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Kangaroos Among the Beauty: Painting and Queer Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century American Literature


Since the roughly simultaneous emergence of queer theory and historicist literary criticism in the early 1990s, scholars have confronted the problem of studying queer culture and identity prior to the so-called “invention of the homosexual,” typically dated to the 1870s–90s. My dissertation offers an interdisciplinary approach to this question by focusing on the literary device of ekphrasis: verbal description of works of art. I argue that, prior to the advent of a discourse of homosexuality in the twentieth century, queer identity materialized in ekphrastic scenes from American literature. By asserting that the aesthetic and the erotic were profoundly entangled during the nineteenth century, I claim literary works as essential to the history of sexuality. I examine numerous writers who refract queer intimacies through scenes of painting—surprisingly, with more enthusiasm than shame or trepidation. In close readings of encounters between white spectators and paintings, I show that writers tend to stage queer relations in terms of racialized desire. Ekphrastic scenes thus consolidate whiteness and heterosexuality by frequently aligning racial and ethnic alterity with queer sexuality. At a time when critics and audiences were understandably anxious about the fledgling status of American art, the writers I discuss ventured far beyond the nation in search of more capacious forms of gender and sexuality: both to actual places such as Europe (in the case of Washington Irving and Henry James), as well as to fantastic dreamscapes (as in the fiction of Theodore Winthrop and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps). As my analysis reveals, these four writers regarded painting as a realm distinct from the contemporary United States. I demonstrate that American authors could explore, but ultimately disavow, queer attachments by writing about art in Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon (1819–20), Bracebridge Hall (1822), and Tales of a Traveller (1824); in Winthrop’s Cecil Dreeme (1861); in Phelps’ The Story of Avis (1877); and in James’ The Tragic Muse (1890). “Kangaroos Among the Beauty” situates these literary works in terms of art history and aesthetic philosophy that influenced how writers and audiences evoked the embodied pleasures of appreciating beauty. Thus understood, ekphrasis offered writers the chance to describe, rather than interrogate, burgeoning sexual categories. “Kangaroos Among the Beauty” proposes that heterosexuality became white, in part, via literary scenes of painting in which non-normative desires flourished through the frame of art.

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