Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

The Queer Traffic in Literature; or, Reading Anthologically

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

The Queer Traffic in Literature; or, Reading Anthologically

Article excerpt

Ah, his books! The library of almost every man of like making-up, whose life has been largely solitary ... is companioned from youth up by innermost literary sympathies of his type. Dayneford stood now before his bookcase, reading over mechanically the titles of a special group of volumes--mostly small ones. They were crowded into a few lower shelves, as if they sought to avoid other literary society, to keep themselves to themselves, to shun all unsympathetic observation. Tibullus, Porpertius and the Greek Antologists [sic] pressed against Al Nafsewah and Chakani and Hafiz. A little further along stood Shakespeare's Sonnets, and those by Buonarrotti; along with Tennyson's "In Memoriam," Woodbery's "The North-Shore Watch," and Walt Whitman. Back of Platen's bulky "Tagebuch" lay his poems. Next to them came Wilbrandt's "Fridonlins Heimliche Ehe," beside Rachilde's "Les Hors Nature;" then Pernauhm's "Die Infamen," Emil Vacano's "Humbug," and a group of psychologic works by Krafft-Ebing and Ellis and Moll. There was a thin book in which were bound together, in a richly decorated arabesque cover, some six or seven stories from Martrus' French translation of "The Thousand Nights and a Night"--remorsely [sic] separated from the original companions. On a lower shelf, rested David Christie Murray's "Val Strange" and one or two other old novels; along with Dickens' "David Copperfield," the anonymous "Tim," and Vachell's "The Hill," companioned by Mayne's "Intersexes," "Imre" and "Sebastian au Plus Bel Age." (Prime-Stevenson in Gifford 3-4)

When Edward Prime-Stevenson wrote "Out of the Sun" in 1913, he took for granted the ways in which sexuality as a social type was marked "by innermost literary sympathies." By his account, the genesis of this sense of an inner sympathy, which today goes by the name "homosexuality," was not (primarily) sexological or psychoanalytic but the effect of books. Books: "mostly small ones"; books accumulated and organized on shelves; books that "companioned" one "from youth up"; beautiful books with arabesque covers, translated into English from an astonishing range of languages and cultural contexts. This global library of books standing alongside each other, socializing together, enables the main character in "Out of the Sun," the old man Dayneford, to see in them the accumulation of his queer life, broken down into often contradictory pieces, with only a provisional coherence, across time, space, and book gutters (perhaps across other gutters, too). What Prime-Stevenson both exemplifies and describes in this passage is not just the representation of queer life in literature but the ways in which the traffic in literature (its circulation among subcultures as well as books' interactions with each other) produced sexual types. Dayneford, after all, "is companioned from youth up" by a library that makes him up. This "making-up" is an effect of literary circulation (across languages, national literatures, and cultures): in such a single-sentence-spanning library, books themselves come together (and stay apart) as if they were the members of a subculture.

This description of the books on Dayneford's shelves as a historical model of queer "making-up" has fascinated modern-day anthologists of the history of gay fiction. Mark Mitchell and David Leavitt's Pages Passed from Hand to Hand: The Hidden History of Homosexual Literature in English from 1748-1914 (1998) and James Gifford's Glances Backward: An Anthology of American Homosexual Writing, 1830-1920 (2007) both open with the same passage that appears at the start of this essay. For these editors, the passage exemplifies something fundamentally reflective of the history of gay male writing. Yet virtually no scholarly work takes up and explores the questions that this passage raises for the history of reading and writing queer literature beyond the work of canonical writers and for the ways it offers up a distinctly literary model of queer world-making at the level of both individual type and queer subculture. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.