It’s almost that time of year again—and we don’t just mean Halloween. The eagerly anticipated fifth season of the American Horror Story anthology on the FX television channel is ready to air.
AHS is something of a guilty pleasure for the two of us, not least for its superb casts, vivid (if grotesque) blending of history with American popular culture, and wild, even haunting, flights of imagination that often touch on themes of dehumanization, prejudice, fairness, and justice.
The two of us aren’t alone. Many people love to be terrified out of their wits by fictional ghosts, psychopaths, and disturbed strangers who lurk in shadows at the dark end of the street—just so long as nobody really gets hurt and the story finally ends.
This blog post is one of two about the publication of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman. Stay tuned next week for Kay Whitlock's follow-up on the conversation.
American readers love stories of political uplift and inspiration rather than forthright, bluntly honest accounts of unpalatable truths and realities. They especially love them when they are spoken by innocent young girls.
After just over half a century, Harper Lee, author of the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird, has released Go Set a Watchman, her eagerly awaited second novel. But, with a novelist’s twist, Watchman is, in reality, her first novel, an earlier version of Mockingbird’s characters, but set later in their lives.
Lee submitted Watchman in 1957 to Tay Hohuff, an editor at J.B. Lippincott and Co., who felt the manuscript—in which Jean Louise Finch confronts the racism her of father Atticus, her potential lover Henry, and her beloved town—needed considerable work. Hohuff worked with the thirty-one-year-old first-time novelist to rewrite the story from the perspective of a younger version of the narrator, two decades earlier. That version, in which Atticus’s overt racism is erased or obscured, became To Kill a Mockingbird.
First announced in February 2014, the publication of Watchman has been a publicist’s dream. After its release in 1960, Mockingbird became an instant classic and a staple of high school reading lists. (The 1962 film starred Gregory Peck as Atticus.) But after Mockingbird, Lee became reclusive, never publishing another novel. Two years ago, Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carte, claims to have discovered the manuscript of Watchman in a safe deposit box and it was quickly—allegedly with the eighty-nine-year-old Lee’s permission (some friends question her current state of mental competency)—snapped up by HarperCollins. Excitement for the new work was palpable and Watchman became the most pre-ordered book in history with over two million copies printed. (Mockingbird has sold forty million.)
Questions have swirled around Lee’s career and life for decades, and Watchman has only added to them. Why had she never published another novel? Why did she remain out of the limelight for half a century? If Watchman was an early version of Mockingbird, why was it only recently discovered? Did Lee actually consent to the publication of this early work? Some of these questions may have answers, some may not, and frankly, some of them are no one’s business. Certainly, since Watchman’s publication on July 14, the most urgent question for the media and a multitude of readers is: how has one of the most beloved characters in modern American fiction become, overnight—and in an earlier version of the story—not only a racist, but a member of the Ku Klux Klan and active in the leadership of the local version of the notorious White Citizens Council?
Much of the power of Mockingbird comes from the narrative voice of six-year-old Scout Finch detailing her small Alabama town and her father’s defense of Tom Robinson, an African-American man falsely accused of rape. Intimate and heart-warming, the book became emblematic of the white liberal race politics of Kennedy’s Camelot, with rational, just, and courageous Atticus—his name means “citizen of Athens”—as the mythical great white savior. Mockingbird appeared after the Montgomery bus boycott and Brown v. Board of Education and before the Freedom Rides of 1961 and the 1963 March on Washington. Atticus, in book and film, became a touchstone for many white readers and viewers who identified with his integrity and vision of justice in a world wracked with racial turmoil and strife.
Tay Hohuff, by all accounts a brilliant editor, understood that a mid-late 1950s readership (the final draft of Mockingbird had to have been submitted at least a year before publication) would have responded strongly to a heartwarming bildungsroman of a young girl with an idealistic father. In many ways, Mockingbird is the sentimental version of Carson McCullers’ emotionally harsher girlhood coming-of-age stories such as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) and Member of the Wedding (1946). Watchman may have been too blatantly political coming from a young, white, Southern woman writer at the time.
Each book gives us a political vision of race relations in America written closely together, but published half a century apart, that is a reflection of the presumed reader’s emotional and political response. Mockingbird represents the perhaps naïve, white liberal hopes and desires for justice in 1959 America, and Watchman, with its harsher explorations of racism, painfully resonates and intersects perfectly with our own political culture in which #BlackLivesMatter and controversies over the Confederate Flag are paramount in the news.
But there is a larger question here: when is a society ready to understand the harsh political truths an author might bring them? Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl was first published in Dutch in 1947. In three years, it went through six editions, and in 1950s was translated into English and other languages. During the editing process, Otto Frank, Anne’s father, removed various diary entries that reflected on Anne’s emerging sexuality, her highly conflicted relationship to her mother, and thorny family matters; these deletions remained in all editions until 1989 when they were restored.
In the 1950s, American novelist Meyer Levin, forty-four, after having read the French Le Journal de Anne Frank, wrote a theatrical version he felt profoundly portrayed the horror of the Holocaust as well as the very specific Jewish qualities and character of the Frank family. After a series of protracted, painful negotiations with Otto Frank, who had been persuaded to give the rights over to a non-Jewish writing team in an attempt to make the play “more universal” and, for Levin, less Jewish, Levin was forced to give up the project. Even worse, the new writers took out many of Anne’s political observations and her anger. Levin, who was deeply committed to his truth of the story, eventually, in 1973, wrote The Obsession, his version of how the play betrayed the material. Frank’s Diary and the plays and film made from it are all modern classics, even as the last two—Levin was right—avoid the harsher truth of history to sentimentally engage without challenging the audience.
Even the published Diary has been subject to expurgation in the public imagination. The most quoted line from Frank’s book is “in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Yet in the context of the Diary, it is: “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually turning into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us too.”
Novelist Cynthia Ozick, in her essay “Who Owns Anne Frank,” speculates a “salvational outcome: Anne Frank’s diary burned, vanished, lost—saved from a world that made it of all things, some of them true, while floating lightly over the heavier truth of named and inhabited evil.” There is a very real chance that if the Diary had been published unexpurgated or the play and film really reflected Frank’s original they would never have had the impact that they did.
Literature does not exist in a vacuum. To reach an audience it needs to be published, sold, bought and read. Mockingbird was the perfect book for the early 1960s. Watchman, despite its literary imperfections and adult Scout’s ultimate decision to accommodate herself to mainstream racism in her hometown, may well be a book more suited to our time, not the imagined, more sentimental world of Mockingbird. Time will tell if Watchman speaks to readers today, and if the adult Jean Louise has the power to be heard as much as her younger self Scout.
Early in the morning on Saturday, June 27, 2015, ten days following a mass killing in a historic Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, Bree Newsome, a young Black artist and activist, refused demands from law enforcement authorities to come down from the flagpole she was climbing near the memorial to Confederate soldiers on the grounds of South Carolina’s capitol.
