Queer Matters: A Review Essay

 

Dr. Ozzie Mayers, Professor of English 
                         Professor of Gender Education and Development                                       
                                                                
                                                                   Books Reviewed in This Essay:

Queer Cowboys and Other Erotic Male Friendships in Nineteenth-Century American Literature
Chris Packard
Palgrave Macmillan Press, 2005

Male-Male Intimacy in Early America: Beyond Romantic Friendships
William Benemann
Harrington Park Press, 2006

Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together, 1840-1918
David Deitcher
Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Press, 2001

 

For those of us who have been researching the evolution of masculinity in America and especially its influence on our literature, Chris Packard's study of homosexuality/homoeroticism and the tradition of the American cowboy appears at first glance to offer a much needed resource.  As Packard states at the start of his work, while the cowboy has emerged over time to become "A folk hero, [who] embodies the most precious values in the nation . . . scant attention has been given to the rather wide variety of sexual and erotic discourses used and practiced by cowboys and other frontiersmen while they are 'out there' on the frontier" (2-3).  This attention, of course, has most recently been accentuated with the film adaptation of Annie Proux's short story, "Brokeback Mountain."  So, Packard's study should provide a serious consideration of the queer history in which to place Proux's fictional story; however, Queer Cowboys is uneven in that at times his interpretations are evocative and at other times weak.  Packard posits in his introductory chapter that "lusty passions appear regularly" in pre-1900 Westerns if "one knows how to look for them" (3).  The problem with his study is that the evidence Packard provides for some of his interpretations does not measure up to his claims.  His study provides a new paradigm by which to consider 19th century American Literature and raises the importance of homoeroticism in a more explicit way than Leslie Fiedler did in 1948 when he introduced the motif of homoeroticism in American literature.  However, Packard often interprets literary excerpts so as to fit the paradigm rather than letting the excerpts give rise to this paradigm.  This paradigm he sets out in his introduction:

In other words, the cowboy is queer; he is odd; he doesn't fit in; he resists community; he eschews lasting ties with women but embraces rock-solid bonds with same-sex partners; he practices same-sex desires.  His code permits few 'norms' as defined by his audience of working-class Anglo-American men, but his popularity grants him wide latitude in terms of exercising his queer power (3). 

The breadth of such a paradigm allows for interpretations that pushes the reader into reading even the most casual reference to same-sex relationships as solid evidence of homosexual or homoerotic motifs and themes.  His work would have provided a much richer source for interpretations if he had remained more speculative in his readings.  The problem stems primarily from Packard's use of literary evidence for historical fact; he mixes up the genres in making his arguments.

A much more convincing study is the recently published Male-Male Intimacy in Early America: Beyond Romantic Friendships by William Benemann.  His argument is based on the premise that "If we begin the discussion with the assumption that there were men in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries who were emotionally and erotically drawn to other men, it is a large enough task to recover their exterior lives, and perhaps by reconstructing the milieu in which these men moved we maybe able to create a platform on which to begin the investigation of their thoughts and feelings" (xii).  And I would add that once we "reconstruct the milieu," we can then argue how the social and historical context of these men's lives gave rise to the literature of their time.  Though Benemann does cover intimate male relationships among Native Americans in pre-Civil war times, his study extends only until the antebellum period and does not examine frontier life and the lives of cowboys; one can project, however, how he might bring the same type of contextualizing methodology to this later historical development. 

One last example of such contextualizing is David Deitcher's Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together, 1840-1918 in which Deitcher is clear to set out the context of his collection.  He knows nothing of the history of these men but does provide social and cultural background to 19th century America by which to help us read these photos.  His informed but tenuous approach is best explained in his own words:

Such a relation to photographs of anonymous men is therefore akin to flirtation.  It parallels the sense of limitless possibility that depends on not knowing very much more about a man than is suggested by his presence, and on deferring the moment of defining the nature of an erotic relationship that may be sexual but that cannot be "fixed" in the sense that committed relationships are (16).

While we know that literature can be a manifestation of a society's values and perceptions., we need respect the limits of our interpretative insights as Benemann and Deitcher do.  Certainly, "queerness" is a part of America's past, but to see it everywhere, as Packard does, is to see it nowhere.