Wednesday, June 27, 2007

I Enjoy Being a Girl!

Tomorrow (June 28) will be Gay Pride Day, the 38th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, so it’s as good a time as any to reflect on how far we’ve come since then. And it’s true, the possibilities for gay people in the US and in many other parts of the world have increased a great deal since 1969.

People have a tendency, however, to see change as monolithic, evenly and instantly distributed throughout society, and usually on the basis of very small developments. For example, because Civil Rights laws were passed in the US in the 1960s, and because lip service is widely (but not universally) paid to equality, you’ll see claims that “society now refuses to discriminate on grounds of religion and race” by people who really do know better. (Martha Nussbaum, in this case.) Just because a law has been passed doesn’t mean it has successfully eradicated the offenses it addresses, even if it has been vigorously enforced. (Which, of course, the Civil Rights laws were not.) Nor does a law against certain carefully delineated forms of discrimination begin to take on the brute fact of racism itself, any more than laws against theft attempt to extirpate greed (let alone need) from human beings.

So, gay people have made important gains in American society, of which legal ones are possibly less important, though the legal gains have been greatly exaggerated. (Our civil rights still aren’t legally guaranteed in most of the US, for example.) But those gains are still being resisted, not just by the Religious Right but by ordinary citizens who distance themselves indignantly from such bogeymen as Fred Phelps (the Kansan who preaches that God Hates Fags). Not just by ignorant rednecks but by educated folks with good manners. And probably the most fiercely resisted change is the mere fact of our casual, unapologetic, open presence in the world.

I just finished reading Joan Acocella’s Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism, published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2000. The book is an expansion of a 1995 New Yorker article in which Acocella counted “the various ways in which Cather … had been manhandled by contemporary academic critics.” Womanhandled might be more accurate here, since most of Acocella’s targets were female, indeed feminist writers, and their thoughtcrime had something to do with seeing Cather as “a homosexual”, Acocella’s preferred if dated term. Terry Castle grants that Acocella’s “insights into Cather’s own artistic personality are stunningly clear-sighted and judiciously expressed” (Boss Ladies Watch Out! [London: Routledge, 2002], xx). I disagree. Acocella did find plenty of stupidity in the writings of contemporary academics, as who hasn’t? I too am disturbed when I see how badly many academic critics read, since it’s at least part of their job to teach reading to their students. But Acocella has stupidity of her own to spare, and much of it appears to express unresolved (at the critical level) conflicts about homosexuality in American society and art.

Begin at the end of the book, where Acocella reports on a 1997 conference in Cather’s home town of Red Cloud, Nebraska (93):

And some of the locals I talked to still don’t care for the word [‘lesbian’]. “She loved Isabelle – does that make her perverted?” said Bev Cooper. “These professors, they have to write things in order to get tenure. So they come up with these theories.” Actually, most of the Cather fans seemed inured to the issue. Sexual scandal is in fashion, said Carolyn Smith, the woman from Missouri: “They’re doing the same thing to Clinton.”

What most people objected to was not so much the idea of homosexuality, as the invasion of privacy. … But these people value their privacy, and not just about sex. Antonette Turner said that when My Ántonia was published, the Pavelkas were not proud that a novel had been written about their family. They were ashamed, because the book told how poor they had been. If Cather failed to dig the dirt on her characters’ sex lives, and her own, that was due in part to local training. In Red Cloud, you don’t have to be a lesbian to keep certain things to yourself.

No one knows whether Cather had some kind of sex with Isabelle McClung or Edith Lewis, the two women with whom she lived for long periods of her life. If she did, however, that would not “make her perverted.” Nor are the lesbian critics who believe that Cather was lesbian interested in stirring up “sexual scandal” – they don’t see lesbianism as either perverted or scandalous. It might not surprise worldly cosmopolitans that backward Midwesterners should hold such views, but Acocella (dance critic for The New Yorker, mind you) obviously shares them. For her, it’s very important that Cather never did the nasty with a woman, and anyone who thinks otherwise is just ‘digging the dirt.’

It’s so important that she lies about Cather’s own practice, for Cather certainly did “dig the dirt” on the folks in Red Cloud, including their sex lives. As Acocella observes, Cather used the lives of the people she knew for her fiction, including Ántonia’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy and the various drunken piano teachers whom she based on her own teacher and friend Herr Schindelmeisser. Acocella stresses “how minutely autobiographical Cather’s work was, just like Proust’s. Whatever names she gave to the little towns she described in her novels, they were all Red Cloud, and filled with Red Cloud people” (32). And as Acocella points out, this invasion of their privacy made them “ashamed.” Given her “local training,” Cather must have known what she was doing. But at least she didn’t call anybody a homosexual.

Acocella is aware that professional and literary critics before second-wave feminism had read Cather badly, in the service of their own agendas: she devotes two chapters to Marxist, masculist, and right-wing (especially Catholic) attempts to appropriate her, or to revile her for failure to toe various party lines. Some of these remind me of what someone (Robert K. Martin, I think) said about Whitman: some critics held that Whitman could not be a homosexual, because he was a great poet, while others held that he couldn’t be a great poet, because he was a homosexual. Many people would argue that an artist’s sex or sexuality should not be a factor in how we read his or her work; but what about cases like Whitman’s where it’s part of the work? Whitman wrote many poems celebrating what he called “the love of comrades” or “adhesiveness”, poems so ripely erotic in their imagery that they upset many male readers (while thrilling many others). You can argue about Whitman’s sexuality, but the sexuality of his poetry is intrinsic to its art.