Instead, she continued to the top of the pole to take down the "Stars and Bars" or "Southern Cross," a potent symbol of the Confederacy carried as a battle flag by Robert E. Lee. It was the only way to take down the flag at this particular site; it cannot be raised or lowered by the usual cord and pulley mechanism. The flag flies until two-thirds of the predominantly white state legislature votes otherwise.
Once Newsome was down, arrested, and charged (not ironically) with defacing a public monument, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle publicly expressed concern that she was making it harder for them to remove the flag. “Citizens please engage legally, or we lose!” a Charleston Democratic state representative tweeted.
But Newsome’s carefully planned direct action captivated the public imagination.
The media characterized her action as a protest against “hate.” Newsome herself was precise: her act of civil disobedience signaled the urgent, imperative need to dismantle white supremacy.
Hate. White supremacy. Is there really any difference? Does it matter what we call it?
Yes. If #BlackLivesMatter, and they must, it matters profoundly.
A true mark of today’s paradigm shift is seeing how quickly the media and American society at large learned to address Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox by their new gender identities. The widespread visibility of diverse LGBT identities continues to expand. This is the kind of progress that’s important to see, especially for children who are gay, trans, or nonconforming to binary gender.
Myth 16: There's No Such Thing as a Gay or Trans Child
Over the past two decades, more and more young people have been declaring, and at younger and younger ages, that they are gay or trans. But these gay and trans youth are consistently told that their feelings are not real and will just go away. Some parents fear that if mainstream culture accepts same-sex desire and gender noncomformity as normal, healthy, and positive, their children may be encouraged to engage in it. They are correct. Different models of sexual behavior and gender, especially the widespread visibility of LGBT identities, do offer new ways for people of all ages to behave and identify themselves. The increase in children actively identifying as trans is a direct result of the greater cultural visibility of transgender adults since the mid-1990s.
This is more than a question of identity, and adults know it. Think about all the work parents and educators put into teaching children how to be proper young men and women and shielding them from sexually explicit material. This considerable labor reveals the fear that underlies the myth that there are no gay and trans children: a child, especially your own, might somehow become gay or trans. Given this cultural tension, it is no surprising that when young people assert that they are gay or trans, many adults become very nervous and upset. Clearly, these young people not only know too much about sex and gender, but they know far too much about the wrong forms of sex and gender—and are willing to say so publicly.
The best way to silence to voices of children and ensure they grow up the "right way" is to create a special social category around them that adults control. This may sound odd to us now, but it is exactly what has happened. In the not-so-distant past, adults created this category. It is called childhood. Conceiving of childhood as a separate phase of life is a distinctly modern way of defining an individual by age. In his 1962 landmark book Centuries of Childhood, Philippe Ariès dates the invention of the child to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
As we move into LGBTQ Pride month we are being met with a deluge of public discussions, events, breaking news stories, and potentially groundbreaking legal decisions that impact not only the queer community but American social and political life. The Supreme Court is poised, by the end of the month, to make a major decision. Not on the fate, but the expansion of marriage equality. Caitlyn Jenner’s blossoming appearance on the cover of Vanity Fair moves the public discussion of transgender lives forward in major and surprising ways. The Supreme Court’s 2014 Hobby Lobby decision set a new bench mark for legal definitions of “religious exemptions” and the constantly contested interplay between anti-discrimination laws and religious freedom in America.
A decade ago, executive editor at Beacon Press Gayatri Patnaik asked me to edit Queer Ideas and Queer Action, two new series for Beacon Press. We were acutely aware that while smart books on LGBTQ issues are always needed, the news cycle of these issues, not to mention the rapid advances that the movement has been making, could easily render today’s vital topics less important, or even passé and obsolete tomorrow. The challenge was to identify contemporary, critical social and political issues, and find people to write about them in ways that would transcend the political moment and shape and form the conversation for years to come. Looking back, I believe we have done that and more.
Amid the excitement following the announcement of the forthcoming publication of a second novel by Harper Lee, the author of the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, a work featuring the return of an adult Scout Finch to her hometown, the most prominent initial reaction was a sentimental outpouring of love for a book (and movie) that many readers say gave them their first introduction to the struggle for racial justice. Lost in the excited flurry of response is the unexpected relevance of To Kill a Mockingbird to current tensions throughout the country—in Ferguson, Oakland, New York City, Chicago, Cleveland, and many other communities—regarding "hate violence," structural racism, police violence, and a persistent culture of antiblackness in American society.
To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most heralded American stories of the twentieth century. Harper Lee’s novel won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize and has since sold more than thirty million copies. Many white people remember Mockingbird as the story that first opened their eyes to the terrible wrongs of racial injustice. Cultural and political scholars have examined the novel’s representations of the racial dynamics and community life of fictional Maycomb, Alabama, and its exploration of the relation of social norms to questions of justice.
What is a mob, actually? We say the word, and tend to think of it as a crowd of people. But a mob is not a crowd; it is a state of mind.… Two or three people, even one can become a mob. —Lillian Smith, novelist and civil rights activist
It was another tragedy in a distrustful, on-edge society steeped in violent confrontation and extra-judicial killing as the solution to whatever ails us.
What motivates these on-the-spot executions? Fear? Resentment? Rage? Disgust? Misbegotten feelings of some sort of imagined superiority: racial, religious, gendered? Maybe just a hair-trigger impulse to strike back decisively at anyone who symbolizes an enemy? Or maybe, at times, the motivation is some terrible combination of any or all of these emotions that results in a desire, as Lillian Smith wrote, to hurt somebody.
There have been so many tragedies lately. Too many.
On February 10, 2015, Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammed Abu-Sahla, 19, were shot to death—bullets to their heads—in a condominium complex in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. They were Muslim, all pursuing or about to pursue studies at UNC and North Carolina State University.
The birth of the American film industry, first in New York and then Hollywood, changed how Americans thought about politics, law, and social justice. Beginning in colonial times, newspapers, pamphlets, and books were enormously influential in shaping public opinion. They helped formulate ideas about justice and helped an ever-growing reading population to engage in public conversations about ethics and morality. Images played a large part in this (think of the illustrations of abused slaves in abolitionist literature), and the advent of photography in the mid-nineteenth century radically transformed the cultural influence of images.
A bullet hole is pictured in the window of a prayer room at a mosque in the Sablons neighborhood of Le Mans, western France, on January 8, 2015, after shots were fired and three blank grenades were thrown at the mosque shortly after midnight, leaving no casualties.
The outpouring of outrage and concern following the lethal shooting of twelve people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French magazine is understandable.
Many people want to express their shock and grief. They want to stand against the censoring, repressive, and violent impulses represented—symbolically and actually—by the gunmen.
There is no ethical justification for the killings. None. No one “deserved to die.”
