This class asks what sex looked and felt like before the instantiation of modern identity categories such as homosexuality or heterosexuality—before, that is, our desires became an index to our souls. To this end, we’ll examine texts by nineteenth-century American writers that represent the experiences and expressions of what we now call sexuality, but do so in ways that resist the organizational force that term implies.
Many of our texts will represent same-sex desires and gender deviant or, in at least one case, transgender expressions. As readers, then, our challenge won’t be to locate so-called queer content, but instead to know how to interpret this content—to ascertain, as Jordan Stein puts it, “what exactly this evidence is evidence of.” Do we, for instance, see pre-sexological representations of homoeroticism as somehow anticipatory, moving toward attitudes and behaviors that only now can be fully understood? Or might we see them as articulating alternative possibilities, futures that never came to pass? All of our texts, moreover, implicitly and explicitly position their representations of sex along the black/white color line that constituted the period’s dominant system for racial distinction. We’ll quickly find that interpreting sex in nineteenth-century America also demands that we grapple with the histories of race, particularly slavery, scientific racism, and the fears surrounding interracial sex and mixed-race people.