Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"Show Me," Said the Spectator: Chronicles of the Backlash, Episode the Eleventh

I'm not sure whether I'll finish reading Scott Herring's Queering the Underworld: Slumming, Literature, and the Undoing of Lesbian and Gay History (Chicago, 2007). The writing is low-level academese, with an inordinate fondness for alliteration, but I could overlook that. What makes me wonder if it's worthwhile to read more is the (you should pardon the expression) thought.

Herring's subject is what he calls slumming, especially the sensationalistic media which promised to reveal the dark side of city life in America to respectable audiences, but also those non-poor people who for whatever reason lived among the poor themselves. His first case study is Jane Addams (1860-1935), the philanthropist and founder of Hull-House in Chicago. Addams never married, and her longest and most serious relationships were with other women. She lived at a time when nineteenth-century patterns of romantic friendship between women were being overtaken by pathologizing medical models, though it should be remembered that women who sought to live outside of male control had always been suspect.

Addams not only loved other women (and "love" was her word for it), she lived with another woman for decades, shared a bed with her, bought a house with her, compared their relationship to marriage. Whether she "had sex" with her beloved Mary is something we'll never know; whether she would have accepted the label "lesbian" seems unlikely from what I've read about her, and I consider it unimportant because labels come and go. In my own lifetime I've seen "gay" go from an in-group code word to a self-consciously chosen public name to a homophobic putdown, and it has been rejected by homosexual and bisexual people for a variety of reasons. In some circles, "lesbian" is rejected as a label by women who love and have sex with other women, in favor of other, equally specific alternatives. Jane Addams's contemporary Radclyffe Hall called herself a "congenital invert," not a lesbian. And so on. To hang too much on "gay" or "lesbian" as a label is a waste of time.

This shouldn't be too much of a problem, certainly not for a professional scholar. Unfortunately Herring can't seem to keep from doing what he accuses others of doing, namely imposing his categories and agenda on his material. So, for example, he quotes on page 33 "an unpublished, undated poem inscribed to fellow reformer 'M.R.S.'", presumably Mary Rozet Smith, the woman Addams was coupled with for forty years. In this poem, Herring says, "the slummer congratulates herself and her close friend on inhabiting a settlement house relation far beyond the bounds of recognizable attachments such as an opposite-sex coupling or even a Boston marriage:"
The “mine” and “thine” of wedded folk
Is often quite confusing
And sometimes when they use the “ours”
It sounds almost amusing.

But – You and I, may well defy
Both married folk and single
To do as well as we have done
The “mine” and “thine” to mingle
(Jane Addams Papers, reel 113.45.1572)
To nitpick first: it is Herring and not Addams who (repeatedly, throughout the chapter) calls her a "slummer." How odd that it's not acceptable to call her a lesbian (only her "critics" do so, according to Herring [31]), but okay to pin another pejorative term on her. The same goes for "settlement house relation," which appears to be Herring's own coinage, as though it were a "sexual taxonomy" of its own. As far as I can tell, it isn't; certainly Herring makes no effort to establish it as one.

Herring goes on:
In this pithy love poem, Addams praises herself and Smith for sidestepping compulsory (homo)sexual identifications. Against all odds, she suggests in this correspondence, the two have managed to carve out an affective space enabling “mine” and “thine” to conjoin into something foreign. Traditional relational spaces, Addams informs Smith, both perplex (“often quite confusing”) and please and are laughingly conventional. In contrast to such standard forms of intimacy, Addams and Smith inhabit a different form of coupling, something more akin to a relational terra incognita rather than a closeted liaison, since there is no suspicious sexual group identity to hide. Situated outside conventional Anglo-American marriage, and far removed from being “single,” the two gleefully – and defiantly – “mingle” in Hull-House without any relational fusion. Eschewing men, they are adamantly not married to each other for life. Instead they “have done” well when their relationship could have been construed as perverse and pathological given the Progressive Era’s increasing intolerance for passionate same-sex relations of any kind. In brief, their settlement intimacy is beyond any discernible sexual taxonomy like the mannish lesbian: it is instead a love that does not speak any name [33-4].
In the poem, Addams doesn't congratulate herself for "sidestepping compulsory (homo)sexual identifications"; she doesn't even mention them. Herring appears to assume that when she writes of "single" people she's referring to queers, but I see no reason to make that assumption. Remove that assumption and his entire reading collapses. Addams situates herself and M.R.S. between, or perhaps outside, the (heterosexual) married and the (heterosexual) single. They are neither, but they are still a couple who successfully "mingle" "'mine' and 'thine'". I don't see "to conjoin into something foreign" as a justifiable reading of the poem; I think it's at least arguable that, far from being "beyond any discernible sexual taxonomy," the relationship can be classified quite easily.