Yet the reaction to these tragic killings seamlessly moves forward within an easily manipulated narrative. This story is compellingly shaped by the twin themes of terrorism and destruction of freedom of speech. Because this narrative is framed by the politics of fear, resentment, and vengeance, it has become as volatile and potentially incendiary as the actions that produced it.
January is a time of new beginnings, fresh starts, ambitious goals. At Beacon, we publish some of our most exciting titles in January, books we think will have a long shelf-life. This January, we explore a geopolitical conservation effort, redefine the cause of hate and hate-driven violence, return Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to his radical roots, and expose the hypocrisy of “merit-based” admissions practices. These are books you will be thinking about and discussing for the rest of the year.
Center City gay-bashing suspects (courtesy Philadelphia Police)
On September 11, 2014, around 11pm, a gay male couple walking home through Philadelphia’s fashionable Center City was accosted and badly beaten by a group of 12 well-dressed white 20-somethings, both men and women, who shouted anti-gay epithets before and during the attack. Both victims ended up in the hospital, one of them beaten so badly he suffered broken bones in his face and had to have his jaw wired shut. The case has attracted a lot of attention both because the alleged perpetrators were so clean-cut and apparently well-to-do and included women and men—not the stereotype of who commits “hate crimes”—and for the way it was solved: via social media. After the police released street-side surveillance video showing a group of young people walking away from the crime scene, citizens of the twitter universe began circulating the videos, matching faces to Facebook updates, and eventually pointing the police to suspects. Three arrests have since been made of two men and one woman, Philip Williams, Kevin Harrigan, and Kathryn Knott, each of whom has been charged with two counts of Aggravated Assault, two counts of Simple Assault, two counts of Recklessly Endangering Another Person, and one count of Criminal Conspiracy.
Michael Bronski, Ann Pellegrini, and Michael Amico came to Boston last fall to read from their new book, “You Can Tell Just by Looking”: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People. The book confronts some of the most common myths and misunderstandings about LGBT life and people. Myths, such as “All Religions Condemn Homosexuality” and “Transgender People Are Mentally Ill,” have been used to justify discrimination and oppression of LGBT people. Others, such as “Homosexuals Are Born That Way,” have been embraced by LGBT communities and their allies. In discussing and dispelling these myths—including gay-positive ones—the authors challenge readers to question their own beliefs and to grapple with the complexities of what it means to be queer in the broadest social, political, and cultural sense.
While waiting for the event to start, we had the opportunity to ask the authors about some key myths affecting the cultural landscape of LGBT people, and about LGBT parents in particular, a demographic sure to rise given marriage equality’s gaining acceptance. As the authors say in the book, “The often bitter debate that swirls around LGBT families cloaks the larger discussion: how do we all create a culture that nurtures all children, in all kinds of families, to grow into happy, loving, successful adults?...Until we create new ways for parents and children to live healthily together, neither will grow and thrive, especially as families.”
We in Massachusetts have had an illustrious history of progressiveness, justice, and pride. It was the first individual state to write a constitution declaring universal rights; Horace Mann led education reform here; we have the Kennedys and the Red Sox and Emily Dickinson. And we were the first state, ten years ago last month, to legalize same-sex marriage.
This is the real reason I am proud to be from Massachusetts. Same-sex marriage is now legal in sixteen countries and nineteen US states, including all of New England. National support for marriage equality is at 59%, an all-time high. And we helped elect a president who vocally endorses same-sex marriage. It might be bold to say, but from the looks of it, our progressiveness and acceptance are making international rounds.
The snow burying my car this week had me dreaming of Miami, where I was lucky enough to spend four days late last month. I went for the 30th annual Miami Book Fair International, certainly the most exhilarating literary event of the year, and a rare opportunity for me to catch up with some of our own writers plus a few good friends I don’t see often enough. Beacon had four authors presenting this year, representing the range of our list and giving me the chance to hang out in the expansive author reception lounge, where chefs in toques offered breakfast, lunch, and endless tasty snacks.
Invisible to the rest, henceforth become my companions;
Follow me ever! desert me not, while I live.
Sweet are the blooming cheeks of the living! sweet
are the musical voices sounding!
But sweet, ah sweet, are the dead, with their silent eyes.
Dearest comrades! all now is over;
But love is not over—and what love, O comrades!
Perfume from battle-fields rising—up from fœtor arising.
Walt Whitman "Hymn of Dead Soldiers," Leaves of Grass (1867)
The Army Hospital Feb 21, 1863. There is enough to
repel, but one soon becomes powerfully attracted also.
Janus Mayfield, (bed 59, Ward 6 Camp[bell] Hosp.)
About 18 years old, 7th Virginia Vol. Has three brothers also in the Union
Army. Illiterate, but cute—can neither read nor write. Has been very sick and
low, but now recovering. Have visited him regularly for two weeks, given him
money, fruit, candy etc.
Albion F. Hubbard—Ward C bed 7 Co F 1st Mass
Cavalry/ been in the service one year—has had two carbuncles one on arm, one on
ankle, healing at present yet great holes left, stuffed with rags—worked on a
farm 8 years before enlisting—wrote letter—for him to the man he lived with/
died June 20th 1863
Richard Voos: In American history the Civil War forms a
turning point in American history however one defines it, in terms of the sheer
number of Americans dead on both sides as well as the transformation of the
United States into a modern industrial nation. It also has a transformative
effect on the role of men, the sheer violence on the role of men, as well as
the ability of women to perform in a different role.
Michael Bronski: That's totally correct. When we look at the
Civil War—and the Civil Ward plays such an important role in the mythology of
American history—it really is central. But I think people don't understand the
role of violence in the Civil War. We all know that all war is violent, but the
sheer number of deaths of American men in the Civil War is tremendous. If we
were to do a percentage, based on our current population, of the Civil War
versus today and the number of deaths, the number of deaths given today's
population would be six million deaths. Which is staggering when you think about
it. So what the Civil War does within the history of American gender is
something quite unique. If after the Revolution we saw the making of the new American
man, the divorcing of the Daniel Boone/Davy Crockett type from the effete fop
from England, that trend continued and the Civil War presents us with a
complete crisis of masculinity. In the two Whitman quotes we heard, we actually
see this sort deluge of mutilation and death and harm to the male body
happening, and at the same time we see this enormous amount of tenderness
towards the male body. Because well, everybody, North and South, who fought in
the Civil War was brave, even if they
were brave for those 35 seconds before they were shot coming into the first big
battle if they were in the first wave of people.
And let’s not forget that the
Civil War deaths were fairly personal: you actually shot people or you
bayonetted them and they were right in front of you. You did not get to be in a
tank and shoot people who were 50, 150 yards away from you. The sheer amount of
death was devastating to the men who fought in the Civil War, and who survived.
