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Modernism’s Queer Pedagogies

How did people learn to be queer in an era before stable identities, lifestyles, or representations of sexual outsiders were readily available or, for that matter, before they even existed? Much like mathematics, history, Latin, and an assortment of social skills, they often learned queerness at school.[1] In life and literature both, during the early twentieth century, newly flourishing educational systems took on a greater role in managing its wards’ sexual development through regimented exploration, either shaping children into normative heterosexuals or convincing them of their social deviancy if they failed to reach this conventional end. In his study of twentieth-century bildungsromans, Gregory Castle reminds us that the genre traditionally relied upon a “smooth integration of the individual into the operations of the state and its institutions” that captured how social formation brings otherness into its sphere and “conquers it,” providing and represented by a heterosexual happy ending.[2] Queer modernist writers, however, arrayed themselves against “smooth integration” into normativity in particular ways, while also resisting narratives of queer integration (however smooth or not) that would predominate many coming out stories of the latter half of the twentieth century and the first two decades of the twenty-first.

The quintessential British example of the genre, E. M. Forster’s posthumously published novel Maurice (1914/1971), opens as the titular character’s preparatory schoolteacher Mr. Ducie instructs Maurice on sexual relations between men and women. Mr. Ducie, who feels he must stand in for Maurice’s dead father, illustrates heterosexual, reproductive sex with diagrams in the sand during a school trip to the beach. “You don’t understand now,” he admonishes Maurice, but “you will some day, and when you do understand it, remember the poor old pedagogue who put you on the track. It all hangs together—all—and God’s in his heaven, All’s right with the world. Male and female! Ah wonderful.”[3] In the eyes of British pedagogy, all things—knowledge, religion, social and universal order—rely on the master system of heterosexuality. This, for Mr. Ducie, is a simple matter. After he explains anatomy’s role in the perpetuation of heterosexual love, he concludes: “you need never be puzzled or bothered now,” foreclosing the possibility of sexual and social deviancy (Forster Maurice 14). Rather than pursue this path, Maurice leaves social convention behind to enter a queer romance in the “greenwood” of the English countryside with his working-class lover, Alec, at the end of the novel. The book, then, plots Maurice’s path from pupil on the beach to his ultimate rejection of Mr. Ducie’s lesson in favor of a supposedly impossible queer happiness. This trajectory is entirely framed as a learning experience, shaped by its relation to educational institutions and their pedagogical apparatuses. When Mr. Ducie leaves Maurice (who would be no older than thirteen) on the beach on his last day at preparatory school, Maurice thinks to himself “liar . . . liar, coward, he’s told me nothing,” condemning Mr. Ducie for his inability to explain sexuality and world order outside the merely biological procreative act of married couples (6).

Forster was not alone in writing a school story that imagined a new, happier outcome for queer young adults. E. F. Benson, author of popular comedy of manners novels and member of the manifestly queer Benson family, published the novel David Blaize in 1916, two years after Forster finished his first complete manuscript of Maurice.[4] In Benson’s story, the schoolboy protagonist can only act on his passion for his school chum Maddow when he is threatened by death. In the final pages of the novel, David is run over by the horse cart he attempts to stop as it careens driverless through the town square. Maddox (who is a year older than his friend) returns from Cambridge to David’s sickbed and holds his beloved’s hand all night. The school headmaster allows this sustained intimacy only because of David’s dire condition, saying of their relationship: “that’s between you and David . . . not for me to know.”[5] This headmaster differs from Mr. Ducie, who refuses to or cannot notice his pupil’s queerness, but the result is similar. Authority does not condone deviant sexuality, and when the headmaster turns a blind eye, he signals the rejection of David and Maddox from social systems as surely Mr. Ducie’s insistence upon the organizing principle of heterosexuality.

