Alice Mitchell’s 1892 murder of her lover Freda Ward rocked their well-to-do Memphis community and scandalized the nation. The masculine Mitchell slashed Ward’s throat in broad daylight when Ward decided not to marry Mitchell. Lisa Duggan has provided the richest account of the murder to date and has exhaustively detailed the way that it was sensationalized in the period press as “a Very Unnatural Crime,” representing “a new narrative-in-formation—a cultural marker of the emergence of a partially cross-gender-identified lesbian.”
In 1990, when Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick declared the closet “the defining structure for gay oppression in this century,” she followed that claim with a reference to the legal discourses of privacy, specifically those concentrated around the 1986 case Bowers v. Hardwick, which upheld the existence of anti-sodomy laws. As she describes them, the conversations following this case zoomed in on “the image of the bedroom invaded by policemen,” implicitly affirming that queerness belongs behind closed doors, while policemen belong in the street.
In a scene midway through Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home, the little tomboy Bechdel sits with her father in a small-town Pennsylvania luncheonette when, together, they look (or rather he swivels to glower and she stares moon-eyed) at a bulldyke standing at the counter. “Is that what you want to look like?” her father hisses derisively across the laminate table, compelling his child to answer, falsely, “no” (fig. 1).
“Marvelous and somehow sad, flamboyant, and threatening.”
The words are Elizabeth Bishop’s, writing in a letter to describe the extraordinary tropical plant life encountered at the Sítio Burle Marx, the hundred-acre home and nursery of Roberto Burle Marx, Brazil’s best-known landscape architect and a key figure in the country’s modernist movement. Although Bishop had already lived in Brazil for ten years when she wrote this, the Sítio Burle Marx, located on the western outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, was and continues to be an incomparably rich showcase for botanical exotica collected on the designer’s many scouting expeditions to remote Brazilian biomes.
In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1993), Toni Morrison calls for “studies of the technical ways in which an Africanist character is used to limn out and enforce the invention and implications of whiteness. . . . Such studies,” she continues, “will reveal the process of establishing others in order to know them, to display knowledge of the other so as to ease and to order external and internal chaos.” In demonstrating the reflexive role that Africanist personae play in white American literature—the manner by which white people construct blackness as a screen for the projections that enable, through simultaneous disavowal and enforcement, their identifications as white—“Such studies will reveal the process by which it is made possible to explore and penetrate one’s own body in the guise of the sexuality, vulnerability, and anarchy of the other” (Morrison, Playing, 53).
When I was in the process of proposing and developing the volume that became Teaching Modernist Women’s Writing in English, one of my peer reviewers noted an orientation towards the celebratory, a somewhat uncritical extolling of the vibrancy of modernist women’s writing. I had found such vibrancy in communities of modernist scholars as I was working on the volume, roundtables and seminars at the annual MSA conference, including one convened in honor of Jane Marcus shortly after her death.
A space for reorienting ourselves as scholars, teachers, writers, and practitioners of interdisciplinary modernist studies to the feminist, to the queer—and also a space for sustained orientation to feminist and queer modernisms.
Whenever she found that monied interests were shaping aesthetic taste in American culture, Willa Cather decried the deleterious effects their contrary values had on what she called genuine art. In interviews, essays, stories, and novels written throughout the opening decades of the twentieth century, Cather’s critique of consumerism, in particular, took on what John N. Swift calls a “protest against a pervasive materialist commodity culture” and led her to create characters that Guy J. Reynolds claims “embody Cather’s suspicion of the corrosive impact of acquisitiveness, allied to her wariness about how economic modernism [was] producing an increasingly consumerist society.”
After the publication of the well-known sole issue of the Harlem Renaissance journal, FIRE!! A Quarterly Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists (1926), W. E. B. Du Bois wrote to the journal’s cofounder Richard Bruce Nugent and asked, “Why don’t you write more about Negroes?” In response, Nugent quipped, “I write about myself, and I’m a Negro, aren’t I?” (Wirth, “FIRE!! In Retrospect,” n. p.) (figs. 1 & 2). Du Bois’s question to the openly queer and artistically experimental Nugent exemplifies 1920s debates about Black American racial representation that occurred between older and younger Black artists, many of them centered in Harlem.
Dorothy Strachey, the older sister of the biographer and essayist Lytton Strachey, and of the psychoanalyst and translator of Sigmund Freud, James Strachey, published her only novel, Olivia, in 1949, under the pseudonym of “Olivia.”