not born but made.
I found most persuasive the chapter on Poe's Pym, a novel that clearly has something unsaid keeping it afloat. Pym, Greven argues, not only critiques the compulsory homosociality that dominated the period, but also sounds an "elegiac cry of loss" over what kinds of sociality and sexuality were foreclosed by rigid forms of homosociality. But does Poe's group of sailors constitute what Gayatri Spivak calls a "sexual subaltern," as Greven suggests (134)? Since Spivak has rigorously defined this term and warned against using it too broadly, its suitability in Greven's reading of Poe's novel is not self-evident.
Greven's account of desire, as I have already noted, raises further questions. While he does indeed "open the door" to the appearance of same-sex desire in his chosen texts, his analyses of this desire are not always satisfying. For instance, though he claims that same-sex desire in the antebellum period is best "registered" by fiction (4), his most convincing instance of possible lesbian behavior comes from Harriet Jacobs' autobiographical writing. Here, the young slave girl is made to hear both her master and her mistress, Mr. and Mrs. Flint, whispering suggestively in her ear. Since Jacobs remembers fearing that her mistress's whispering would lead to something even "more terrible," something too terrible to be recorded, Greven suggests that Mrs. Flint is not merely mimicking her husband to make Jacobs confess, as Jacobs herself speculates. Rather, Greven argues, Mrs. Flint may perhaps use her husband's methods as a "model through which to express her own desire" (88). I think Greven is on to something here, for while Jacobs calls Mrs. Flint "jealous," she also allows us to infer that this jealousy springs from same-sex desire: not from possessive resentment of her husband's interest in another woman, but from her own interest in a woman who is also sought by her husband. Moreover, regardless of Mrs. Flint's true intentions, Jacobs herself in this scene is clearly subjected to unwanted sexual attention from another woman. It strikes me as odd, then, that Greven stresses the ambiguity of Mrs. Flint's intentions--as if she were a fictional character--rather than the ambiguity of Jacobs' language within her narrative.
Greven plausibly claims that rather than making itself explicit in his chosen texts, same-sex desire mostly "operate[s] as an intelligence on an unconscious level" (130). But when he examines individual moments in these texts, he leaves us with more questions than answers, especially since so much of his argument depends upon the meaning of slippery terms like "erotic," "sexual," and "desire" in the psychoanalytic tradition. The door he opens is indeed left ajar, as he says it ought to be (223), for more debate about what lies behind it. On the other hand, Greven's accounts of gender protest in the writings of Fuller, Jacobs, Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville are convincing and exciting. They make this book a strong contribution to the study of gender non-conformity in the antebellum period as well as to research on the intersection of race and gender.
Laura Zebuhr, Assistant Professor of English at the University of St.
Thomas, St. Paul, MN, is the author of a dissertation titled The New Work of Friendship: Antebellum American Literature, Democracy, Impossibility (Minnesota, 2011).