E. F. Benson (1867 – 1940) at age 19.
Fig. 1. E. F. Benson (1867 – 1940) at age 19, during his years at Cambridge University. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Though the school story is British in origin, we can find queer adolescents navigating the perils of educational institutions throughout early twentieth-century fiction. In Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament” (1905), an American exemplar of the queer school story, the protagonist is called by his teachers to “account for his misdemeanours,” which include “disorder” and “impertinence,” and other terms suggestive of sexual and gendered difference.[6] As the faculty and his father ultimately agree, “Paul’s was a bad case” (Cather Stories 479). In the wildly popular French version of the genre, Colette’s Claudine à l’école (1900), sexual exploration is variously permitted and condemned in the school. When the Headmistress and Assistant-Mistress at her school engage in a lesbian affair that distracts them from their duties during classes, Claudine thinks to herself “Ça devient curieux!” [“This was becoming very queer!”]. Indeed, the provincial school is a “curieux” place where the curriculum and the authority figures are often at odds with each other, alternately applying conformist and perverse pressures to its charges.[7]

While the school was a place of rules and order, as a narrative site the school did not simply replicate the space of the home and the values of the family. Instead, the school acts as a microcosm of social totality, one that must be navigated by the child and teenager on the way to adulthood. As Mavis Reimer explains, the school provided a “little world” that prepared the child for “real life” through a combination of structure and freedom to explore, while also being intimately connected to the other institutions of the world—economics, government, health services, etc. In the end, all four of these queer young adults escape the clutches of deliberately deceptive pedagogues. Having failed tests of heterosexual normativity proctored at the close of their oppressive education— an education in “lies” as Maurice describes it—they cobble together their own strategies for turning socially unacceptable feelings into new modes of being.

As these queer fictions of development adapted the school story’s conventions, so too did they provide the social function of educating queer youth in the real world, in ways that were rarely available to their protagonists. In David Halperin’s study of the transmission of gay culture among American men in the twentieth century, he explains that “becoming gay is mysterious, because—unlike becoming American—it does not happen through primary socialization,” through parents or school.[8] Each of this essay’s four texts itself constitutes a version of a secondary socialization in queerness. In part, these school stories demonstrate that “mysterious” secondary education in their plots, showing how students garner a queer education that shadows the one approved by the state through the apparatus of the school. If growing up queer meant rejecting family, authority, and ideology, then these queer school stories link themselves in kinship across disparate geographies, joined by their shared devotion to the significance of secondary socialization for queers. This common commitment to reworking the school story in attempts to reframe queer education exceeds traditional modes of analysis that center on national traditions, artistic movements, or marketplace dynamics—drawing together French, American, and British writers—requiring models that capture more diffuse queer literary relations of form and kind.

Cover of first edition of Claudine à l’école (1900).
Fig. 2. Cover of first edition of Claudine à l’école (1900), with misattribution to her husband Willy. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In “The Bildungsroman and Its Significance in the History of Realism,” Mikhail Bakhtin argues that the genre situates its protagonist at the turning point between eras and presents readers with “the image of man in the process of becoming.”[9] This collection of school stories suggests a potential new way of organizing the study of queer literature in research and the classroom, one centered around the strange and often unexpected alignments of literary form and the political impulse to imagine a different way of becoming. Setting aside the gendered assumptions of Bakhtin’s claim, we can see how these and other modernist queer school stories are doubly invested in the process of becoming. First, they trace the process of becoming that individuals undertake as they progress toward a newly possible queer adulthood. Second, reading these stories alongside one another reveals a history that mirrors Bakhtin’s claim about individual instantiations of the bildungsroman; the related adaptations of the genre by such far-flung authors document a turning point from the Victorian period to modernism, a moment when the defining coordinates of sexuality are still themselves in the process of becoming. Moreover, whereas the coming-out stories that dominate contemporary queer young adult fiction require their protagonists to consolidate their sexuality into a coherent identity, these narratives predate that pressure.