If this poem were all we knew about Addams and Smith, Herring's (mis)reading might be understandable. But Addams's life is well-documented, from scrapbooks of clippings to personal correspondence. In Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers (Columbia, 1991), a book Herring cites and quotes, Lillian Faderman wrote:
They thought of themselves as wedded. In a 1902 letter, written during a three-week separation, Jane remarked, "You must know, dear, how I long for you all the time, and especially during the last three weeks. There is reason in the habit of married folks keeping together." In 1904 they purchased a home together near Bar Harbor, Maine. "Our house -- it quite gives me a thrill to write the word," Jane told Mary. "It was our house wasn't it in a really truly ownership," and she talked about their "healing domesticity" [26].
According to Faderman, Addams and Smith "always slept in the same room and the same bed, and when they traveled Jane even wired ahead to be sure they would get a hotel room with a double bed" (25). None of this proves that they were Lesbians As We Know Them Today -- they didn't wear Doc Martens and never went to Michigan -- but that they were a loving and devoted couple, in a way that makes homophobes uneasy, is certain. (I should add that I'd like to see more evidence that Addams and Smith "thought of themselves as wedded"; maybe I'll pursue that. What Faderman provides, though, is enough to undermine Herring's epistemological certainties.)

Then Herring makes a significant mistake. He argues that "Faderman’s supposition that the signifier 'lesbian' may not have been in widespread circulation during Addams’s time could be reconsidered, given that Progressive Era U.S. discourses coded intense same-sex female relations across class lines as fundamentally degenerate" (35). Faderman's supposition rather was that Addams and Smith could rely on "the protective coloring of pearls and ladylike appearance and of romantic friendship, which was not yet dead in America since the works of the sexologists were not yet widely known" (Odd Girls, 28). Despite the sexologists, Eleanor Roosevelt's friendship with the butch Lorena Hickok could benefit from the same "protective coloring" even decades later. I know personally some "spinsters" who did the same into this century. And more important, Addams and Smith did not bond "across class lines", so Herring's objection collapses.

Weirdly, Herring writes that Addams's poem describes "an intimate same-sex relation that refuses the epistemological certainty of lesbian or heterosexual identity, primarily because Addams’s Hull-House relations fail to conform either to a burgeoning twentieth-century binary that now marks what Faderman marks as 'our day' or even a nineteenth-century romantic friendship that may have marked hers" (33). Leaving aside the question whether Addams rejected the category of romantic friendship -- for which Herring provides no evidence -- it's as though Addams could see into the future, and rejected concepts of same-sex love that would not exist, on Herring's assumptions, for almost a century! (In the same way, I refuse Herring's 25th century epistemology of same-sex mind-melds! It is narrow and constricting and craves epistemological certainty!)