But even those who want to keep artists’ sex lives out of criticism often can’t resist dragging in the topic themselves. Acocella quotes a famous early essay by Cather, in which Cather contrasted the actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse. Bernhardt “has a much-advertised love life, but Duse seems to have no husband, no friends” (14). Cather sees Bernhardt’s florid, emotive acting style and Duse’s reserved containment as somehow connected to their styles in love, and Acocella goes along with her. “Cather was only twenty-two when she wrote this, but she seems to have seen her life before her: strait is the gate. Like Duse, she will not marry, not dissipate. And her art will be like Duse’s. She will not express things, but contain them.” (As it happens, though, Duse was married, divorced, and had numerous affairs, including a long, well-known one with Gabriele D’Annunzio, which ended when D’Annunzio gave the lead in one of his plays to Bernhardt instead of Duse. Oops.)

But it’s “the feminists” who really get Acocella’s goat, especially Jane Rule, the (American-born) “Canadian novelist and critic, [who] had matter-of-factly declared that Cather was homosexual” (43) in her 1975 book Lesbian Images. This Acocella regards as such a bombshell that she uses it to close a chapter, though she returns on 53 to “Rule, the woman – herself a declared lesbian – who first said in print that Cather was homosexual”, and again in an endnote. Acocella is also honked off at Sharon O’Brien, whose biography of Cather first set Acocella on her hobbyhorse. But Rule is the serpent in Eden: “The thought [that Cather might have been lesbian] clearly crossed many minds, but since it was not voiced in print, it did not become a subject” (101n5).

Acocella should have read Rule’s discussion of Cather with more care. Rule pointed out that earlier (male) critics had hinted at Cather’s sexuality, but only through innuendo and solely to discredit her. Rule also showed how those critics maliciously misread her. Cather, in their minds, couldn’t be a great writer because she was a dyke; Acocella holds that she couldn’t have been a dyke because she was a great writer. That she could have been both is evidently unthinkable.

Acocella can even forgive Joanna Russ for treating Cather as a dyke, because Russ sees Cather as “innocent” (73), which Acocella misreads as a declaration of Cather’s personal sexlessness. Which is the core of Acocella’s argument, stunningly enough: “What the evidence suggests is that Cather was homosexual in her feelings and celibate in her actions” (48; compare 79, where Cather is “presumably homosexual”). How quaint. This ploy has often been used before – by Justin Kaplan in his 1980 biography of Walt Whitman, for instance. It’s also, no doubt coincidentally, the position of the Roman Catholic Church: homosexuality is not in itself sinful, but homosexual acts are, especially if you get caught.

Since it’s virtually impossible to prove that long-dead people had sex of any kind, this claim is inarguable on its face, but it embodies some interesting assumptions. It’s less important whether Cather did or didn’t have a genitally-expressed sex life than why people like Acocella think it’s scandalous to suppose that she did, and praiseworthy to suppose that she didn’t – always without any material evidence either way. She cites Lillian Faderman’s 1981 tome Surpassing the Love of Men as one of the works which “gave me hope for a sane feminist criticism”, no doubt for its insistence that women who formed romantic friendships never Did It. But she misunderstands Faderman (another “declared lesbian”) too: Acocella shares the medical hostility to eroticism between women which Faderman decried.

Acocella also minimizes Cather’s youthful “William Cather” period, when she wore her hair cut short in a flattop (as Terry Castle says, she looked like the lesbian folksinger Phranc) and affected jacket, suspenders, a derby. “But what Cather did is not that remarkable. The William Cather period began and ended with adolescence. Around eighteen she got rid of the derby and grew her hair out. It seems late in the day to have to say that for certain girls, adolescence, with its enforcement of sex roles, is a disaster …Those were the days before such behavior placed one under suspicion of being a lesbian.” But they didn’t spare one’s being thought “eccentric”, let alone a “hermaphrodite,” as Cather was remembered in Red Cloud civic legend into the 1970s. Not so unremarkable. While many girls do indeed rebel against femininity in adolescence (more power to ‘em!), only the more “remarkable” resist heterosexual marriage altogether in favor of lifelong relationships with women. (Acocella says hopefully that “Cynthia Griffin Wolff is at work on a biography of Cather. To judge from her recent essay ‘New Cather Biographical Data,’ she has new evidence for heterosexuality and is interested in it.” And she’s not afraid to use it! To date, however, her biography has not been published. And how revealing that Acocella doesn't regard evidence of an active heterosexual life to be discrediting to Cather; only a homosexual one.)

She ought to have paid more attention to Faderman’s quotation from Cather’s role model Sarah Orne Jewett, who gently chided Cather for giving My Ántonia a male narrator: “The lover is as well done as he could be when a woman writes in the man’s character – it must always, I believe, be something of a masquerade … and you could almost have done it as yourself – a woman could love her in the same protecting way – a woman could even care enough to wish to take her away from such a life, by some means or other.” Faderman comments, “The letter must have made Cather blush – but Jewett probably would not have known what she was blushing about” (202). Jewett recognized, as later queer theorists would, that Jim Burden was a stand-in for Cather herself; and Faderman assumes that Cather was aware enough of the medical attack on lesbianism that she’d have blushed to acknowledge her love for Ántonia.

So. Nearly forty years after Stonewall, and even a sophisticated New York dance critic still regards homosexuality as a scandalous accusation, and an active homosexual love life as incompatible with artistic or other achievement. (She has to know of great artists in dance, at least, who aren’t celibate.) To repeat: I don’t know whether Cather had a sex life or not, but neither does Acocella. What’s revealing is that she thinks such a sex life would be discrediting to Cather, and must be denied with all the vehemence and bad arguments she can muster. Nor is Acocella alone in her proud heterosexual vigilance ... but of that, more another day.