In my experience, these lessons gleaned from queer stories are as central to teaching as they are to research. Queer modernists imagined multifarious ways of being queer, many of which left legacies that did not become the central organizing principles of contemporary queer subjectivity. Grappling with these ways of being lends itself to strange effects in the classroom. When we teach students queer modernism, we often encourage our students to ask interrelated questions: did the queer modernists imagine us, do we imagine them, or do we imagine each other? In the classroom, I pivot this question around the fulcrum of two positions, best articulated around opposing but not contradictory historical narratives of queer modernism. One position proposes that queer modernism represents “a time of expectation, in which the key stylistic gestures, choices of genre, and ideological frames all point to an inaccessible future,” as Christopher Nealon puts it.[10] In the other position, some queer modernists resisted “the coming of modern homosexuality,” as Heather Love explains, rejecting what are now mainstream ways of living that classify sexuality as the key to identity.[11] One hand stretches out to us without touching, the other draws back. Opening students’ eyes to these two orientations undoes a set of pedagogical dead ends: that the past might be exactly the same as the present and that the present represents the end goal of the progress our predecessors so desired. The queer school stories by Forster, Benson, Cather, and Colette offer other lessons, ones that let their protagonists linger with one foot still stepping out into adulthood, hanging between optimism and the unknown, on the precipice of potential.

Students come to the classroom with their own desires. Queer modernist literature represents that secondary socialization that is still not often taught by family, school, or contemporary media. It offers the promise of a past. I often ask myself how we should navigate student encounters with a queer modernism they come to articulate as their own history, occurring as they do in the same classroom in which they are learning to question whether queer modernism led to our contemporary lives or whether aspects of it got lost along the winding path through the “greenwood” to our future. For the student who reads Cather’s “Paul’s Case” and says the next day “I have never seen myself so clearly before” or “I now understand what I never knew was missing,” our charge as teachers of queer modernism can be to make both the intellectual and affective meanings of that claim clear; we must place personal revelation in balance with historical discovery. As Kathryn Bond Stockton observes, coming out entails the fact of one’s queerness being confirmed in the end, which in turn provides meaning to previously confounding or unnoticed events that preceded the moment of revelation. In this way, coming out narratives create what she calls the “ghostly gay child” whose queerness is theorized in retrospect.[12] For many students, modernism is the ghostly gay ancestor from whom they inherit manifold new ways of conceiving their own ghostly gay childhood. We as teachers must neither “lie,” like Mr. Ducie, about the history of queer modernism, nor can we turn our backs, like David Blaize’s headmaster, on the reassuring and sometimes life-giving handhold students look for in queer literature. In the classroom, can we become that other figure, the one that Forster could not imagine in his world of Mr. Ducies, one for whom Benson’s, Cather’s, and Colette’s protagonists longed, who would offer both primary and secondary educations by reaching one hand out to bridge the gap of history and another to welcome students into a queer (modernist) community?


[1] With the advances of the scientia sexualis in the period, new authority was invested in the institution of the school, both officially and unofficially, to educate students in sexual life and all the social conventions connected to sex—what Michel Foucault calls the “pedagogization of children’s sex” in The History of Sexuality: Volume 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 104.

[2] Gregory Castle, Reading the Modernist Bildungsroman (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006), 13.

[3] E. M. Forster, Maurice: A Novel (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005), 15.

[4] For more on the Benson family, see Simon Goldhill, A Very Queer Family Indeed: Sex, Religion, and the Bensons in Victorian Britain (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[5] E. F. (Edward Frederic) Benson, David Blaize (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1916), 30.

[6] Willa Cather, Stories, Poems, and Other Writings, ed. Sharon O’Brien (New York: Library of America, 2007), 468.

[7] Colette, Claudine à l’école (Paris: A. Michel, 1956), 68. For an English translation, see The Complete Claudine, trans. Antonia White (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001).

[8] David M. Halperin, How to Be Gay (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 324.

[9] M. M. Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, ed. Michael Holquist and Caryl Emerson, trans. Vern W. McGee (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986), 19.

[10] Christopher Nealon, Foundlings: Lesbian and Gay Historical Emotion before Stonewall (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 23.

[11] Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 4.

[12] Kathryn Bond Stockton, The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 15.