Herring's historical sense is consistently a little off. He cites "another heated exchange that, unwittingly or not, verges on typing the Progressive female slummer as a modern-day lesbian, Helen Gould addresses the question, 'Are Bachelor Maids Useless to Humanity,' sensationally "CALLS MEN TIRESOME," and presents 'a list of ten world-famous' bachelor aunts that begins with Sappho, 'Grecian poetess,' and ends with 'Gould, philanthropist' and 'Jane Addams, sociologist'" (37-8). Herring then sneers:
Linking the Isle of Lesbos to Chicago’s Hull-House settlement and denouncing what Adrienne Rich would later call “compulsory heterosexuality” …, Gould would have made a fine revisionist historian … [38].
He has also called Faderman "revisionist," though on his own account Herring is a revisionist too, presenting a new picture of the history of "U. S. homosexual group identity." But it's odd to see him yank Helen Gould out of her historical context this way, as though she were a Second-Wave time traveler who'd gone back to 1916 to sow discord and confusion. Sappho, of course, was according to legend a woman who ran a school for younger women, an educator and therefore a benefactress to humanity in Gould's terms. Her image was controversial in the Victorian era and in Gould's day, as it is still. But Helen Gould wasn't casting Sappho, let alone herself, as a late 20th-century Lesbian. If Gould could denounce compulsory heterosexuality in 1916, it was not because of future-vision goggles or a time-traveling backwash from Adrienne Rich, but because she was a woman of her time, rebelling against the society she had to live in. It is Herring's picture of Addams and her circle that needs adjustment, I'd say, not Gould's.

I'll give Herring props for writing of "homosexual group identity," since he seems to recognize that gay "identity" is the declaration not of individualism but of membership in a collective. But maybe not; like so many of his peers he seems confused about what "identity" means. A bit later he recounts a story Addams told in her autobiography, about an "Anglo-American" committee woman who approached her after a Hull-House performance by Italian immigrants. "Do you know I am always ashamed of the way I have talked about 'dagos,' they are quite like other people, only one must take a little more pains with them," the woman told Addams. "I have been nagging my husband to move off M Street because they are moving in, but I am going to try staying while and see if I can make a real acquaintance with some of them" (41-2).

Here's how Herring reads this anecdote:
For the reformer, cosmopolitan interactions at Hull-House between Anglo [sic] middle classes and immigrant working classes ... are akin to entering a new “region” where particularized persons tend to become abstracted citizens where overcoming the habit of stifling “differences” becomes paramount.

To their surprise, Addams informs her readers, immigrants, philanthropists, reformers, and Hull-House visitors often find themselves cultivating these abstract spaces of anonymous social pleasure, a brotherhood where one “judge[s] their fellows by a more universal test” (207). The settlement house’s interclass transpositions, that is to say, fantastically begin to unsettle national as well as personal identifications, cherished prejudices, and particular taxonomies [42].
As far as I can tell, Herring has it exactly backwards here, though Addams may have been similarly mistaken. The "spaces" are not "abstract" but concrete and personal, and it appears that Addams and her fellow reformers wanted them to be so. The Anglo-Saxon (as she probably would have called herself -- certainly not "Anglo"!) woman had "abstracted" Italians as the Other, but through interacting with them personally she came to see them as "particularized" individuals, no longer "anonymous" but named, not "dagos" but Maria or Sophia or Loretta. Of course the individual is also an abstraction, as is "American" or "quite like us" or any other such specific label, but Herring seems not to see that. In general he prefers to see Addams and his other subjects as "slummers," a taxonomical abstraction that needs to be unsettled.

An old friend, and fellow writer, chided me gently not long ago when I'd been ranting about another book that affected me as Queering the Underworld does. Why, I fumed, does stuff like this get published? She said she preferred to see as many different viewpoints published as possible, so that they can be argued with. I agreed with her on that -- I wasn't advocating censorship -- but the fact remains that publishers have limited resources to invest; they don't publish everything that is submitted to them. And one argument that is made for traditional publication, as opposed to self-publication on the Internet, is that what gets into print through respectable publishers has to meet some standards of quality. What I was complaining about is how low those standards often seem to be. In acknowledgements writers offer fulsome thanks to their editors and to academic advisors, colleagues and friends who read and commented on drafts of the material, spotting errors and infelicities. The results are too often underwhelming. Doesn't anyone ever say, "You keep using that word 'identity' -- I do not think it means what you think it means"? Or "Foucault didn't mean that literally, and if he did, he was probably wrong." Or "Laura Mulvey was very tentative in her first paper on the Male Gaze; why do you refer to it as if it were unquestionably true?"

It's not that I object to Theory; as Kath Weston wrote in an excellent short paper, everybody theorizes about the world and how it works; the question is how to do it well. All too often it isn't being done well.