Queer Antiracism and the Forgotten Fiction of Murrell Edmunds, a Southern "Revolutionary"
Bibler, Michael P., Philological Quarterly
OVER THE PAST FEW DECADES, critics, historians, and legal scholars have largely treated the struggles for racial equality and for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights as parallel and rather distinct political movements. Needless to say, imagining queer rights and civil rights as similar, but not always interconnected issues has its problems. For example, queer activists have found that making "like race" arguments can sometimes prove useful in legal trials; yet these arguments carry serious limitations. "Like race" arguments posit that sexual minorities are equivalent to racial minorities as subordinated social groups. And queers who make this analogy often cite the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s as legal precedent for the expansion of rights and protections. But many scholars have usefully critiqued this "like race" rhetoric, starting with the basic question: if queers are "like" African Americans in the public sphere, where does that leave queer African Americans? (1) This strategy of distinguishing sexual rights from the rights of racial minorities also creates a problematic historical blindness to the mutual origins of racial and sexual categories in the United States. As Siobhan Somerville has shown, efforts "to shore up and bifurcate categories of race and sexuality in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were deeply intertwined," Any study of identity in the U.S. must therefore abandon the notion that the discourses of race and sexuality constitute "separate strands" in American culture. (2) This essay addresses a corollary problem in how scholars have understood the history of queer involvement, particularly the involvement of queer white southerners, in the fight for racial equality. Although southern queer activists like Mab Segrest have explained the fundamental connections between, in her case, her lesbianism and her antiracism, "like race" modes of thought continue to influence scholarly assumptions that most queer white liberals, particularly in the early twentieth century, have spoken out for racial justice largely because they could not speak publicly about their own marginalized status as sexual outsiders. (3) However, this essay shows that in the literature and culture of the modernist period before World War II, civil rights did not simply stand in as a surrogate for, or sublimation of, the wishes of queer whites for sexual freedom. Rather, queer white writers imagined queer desires to be inextricably bound with antiracism in subtle and provocative ways. And perhaps nowhere is this complex entanglement of queer white liberalism more apparent than in the work of Murrell Edmunds, a writer who is now almost completely forgotten. (4)
Few Southern writers of the twentieth century can claim a career as strange as Edmunds. Born in 1898 to an old, aristocratic family in Halifax, Virginia, he published sixteen books before his death in 1981: three short story collections, three books of poetry, one play, and nine novels and novellas. That he was able to publish as much as he did is noteworthy enough, and there were career highlights: he won Arizona Quarterly's poetry prize in 1963, and his fourth novel, Time's Laughter in Their Ears (1946), was translated into Danish. Yet none of Edmunds's books sold well or has ever been reprinted or anthologized; and his name is virtually nonexistent in the pages of literary history and criticism. When I call Edmunds's career "strange" however, I don't mean that it's necessarily surprising or exceptional that he has been so thoroughly forgotten. Rather, I want to understand Edmunds's life and work in the fullest sense of that term. In addition to unfamiliarity, strange denotes alienation, separation, and foreignness in relation to geographic place, as well as other kinds of disaffection--cultural, familial, emotional. We retain these meanings in the word estranged, which we use to describe someone who has been marked as alien where he or she wasn't considered alien before. …