Benjamin Kahan is Professor of English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Louisiana State University. He is the author of Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life (Duke University Press, 2013) and The Book of Minor Perverts: Sexology, Etiology, and the Emergences of Sexuality (The University of Chicago Press, 2019). He is also the editor of Heinrich Kaan’s “Psychopathia Sexualis” (1844): A Classic Text in the History of Sexuality (Cornell University Press, 2016).
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.”
While Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality (1976) is known primarily for its pathbreaking description of the emergence of sexuality, it offers an equally important account of modernity. In his history of modernity, Foucault describes a shift from the sovereign’s “right to take life or let live” to the state’s biopolitical concern with “the right to make live and to let die.”