So when we hear the Walt Whitman poems, it’s just this endless elegy to male
beauty, to male sentiment, to the uniqueness
of men—and quite sexualized, often, within Whitman's poetry and in his journals.
On the other hand we have… not the image of the brave Union soldier or brave “Johnny
Reb,” but in fact the young vulnerable boy who has simply been torn apart. So
the male body becomes here, and we see this later in World War II, which we'll
discuss in a later podcast, we see the male body completely heroicized and
lionized for being brave, and at the same time pitiable in its vulnerability.
RV: How does the violence associated with the Civil
War continue to influence the definition of manliness after the war?
MB: Having just spoken about the dichotomy between the
brave soldier and the vulnerable soldier, I think one thing to keep in mind
here—and it continues to be a central part of American culture today, but particularly
up until World War II—is that we see the very definition of manhood changing.
So the rite of passage for men from the age of 13, 14 up until 50 in the Civil
War, the rite of passage was actually killing someone. Killing another soldier,
killing another American, even if they had seceded from the Union. So, the very
definition of manhood—quite different from Davy Crockett, if Davy Crockett
proved his manhood by killing animals—the definition during the Civil War was
actually to kill another American.
Get A Queer History of the United States or any of Beacon's other LGBT titles for 25% off the list price during the month of June, a.k.a. PRIDE MONTH. Use the code PRIDE at checkout. Read more at Beacon.org.
Portrait of Victoria Woodhull by Matthew Brady
“Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable,
constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as
short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with
that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.
And I have the further right to demand a free and unrestricted exercise of that
right, and it is your duty not only to accord it, but as a community, to see I
am protected in it. I trust that I am fully understood, for I mean just that,
and nothing else.” Victoria Woodhull, "And the truth shall make you
free," a speech on the principles of social freedom, 1871
“I think we have wronged the South, though we did not mean
to do so. The reason was, in part, that we had irreparably wronged ourselves by
putting no safeguard on the ballot-box at the North that would sift out alien
illiterates. They rule our cities today; the saloon is their palace, and the
toddy stick their sceptre. It is not fair that they should vote, nor is it fair
that a plantation negro, who can neither read nor write, whose ideas are
bounded by the fence of his own field and the price of his own mule, should be
entrusted with the ballot. . . . The Anglo-Saxon race will never submit to be
dominated by the negro so long as his altitude reaches no higher than the personal
liberty of the saloon.” Frances Willard, the New
York Voice, October 23, 1890
Richard Voos: One
of the themes of Queer History is the
conflict between two political and cultural movements throughout America's
history. On the one hand what you describe in different periods of American
history as the “persecuting society”—the social purity movement—in the civil
rights movements, in contrast to advocates for religious freedom, labor, and
women's rights organizers and the gay liberation movement. Let's start with the
idea of the “persecuting society,” Michael. What is that?
This is a phrase that, as far as I can tell, was invented by a British scholar,
R. I. Moore. He wrote a
great book about the persecuting society in which he speculates that in the
Late Middle Ages, European culture was diverse enough and falling apart enough
that, as a mechanism to maintain social stability, those people in power—the
clergy and the aristocracy—began to single out distinct groups of people to be persecuted. So by persecuting these
distinct groups of people, and I'll name them in a second, the society actually
became more stable. By the exclusion of some people, more specifically some groups of people, what we might call “the
mainstream society” became much more solid.
The first groups that were targeted for persecution were
lepers, heretics, witches, and sodomites. So these are four very distinct
groups, often related to appearance or behavior: Lepers obviously had leprosy;
sodomites were accused of committing sexual sins. It’s interesting to note that
at that point “sodomy” did not just mean, as we think of it today, same-sex
behavior but a whole range of sexual misbehaviors under Canon Law. And “witches”
singled out almost entirely women and heretics who were going against some
Church doctrine. So the connections here are actually quite clear: lepers
probably—we know today this is not true—probably had leprosy because they had
committed some “sin.” Under Canon Law witchcraft was a sin, as was heresy, as
was sodomy. So there is a clear theological bent with all of this here. As
Western societies and Western civilizations progressed, these groups were
modified; we now have a much better attitude about people with leprosy,
although I must say it’s only in the last hundred years that we stopped putting
people in leper colonies. But the notion that you create and maintain a general
society by the exclusion of other people is still with us today.
RV: You cite an
example, Michael, early on in American history and it's one of the mythologies
of American history, when the Puritans expel Anne Hutchinson. Some of the
accusations made against her and her followers are sexual. Not only are they
religious heretics; they're accused of sexual behavior that contravenes the Puritan ideal.
MB: We see that
with Anne Hutchinson, we see it with the Quakers. And the Puritans, the Quakers—actually
there were nine Quakers that were executed on Boston Common. The Quakers are an
interesting case because Quakerism at its core not only attacked the theology
of the Anglican Church but also the social mores and the gender mores of the
time. Quaker men were forbidden to carry guns, a clear sign of manliness in
that society. Quaker women were allowed to speak during meetings, a clear
deviation from “women should be silent within Church.” So from the very
beginnings (in England), Quakerism—the Society of Friends—violated not only
theology but gender norms as well. When the Quakers were in America, the same
charges were also used against them there, too.
RV: We see at the
end of the nineteenth century, with the social purity movement, actual,
explicit—and as we heard earlier with the reading from Frances Willard—an
extremely explicit connection between social control and stability, and the
sexual and the racial.
MB: I think that
the tension here goes back to R.I. Moore's notion of the persecuting society,
which he admits changes over time. But the tension here is really between those
who want to control society—who want to shape society to fit their own
theological, moral, social norms—and another group of people. Emma Goldman is a
good example, being an anarchist who would like to have less state control,
less mainstream cultural control over what’s going on. So when we get to the mid-
to late-nineteenth century and the social purity movements we find a terrific
reformer like Frances Willard—who is for suffrage, who is for lots of
educational change, who is actually for lots of reform within the workplace—being
pretty explicit in her racism, and called on it by Ida B. Wells. So that even in
a progressive movement we have someone like Frances Willard who needs to use
the very concept of a persecuting society to reaffirm what we would all agree
would be generally pretty good ideas, except she's actually using
African-Americans as her foil.
RV: Some of the
ways that that conflict and contrast plays out at the end of the last century
are almost bewildering to us today, or laughable, and I'm thinking about Graham
Crackers, for example. Describe for us the invention of Graham Crackers and the
purpose, and a little bit more about Kellogg and Post. When we think of
breakfast cereal… they were thinking of something very different.
