Born in 1950, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick was a literary theorist who was one of the founders of Queer Theory. She died of breast cancer at 58 on April 12, 2009. She was survived by her husband, Hal Sedgwick, whom she married in 1969 when she was an undergraduate in Cornell's English Department.
According to her obituary in The Washington Post, she graduated in 1971 and earned her master's in 1974 and doctorate in 1975 from Yale. After that, she taught, first at Hamilton College in New York and then eventually at Duke University. At Duke, Sedgwick became a lightning rod in the American culture wars of the late 1980s through the 1990s. The culture wars were fundamentally a struggle about the question: Was there any normative center that Americans should either be, or at least pretend to want to be like?
Culture warriors on the right grudgingly conceded that race and religion were not meaningful grounds upon which to differentiate human worth. Sex or gender and sexual orientation were different matters entirely. The conservative attitude toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people can be summarized, at its most polite and humane: Who cares what you do in private so long as you don't talk about it the way we heterosexuals do.
Sedgwick's contribution to the culture wars was to say that literature can be read with an eye to homosexuality, just as literature is influenced by themes of race, sex and heterosexuality. Her early influential work deals with homoeroticism in the work of Henry James and Charles Dickens, two writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries whose importance cannot be overestimated. Dickens was predominantly heterosexual in his physical and emotional life, but he also wrote with great tenderness and erotic overtones of love between men, while Henry James was a gay man who also loved women. To read their work without accepting the tenderness of Dickens' writing and the reality of the people James loved is to willfully distort it, said Sedgwick.
Moreover, Sedgwick wrote as a woman. She was perhaps most fiercely attacked for an essay, "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl." Her introductory paragraph of the essay in her book Tendencies provides a taste of her style: "Roger Kimball in his treatise on educational ‘corruption,' Tenured Radicals, cites the title ‘Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl' from an MLA convention program quite as if he were Perry Mason, the six words a smoking gun. The warm gun that, for the journalists who have adopted the phrase as an index of depravity in academe, is happiness -- offering the squibby pop (fulmination? prurience? funniness?) that lets absolutely anyone, in the righteously exciting vicinity of the masturbating girl, feel a very pundit."
A few paragraphs later, she placed masturbation in its cultural context: "The history of masturbation phobia -- the astonishing range of legitimate institutions that so recently surveilled, punished, jawboned, imprisoned, terrorized, shackled, diagnosed, purged, and physically mutilated so many people, to prevent a behavior that those same institutions now consider innocuousness itself has complex messages for sexual activism today."
Sedgwick could not rationally be argued with, although she can fairly be criticized for her needlessly ornate and obscure language, especially given the importance of her subject, which is the human heart. She was a scholar who knew that the Victorians also used far more ornate and emotional language than is common now -- and that ornate language did not mean that they were ignorant of sexual love between men or between women.
Sedgwick's offense, if it may be called that, was to destroy the popular image of Jane Austen as a safe, virginal writer, suitable for well-brought-up young ladies. Instead, she reveals to us the context of Austen's own life as Austen knew herself to live it: a human being tormented by her human need for pleasure, including sexual pleasure, and the premodern woman's fear of dying in childbirth, deprived of almost all control over her body and her life. Sedgwick's criticism helped strip American and English literature neither of innocence nor love but of a layer of false and cruel sentimentality. In doing so, she allows us to read these classics with a fuller appreciation of the lives and loves and emotions that the authors lived, lived with and wrote about.