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Queer Orientations: Desire, Race and Belonging in Queer American Literature, 1900-1940


“Queer Orientations” moves between the Harlem Renaissance and American modernism to show the shared strategies and tropes through which early-twentieth-century queer American writers articulated their queerness and oriented themselves in the world as queer. Working through the frames of diaspora, Orientalist fantasy, the struggle between individuality and community, camp aesthetics and the scrapbook roman a clef, these writers offer us a varied and compelling account of how queers navigated belonging and relation during a moment when same-sex desire was caught between medical and ethnic theories of identity and subjectivity. By putting black and white writers in dialogue— Claude McKay and Willa Cather, Richard Bruce Nugent and Edward Prime-Stevenson, Nella Larsen and Djuna Barnes, Wallace Thurman, Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler—I demonstrate the centrality of race to queer identification and how race distinguishes encounters with shared tropes and representational strategies. McKay’s queer black diaspora offers an ephemeral utopia of transitory male community as a challenge to frameworks of diaspora grounded in the heterosexual family and the trauma of slavery. Cather’s fiction reveals how diasporic racial histories appealed to white queers estranged from their biological families and communities of origin. Nugent and Prime- Stevenson adapt Orientalist tropes to imagine a transnational, multiracial queer kinship and relocate themselves in alternate origin stories beyond the limited constructions of family and race. In their writing about same-sex female relationships, Larsen and Barnes strip the cosmopolitan gay male identity from the first two chapters of its utopian glamour to reveal how differences in desire and type simultaneously allure and disappoint the queer subject. Thurman, Ford and Tyler develop a queer aesthetic within the autobiographical novel to preserve the worlds they saw fading from view in the 1930s. Drawing together often separated movements and authors, I offer a reading of early twentieth century queer modernist literature that demonstrates the dynamic relationship between the Harlem Renaissance and American modernism. Across chapters, my research relocates the conceptual force of contemporary debates in queer studies about desire, race and belonging in an earlier historical moment, excavating this archive’s wrangling with queerness at a moment in history and tracing the echoes of that struggle across the twentieth century and into the present.

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