MB: They were
certainly thinking of something very different. When we look at the social
reform movements of the mid- to late-nineteenth century we're looking at people
who are concerned about a variety of social ills: the “uneducation” of people,
factory work, people starving to death. One of the main themes that connects
all of these together, and one of the main places where they place the blame
for this, is on what they would consider a dangerous and renegade male
sexuality. So it’s male sexuality that causes alcoholism, it’s male sexuality
that causes the abuse of women, it’s male sexuality that causes most of the
social ills. So one of the themes within these reform movements was to control
male sexuality. And the focus of this to a large degree—and we see this going
back to European culture as well although not as strongly as we see it in
American culture—is on stopping masturbation which was seen as a degenerative
act that could cause madness, blindness, and would lead to further acts of
sexual perdition. Some of the diet reformers, people who wanted to reform the
food industry and also how Americans thought about food, people whose names we
see in the supermarket everyday—Mr. Kellogg, Mr. Post, Mr. Graham—began to
invent cereals based on the notion that eating whole grains, unprocessed foods,
unprocessed flour, would be not only healthier but would curb masturbation. So the
origin of Corn Flakes and for Graham crackers, while they were healthier for
you in general, were seen as ways to stop—and we're speaking specifically about
men here because good women would not think about masturbating—were ways of
stopping male masturbation.
I think if you look at American history, and again this is
mirrored, to some degree in European history as well at the same time, one of
the clearest ways of seeing this divide—and its a divide that's highlighted by
the social purity movement—is to look at the divide between the American
anarchist movement and even homegrown freethinkers and atheists such as
Victoria Woodhull as well. People who are advocating a complete absence or at
least the diminishment, the great diminishment, of state control over people's
lives. So these people, let’s look at Goldman and at Woodhull, are looking to
reform people's lives, to make people's lives better to, make people more free,
and they're doing this by essentially eliminating state control over people's
activities. At the same time we have the social purity movement, people who
firmly believe they want to make a better society and who in many ways make
considerable and very significant changes within society that makes it better
for people. And their way of doing this is to actually reform society, making
society a better place for people but also by controlling people's behaviors as
Part of the social purity movement was the temperance
movement, which was to get people to stop drinking and then to ban liquor. We
see this same tension as time goes on between, let's say the African-American
civil rights movement—a movement that’s done spectacularly fine things to make
American society better—but through reforming
rather than through eliminating state
control. If we want to compare, this is not an exact comparison, but we could
compare Victoria Woodhull to Frances Willard and later on we might compare
Malcolm X, who is looking for complete freedom from white society, essentially
eliminating white society in his life, to Dr. Martin Luther King, who wants to
reform mainstream white society, to make it better for everyone. This is a
Queer History of America and I think this tension is quite a queer tension in
terms of freedom versus control. We see the gay liberation movement in 1969
quickly evolving into the gay rights movement. So the gay liberation movement,
in the tradition of Goldman and to some degree Malcom X, wanting to have
complete freedom from the state and from social controls, versus the gay rights
movement, which actually wants to reform society, to make it better for
lesbians and for gay men.
RV: It seems to
me this plays out in the culture wars of the last 20 years also, some of the
same tensions but in different ways.
MB: I think that
when we look at the culture wars—and I think its useful to see the culture wars
as coming in waves that are slightly different than each other as time goes
on—we see certain ironies. I think one irony of the culture wars of the 70's
and 80's involving the federal funding of gay and lesbian material through the
arts, we see a predicament in which a reformist movement, the gay rights
movement, which has granted the state with quite a bit of authority, is now
faced with the fact that the state has so much authority that they're actually
willing to try to wipe out even the gay rights movement and any representations
of lesbians and gay men. I think our more current cultural crises—cultural wars—involve,
lets say the fights about same-sex marriage in which we have a very clear
notion of the gay rights movement as a reformist movement wanting to support
the state in the broadest way possible, to acknowledge gay and lesbian
relationships. This seemed very radical, and is indeed radical, in our current
political setting but goes back to the early reform movements where monogamous
marriage was praised above everything else, and is quite at odds with the
sentiments of Emma Goldman or Victoria Woodhull.
"I don't see how I can live any longer without having a friend near me, I mean a male friend. Yes, James, I must come; we will yoke together again; your little bed is just wide enough; we will practice at the same bar, and be as friendly a pair of single fellows as ever cracked a nut. We perhaps shall never be rich; no matter, we can supply our own personal necessities. By the time we are thirty, we shall put on the dress of old bachelors, a mourning suit, and having sown all our wild oats, with a round hat and a hickory staff, we will march on till the end of life, whistling as merry as robins, and I hope as innocent." —Daniel Webster, letter to James Bingham, April 3, 1804
My dear general—From those happy ties of friendship by which you were pleased to unite yourself with me, from the promises you so tenderly made me when we parted at Fishkill, gave me such expectations of hearing often from you, that complaints ought to be permitted to my affectionate heart. Not a line from you, my dear general, has yet arrived into my hands, and though several ships from America, several despatches from congress or the French minister, are safely brought to France, my ardent hopes of getting at length a letter from General Washington have ever been unhappily disappointed: I cannot in any way account for that bad luck, and when I remember that in those little separations where I was but some days from you, the most friendly letters, the most minute account of your circumstances, were kindly written to me, I am convinced you have not neglected and almost forgotten me for so long a time. I have, therefore, to complain of fortune, of some mistake or neglect in acquainting you that there was an opportunity, of anything; indeed, but what could injure the sense I have of your affection for me. Let me beseech you, my dear general, by that mutual, tender, and experienced friendship in which, I have put an immense portion of my happiness, to be very exact in inquiring for occasions, and never to miss those which may convey to me letters that I shall be so much pleased to receive.— Marquis de Lafayette to George Washington, 1799
A man of deep and noble nature had seized me in this seclusion. . . . The soft ravishments of the man spun me round about in a web of dreams. . . . But already I feel that this Hawthorne has dropped germinous seeds into my soul. He expands and deepens down, the more I contemplate him; and further and further shoots his strong New England roots into the hot soil of my Southern soul. — Herman Melville, review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Mosses and the Old Manse, August 1850
If the Marquis de Lafayette were around today, he might have signed his letters to George Washington, "Love you bro. No Homo."
How do we understand this language, from one military hero to another, which sounds to the modern ear more like a lover's whining than one general having missed contact with a fellow military leader? And the letter from Daniel Webster to James Bigham reminds me of the controversy about Abraham Lincoln that he shared bed with his law partner. Neither Lafayette, Washington, Webster, nor Lincoln was gay or homosexual. Those words didn't exist in their lifetimes. Men slept in the same bed as other men--it was the practice. Yet the feeling in Lafayette's letter and the strength of Webster's attachment to Bingham are undeniable. Are these the "bromances" and "man dates" of the 19th century?
