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Time’s Citizens: American Fiction and the Sexual Politics of U.S. Civic Membership, 1886-1929


“Time’s Citizens” explores how American fiction shaped the public classification of sexual identification and civic membership in the U.S. in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During a period when discourses of anti-progressive deviance were used for purposes of civic exclusion, “Time’s Citizens” argues that a subset of novelists deployed the qualities ascribed to queers in order to claim civic presence. As critics have shown, the U.S. novel in both its realist and its romantic incarnations has long depicted heterosexual life to underwrite civil belonging. The novels of my study—Henry James’s The Bostonians, William Dean Howells’s A Hazard of New Fortunes, Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition, Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, and Nella Larsen’s Passing and Quicksand—expose and critique this formation through their depiction of racial, sexual, and gendered exclusion. Even as the modern sexual binary was coming into articulation, these novels show queer modes of belonging that did not assimilate to the heteronormative model standardized in the law and assumed in most literature. “Time’s Citizens” claims that this strain of U.S. fiction reveals the limitations on rights for subjects who did not contribute to the narrative of national progress, which was associated with marriage, reproductive futurity, property ownership, and the regulated time of the industrial economy.

In dialogue with current trends in queer theory and historiography, “Time’s Citizens” suggests that the novel was uniquely positioned to register the political stakes of queer difference. Deploying the temporal deviance used to represent queer subjects and their relation to, antagonism toward, or erasure by the progressive, reproductive state, the novel was able to represent modes of civic presence that were becoming impossible under U.S. social and legal regimes. To explore the relation between politics and the novel, “Time’s Citizens” works at the intersection of legal studies, critical race theory, and the investigations of queer time to show how marginal figures of a variety of identities relate to the ongoing struggle for equal rights and representation. When taken together, the novels of this study question the presumption of normativity and view queerness as a mode of identification deeply tied to civic structures and local politics. Instead of carving a separate sphere for queer being, these texts sought relations to citizenship not predicated on conformity but able to accommodate more diverse modes of expression and identification.

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