I think that's an excellent question. When we read these letters now-- and I've actually taught these letters and these journal entries in my classes and students are quite perplexed and often try to come up with reasons why they are not love letters-- I think it's difficult to put these in context using anything in our contemporary society, because they have nothing to do with that. What I do think stands out with each of these, thinking particularly of the second Lafayette letter, is that they contain enormous amounts of sentiment. Sentiment as it was known in the late eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century is not as we might think of it today, as sloppy sentimentalism, but as a deep, sincere, honest, and, above all, ethical feeling for one's fellow man, the emphasis on "man," although it could be applied to human beings in general. And I'd like to make a distinction about the Washington/Lafayette correspondence as opposed to the Daniel Webster note--what we're seeing here is men who are valuing one another not only as men-- in all the complexity it might entail for the time-- but actually as patriots. When we look at Washington and Lafayette and we know the history, these are two men who just fought the American Revolution. Lafayette's gone back to France to fight the French Revolution. They are actually putting the Enlightenment ideals of equality, fraternity, and democracy above all else. So that's the context we have to view these in. I'm not arguing that they may not have had a sexual affair-- we have no evidence that they did, nor do we have any evidence that they did not. Certainly the intensity here of emotion and of sheer emotional investment in one another is very, very clear.
It's interesting, Michael, that the expression of that kind of sentiment and emotion today between two men--pick two generals, General Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell--would be completely unheard of and impossible to imagine. What happened in the intervening almost two hundred years?
I think what's happened is that we've lost the notion of sentiment between men, of honest, real, deep emotional feeling that can be expressed. Certainly, men today can feel deeply for one another, can work together. We hear wonderful stories in horrible situations of soldiers and their intense relationships in war time in Iraq or in Afghanistan. But the expression of these is completely different now. Certainly if General Schwarzkopf wrote a letter like this to General Powell--probably on email or texting him because he would not have time to write the entire letter out by hand--he'd have to add what the younger people these days say at the end of the letter: "No Homo." Clearly, he would not write this letter to begin with. I think what we've lost here is the ability of men to actually express their feelings, and maybe their feelings for women as well, but certainly for one another as men.
When we read the Herman Melville quote--and there are certainly others that would be very similar--it's impossible to come to the "No Homo" conclusion. The reading from Melville is really a different matter altogether from the Lafayette and Webster letters. He clearly formed a strong sexual attraction to his neighbor, Hawthorne. And in A Queer History of the United States, you put this in context with a number of homoerotic sentiments expressed in literature and letters by Ralph Waldo Emerson, by Thoreau, by Emily Dickinson, by Margaret Fuller. Some of those sentiments, and certainly Melville's, expressed far more than romantic friendship. And in Melville's work, the homoerotic is a clear theme, and the relationships, like Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby Dick, almost always cross racial lines. Talk to us about the interaction and intersection of the racial and the homoerotic, starting with Melville, but as a theme in A Queer History.
I think one thing to keep in mind here is that when we're looking at this notion of sentiment, it really is in the context of the Enlightenment and in the concept of equality between men and ostensibly among women as well, although that doesn't play out as well until later on when we come into the suffrage movement. But I think that when we're looking at some of the writings by Herman Melville, say, in Moby Dick, or Charles Warren Stoddard in his South Sea Idyls, we're looking at two things. First, we're looking at this early bromance, this early version of the buddy movie between a white man and, as Leslie Fiedler puts it, a "colored" man. But we're looking at this, because it is the Enlightenment and we're looking at equality among men, as a form of racial justice. Keep in mind that at this time the races are completely separated, we have slavery, we have essentially a system of white supremacy across the world. And yet these men, in this case Herman Melville and Charles Warren Stoddard, are able to imagine relationships-- possibly sexual, certainly love relationships, and certainly intimate relationships-- between white men and men of different races. So when we're looking at these, I think it's important to focus on the sexual aspects, of course, but also on the aspect that this is the roots of what I would think of as being a movement, or an imagining, of coexistence between the races, which would bring us to a new level of equality that we had never even imagined before.
In a future podcast, we're definitely going to talk about the contrast between social purity, persecuting society and social control movements and of movements for racial liberation and sexual liberation. I think that you describe in some detail and very clearly the relationship between the racial and the sexual in that contrast of movements.
What I find fascinating is that when we look at the history of race struggles, the struggle for racial equality within American culture, one of the earliest places that we can find it is in these homoerotic writings of Melville and of Stoddard. So in some ways, there's a very deep connection between sexual liberation, sexual equality, sexual desire, and the desire for equality among men.
In this by-place of nature there abode, in a remote period of American history, that is to say, some thirty years since, a worthy wight of the name of Ichabod Crane, who sojourned, or, as he expressed it, “tarried,” in Sleepy Hollow, for the purpose of instructing the children of the vicinity... He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together.
The schoolmaster is generally a man of some importance in the female circle of a rural neighborhood; being considered a kind of idle, gentlemanlike personage, of vastly superior taste and accomplishments to the rough country swains, and, indeed, inferior in learning only to the parson... Our man of letters, therefore, was peculiarly happy in the smiles of all the country damsels. How he would figure among them in the churchyard, between services on Sundays; gathering grapes for them from the wild vines that overran the surrounding trees; reciting for their amusement all the epitaphs on the tombstones; or sauntering, with a whole bevy of them, along the banks of the adjacent millpond; while the more bashful country bumpkins hung sheepishly back, envying his superior elegance and address.
From his half-itinerant life, also, he was a kind of traveling gazette, carrying the whole budget of local gossip from house to house, so that his appearance was always greeted with satisfaction.
Among these [country swains], the most formidable was a burly, roaring, roystering blade, of the name of Abraham, or, according to the Dutch abbreviation, Brom Van Brunt, the hero of the country round which rang with his feats of strength and hardihood. He was broad-shouldered and double-jointed, with short curly black hair, and a bluff but not unpleasant countenance, having a mingled air of fun and arrogance. From his Herculean frame and great powers of limb he had received the nickname of BROM BONES, by which he was universally known. He was famed for great knowledge and skill in horsemanship, being as dexterous on horseback as a Tartar... He was always ready for either a fight or a frolic; but had more mischief than ill-will in his composition; and with all his overbearing roughness, there was a strong dash of waggish good humor at bottom. He had three or four boon companions, who regarded him as their model, and at the head of whom he scoured the country, attending every scene of feud or merriment for miles round... Sometimes his crew would be heard dashing along past the farmhouses at midnight, with whoop and halloo, like a troop of Don Cossacks; and the old dames, startled out of their sleep, would listen for a moment till the hurry-scurry had clattered by, and then exclaim, "Ay, there goes Brom Bones and his gang!" The neighbors looked upon him with a mixture of awe, admiration, and good-will; and, when any madcap prank or rustic brawl occurred in the vicinity, always shook their heads, and warranted Brom Bones was at the bottom of it.
America's definition of itself has been tightly connected to our definition of manliness and masculinity. There's a contrast between the British fop and the self-reliant Colonial; the educated and rather girly Ichabod Crane, as we've just heard read, and the manly Brom Bones; the Eastern intellectual and the cowboy; finally, from the invert and homosexual to a new heterosexual man at the start of the 21st century. Would you take these in turn, starting with the earliest definition of the American Man? How and where does that definition come into being?
The American Man has a very odd history, the remnants of which are still with us today, maybe even magnified in some ways. Certainly, we see the first American Man as a reaction to the English fop, as we see in the Washington Irving story. But even before the Washington Irving story, which was written in the 1820s, we see the American Colonialist really fighting against the notion of the effeminate Englishman, an odd notion since in fact George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and those other people all wore powdered wigs, had large libraries, and were actually rather dandified. One of the first American plays ever written is called The Contrast by Royall Tyler. It features two main characters: the effeminized English sympathizer-- also an American-- named Billy Dimple; and his opponent in love-- they're both after the same girl-- whose name is Colonel Manly. So from the very beginning, we see this dichotomy, and we see it play out again and again.
I think the Brom Bones/Ichabod Crane story is simply one early aspect of this, but one which is really formative for American culture, even now, since most school children have to read this story which is at heart a story about a queer bashing.
Say some more--remind us of how this story ends.
In the story, which I'm sure most people know, Ichabod Crane is the effeminized school teacher who comes into this small town, who teaches children but hangs out with the women, who does knitting with them, who is part of the women's sewing circle. His opponent is Brom Bones, who is a bully. At the height of the story, relying on the legend of Sleepy Hollow, which is that the headless horseman rides at night, Ichabod Crane is very fearfully riding home one night with this legend in mind. Suddenly, from across the bridge and chasing him is, indeed the headless horseman, who we know is actually-- probably-- Brom Bones with a lighted pumpkin on his shoulder. Ichabod Crane runs off-- is bullied-- out of town, essentially, and never is seen again. Presumably, he's moved, although there's always the possibility that he's actually dead. What I think is most interesting, and most people don't realize this about the story now, although certainly it would have been true back in Washington Irving's time, is that the first line in the story says that the action takes place next to "Major Andre's tree." This is a reference to the tree upon which Major Andre, the man who worked with Benedict Arnold against the American forces, was hanged for treason. Now, people would have realized this in 1820, not now, but Major Andre was generally thought to be a homosexual or certainly a man who was in love with other men. So, even Washington Irving back in 1820 was quite aware of the homosexual subtext for the story.
So there's a link right in 1820 between the girly-man and betrayal, betrayal of your country.
Completely. And I think what's interesting is that we see this played out again and again and again, in increasingly more complicated ways, when we come to World War II, but certainly as far back as 1820 and even before that we see this dichotomy between men who are learned, men who teach, men who like women versus who want to have sex with women, men who work with children, and the more "manly" American man.
Shortly after the Revolutionary War, we do begin to have these other American legends coming up. Ultimately, by the early to mid-19th century, the legends of Davy Crockett and of Daniel Boone, which are quite distinct legends, but both really show American men in this new light as frontiersman, as men going out to the West, as men who can conquer nature. A man who can-- in the case of Davy Crockett-- kill huge amounts of animals to prove his manhood. The Daniel Boone story is slightly different. He's somebody who actually seems to be taming nature versus killing it.
So the distinction that you write about in James Fenimore Cooper--the additional complexity in his work--involves that these are settlers and Native Americans in his stories.
Yes. I think if you look at Washington Irving, the paradigm here is the American Man is praised for being the bully against the effeminized Ichabod Crane. Shortly after this, we have James Fenimore Cooper, who is spinning out a different legend, which is that the white American man who is conquering the continent becomes friends with the Native American. In fact, they become very intimate friends. So in the five Leatherstocking novels by Cooper, we have Natty Bumppo becoming best of friends with Chingachgook. And the writing is quite erotic, the relationship is quite erotic. They have female love interests, but the center of the novels is this evolving male companionship and friendship, where they leave civilization, they leave the city, they leave the fort, and they go into the forest to bond together. I don't think Cooper intended for us to see them as being physical lovers, but the paradigm of the white man and the nonwhite man, or what Leslie Fiedler in his essay "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey" would call "the colored man," is st up as an American paradigm. It begins back in the 1840s and we see it play out again and again. We see it with Cooper, and we see it in a slightly different way in Moby Dick, where we have the intense relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg. Melville is quite clear that they are a couple, since there is a chapter called, "The Wedding Night." We see it again even in Mark Twain, and this is what the reference is to the Fiedler essay-- we see it in the relationship of Huck to Jim, who's a runaway slave. I think that we can trace this from the 1820s throughout the 19th century.
And we see it today in movies such as Lethal Weapon with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. And there are a spate of these movies in the 1980s with black and white cop teams. So one way of looking at these books-- be it James Fenimore Cooper or Mark Twain or Herman Melville-- is these are really the early template for what we now understand to be the buddy movie. The buddy movie as it exists now could either be Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with two white guys, but more recently-- in the '80s and we see this today in a more advanced, complicated way-- all those cop buddy movies. The newest spate of these is with an African-American actor and Jackie Chan, so we do have the biracial tension and the biracial loving relationship, only now it's an Asian man who has replaced the white man.
"Among Mamitarees if a boy shows any symptoms of effeminacy or girlish inclinations he is put among the girls, dressed in their way, brought up with them, and sometimes married to men." Nicholas Biddle, original journals of the Lewis and Clark expeditions
"Their garments consist only of skins; the women are always clad very modestly and very becomingly, while the men do not take the trouble to Cover themselves. I know not through what superstition some Ilinois, as well as some Nadouessi, while still young, assume the garb of women, and retain it throughout their lives. There is some mystery in this. For they never marry and glory in demeaning themselves to do everything that the women do. They go to war, however, but can use only clubs, and not bows and arrows, which are the weapons proper to men. They are present at all the juggleries, and at the solemn dances in honor of the Calumet; at these they sing, but must not dance. They are summoned to the Councils, and nothing can be decided without their advice. Finally, through their profession of leading an Extraordinary life, they pass for Manitous, — That is to say, for Spirits, — or persons of Consequence." From the journals of Jacques Marquette, 1673-1677
"Among the women I saw some men dressed like women, with whom they go about regularly, never joining the men. . . . From this I inferred they must be hermaphrodites, but from what I learned later I understood that they were sodomites, dedicated to nefarious practices. From all the foregoing I conclude that in this matter of incontinence there will be much to do when the Holy Faith and the Christian religion are established among them." Franciscan Pedro Font's diary
The use of the word "gay" really arose in the 1920s or '30s, but there was all sorts of different language in the previous four hundred years. Take us back to some of the earliest descriptions and usages of terms to describe queer people in the Americas.
Language can be very tricky, so when we're looking at language and how it's describing people, we have to realize that sometimes other people do the describing. So, before the Europeans even came here, we had many Native tribes and groups of people who exhibited behavior such as cross-dressing, same-sex relationships for both women and for men. Each of the tribes had their own language for this. When the Europeans came here, they used the French word berdache--which was a pejorative word essentially meaning a pedophile--for these people, completely inaccurately. Yet it's a word that continues to be used by anthropologists even today.
There's a mix in the behaviors and attitudes that you're talking about among the Native Americans, around both same-sex sexual behavior but also around breaking gender boundaries.
Certainly breaking gender boundaries for the Europeans, who were quite shocked when they came here. So the language that we have, which is used to some degree now, is the European terminology. Which I think we find repeatedly throughout the history of America. America was here before the Europeans came, they brought over the language, another word that they brought with them was "sodomite." Which is a theological term, meaning a person who has committed a sin of sodomy. Used rather broadly about anybody who transgressed accepted gender or sexual behaviors. And yet, a word that's used today, even in the general sense of the sodomy laws which are defined in various different ways. So from the earliest Colonial times, we did not have "homosexuals," we did not have "gay people," we had people who were accused of committing the sin of "sodomy" and were "sodomites."
And so both of those terms--"berdache" and "sodomite"--were really pejorative.
Completely pejorative. The first, by social implication, although considered a sin. The second explicitly, theologically, a sin. So it's important to realize that most of our laws emanate to a large degree from canon law in Europe, and were translated from the church into the state.
What's the difference between a "Queer History" and a "regular" history?
As I was writing the book and as the book was being edited, we decided that actually that was a little bit too literal, and that what we wanted to do was a Queer History, which would be rather a history of a sensibility rather than a history of what certain people did or didn't do. I think that a Queer sensibility would be a sensibility that would be from the outside. So whereas LGBT people may have lived to a large degree on the outside--although not always since many of these people were in fact not openly gay at the time--what the book does is that it looks at American History from the point of view of an outsider. So in this sense, it's not that different than, say, a black sensibility or a Latino sensibility.
One of the things that always comes up is the terminology, and you discuss this in the Introduction and the first chapter. The language used even in the last one hundred and twenty years--gay, homosexual, invert, Sapphist--none of that existed of course when the Mayflower landed or in the first hundred or two hundred years of US History. So, how do you write a "Queer" history of the United States given that the terms and the identity and the social meanings have changed really radically over five hundred years?
I think one of the reasons we were attracted to the word "Queer" is its non-specificity. So, by "Queer," it's being used generally, meaning a point of view an outsider or a "deviant"-- non-normative experience. But you are completely right. Certainly words such as "gay" and "lesbian," "homosexual" were not used two hundred years ago in many cases. I think that none of these words were used for the first four hundred years of American history--my book begins in 1492. It is a tricky feat to actually use contemporary words to describe the activities, the emotions, the feelings, the sensibilities of people who lived five hundred years ago, or three hundred years ago. I tried for the most part not to use those words, and simply to let the people speak in their own words, and to evaluate what they were saying and what they were doing without putting our modern sensibilities onto them.
The core argument in your book is that American History is Queer History. Lay out the argument for us if you would.
Since the 1960s, there have been movements to include those people who have been "left out" of American history. So we see Women's History, African-American history, Latino history, Native American history. And certainly when we think about Gay and Lesbian or GLBT history, that's the same impulse--to bring Gay and Lesbian people back into American history. When I began writing the book, it struck me that the more research I did, that while this project was well-intentioned, it was rather unnecessary. That in fact gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people, African-American people, Latino people, women have always been in American history. So the very process of separating people out in order to put them back in seemed to me to be shortsighted. So the purpose of the book as I began writing it became clearer and clearer--it was simply to identify and find the LGBT people that are in American history already. The more I did this, what I discovered was that there were so many people, so many events, people's lives, people's personalities were so intertwined with what we think of as American history that there was no separation at all.
Can you give us one or two examples that would connect what we all learned in elementary and high school about American History to the idea that the queers were here all along?
There are a multitude of examples. Two that come to mind immediately are, in the 19th Century, the 1850s, we have an intense relationship between Charles Sumner, a senator from Massachusetts who was one of the leading abolitionists, who had an intimate, passionate relationship with Samuel Gridley Howe, one of the major reformers of American culture back then. This is the man who started Perkins School for the Blind and completely reformed our notion of dealing with different physical disabilities. The letters between the two men are quite striking, and even though both of them were married--Samuel Howe actually was married to Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic--their relationship was sustaining to both of them. When Howe was on his honeymoon with Julia Ward Howe, he received word that Charles Sumner was very upset and wrote him a passionate note saying that he wished that he was there with them. Interestingly, Sumner himself married later. They have complicated relationships. Julia Ward Howe, although this was only discovered about ten years ago, wrote a novel about a hermaphrodite--a man/woman who loves both men and women--that most critics now think was her own meditation on her husband's bisexuality.
I recall hearing about Charles Sumner in high school. There was a famous fistfight in the Senate that he was involved in. Obviously, we all know the Battle Hymn of the Republic. And your purpose is to connect their queer lives into American History in a way that has not been done before.
Right. And I think there are two ways of looking at it. One way of looking at it is to say, "This is sort of interesting. This is some extra stuff we didn't know before." And we can actually prove it. We have letters, we have diaries, we have unpublished novels. But I think that's a simplistic way of looking at it. I think a more complicated way is to ask, "What did this have to do with their relationships? What did Sumner's queerness have to do with his abolition stand? What did Howe's queerness have to do with his drivenness to reform society? What did Julia Ward Howe's realtionship to her husband have to do with her impulses to the early suffrage movement and for liberation of women?" So, I think that when we look at the larger picture, the queerness, the sexuality, the really complicated sexual relationships, are integral to these people's desire to change the world and make it better.
And you said you have an example from the twentieth century as well.
I think we see a very similar situation, and similar also in the sense that these are people involved in a heterosexual marriage, when we look at the career and life of Eleanor Roosevelt. We know now, thanks to historian Blanche Weisen Cook, that Eleanor had a very complicated, intimate, most-probably sexual relationship with Lorena Hickok, who was a journalist. At one point, Eleanor moved her into the White House with her. And that Hickok's reporting upon Eleanor Roosevelt was integral to Eleanor Roosevelt's promotion of herself as a social reformer. Along with this, we do know that Eleanor Roosevelt had a wide, wide circle of female friends, many of whom were lesbians, many of whom were involved with social work. These women as an aggregate were called "Roosevelt's Brain Trust." And, in fact, Eleanor brought them to Washington and they were instrumental in forming the New Deal. Francis Perkins, one of Eleanor's intimate friends, was the first woman to head the Labor Department. So I think when we're looking at Eleanor Roosevelt's life, it's not just interesting that she had this affair with a woman-- she also apparently had an affair with her chauffer, named Earl Miller, as well, so Eleanor's life was complicated-- but what is really amazing that there is this circle of friends--which, again, Blanche Weisen Cook calls "female support networks"--that literally changed our very notions of how social work functions in American society and how reform functions. All again based upon lesbian--or women being intimate with women--relationships.