Sexuality and the Body

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The project of writing, thinking, and talking about nineteenth-century bodies and sexualities may seem like a relatively recent innovation within the fields of literary and social history. But it is important to begin by recognizing that this type of inquiry is not in fact altogether new. In 1923 the British modernist author and critic D. H. Lawrence surveyed the field of what he referred to as "classic American literature" with similar themes in mind. Authors such as Benjamin Franklin, Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Richard Henry Dana, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman could be characterized according to Lawrence in his Studies in Classic American Literature by their collective attempt to give expression to what he referred to as "it": "You have got to pull the democratic and idealistic clothes off American utterance, and see what you can of the dusky body of IT underneath" (p. 14). Two decades later, the literary critic Leslie Fiedler shocked his academic audience by asserting in his 1948 essay "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!" that one of the most revered of all American novels, Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), was held in such high esteem largely because it told the archetypically American story of "a white and a colored American male flee[ing] from civilization [and] into each other's arms" (p. vi). Never bashful about his claims (and always ready to push the most tender of his audience's many buttons), Fiedler added "brother-sister incest and necrophilia" (p. vi) to his list of American archetypes when, a decade later, he revised and expanded his argument concerning interracial homoeroticism in his book-length study Love and Death in the American Novel (1960).

If these less-than-conventional takes on nineteenth-century U.S. literary and social history were the exceptions that proved the rules of an earlier and more genteel scholarly establishment, then it is indisputable that the emergence of feminist and gender studies in the 1970s and 1980s and lesbian-gay and queer studies in the 1980s and 1990s turned the tide decisively toward a sustained critical interest in questions of how sex, gender, sexuality, and diverse forms of embodiment appeared in nineteenth-century culture and literature. For scholars who aligned themselves with the feminist political activism of the 1960s and 1970s, these questions focused primarily on the ways in which large- and small-scale social relationships were pervasively organized through what the anthropologist Gayle Rubin in "The Traffic in Women" called the "sex-gender system." Feminist literary critics discovered evidence of this system—and the ways in which its cultural front worked to maintain patriarchal control over women's sexual and reproductive power—everywhere in the largely male-authored nineteenth-century literary canon endorsed (and criticized) by Lawrence and Fiedler. Lesbian-gay and queer scholars of U.S. literary and social history were also inspired by contemporary movements for social justice—in this case, the increasingly vocal and effective demands for social recognition and political rights by sexual minorities during the 1970s and 1980s. And they too walked the path of reinterpretation and recovery. On the one hand, they could simply reread and reevaluate the canon of "classic American literature" because it required no great interpretive leap to position its more unorthodox moments—Whitman's writings on same-sex male love in his Calamus poems (1860) or Melville's lighthearted eroticization of the relations among sailors in Moby-Dick (1851)—at the center of an emerging lesbian-gay or queer canon. On the other hand, the same group of scholars reconstructed the rich homoerotic worlds of nineteenth-century men and women by unearthing and archiving previously neglected (or repressed) journal entries and personal letters that described and celebrated physical intimacies between same-sex friends.

These new fields of inquiry clearly drew on the insights of their predecessors such as Lawrence and Fiedler. Yet they also diverged from them in important ways. The "it" that Lawrence longed to disrobe in his Studies in Classic American Literature was a multivalent concept, but it referred most directly to the primal sexual drive that had been recently mis-translated as the "id" (from the German pronoun es) in the writings of Lawrence's contemporary, Sigmund Freud—a mistranslation that resulted from an attempt to make Freud appear more "scientific," and less "literary," to his English-speaking audience. Similarly influenced by Freudian understandings of sexuality, Fiedler's reconstruction of U.S. literary history adopted as its starting point the premise that sex is essential to any narrative of either individual or social development. In contrast, many of the feminist and queer critics who followed in the wake of Lawrence and Fiedler did more than locate it at the heart of social and literary history. They also pressed their readers to think critically and historically about the Freudian tendency to isolate the topics of sexuality and the body from broader questions of how power is exercised and represented. As the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault put it in the first volume of his immensely influential The History of Sexuality (which first appeared in French in 1976), scholars of sexuality and the body have often been misled by the "repressive hypothesis" (pp. 17–49)—the theory that it is a natural (or organic) drive located within the body, and that it relates to power solely through dynamics of repression. Foucault does not deny the obvious ways in which the practices and writings of sexual minorities have been repressed and censored, both historically and today. But he presses literary and social historians to begin with a more fundamental series of questions about how we have come to isolate sex from other forms of bodily pleasure and appetite, to assume that sexuality has a history of its own, and to imagine that the proper telling of that history will lead to our liberation. Answers to these questions can be found in the archives of nineteenth-century literary and social history. Before moving to those answers, however, it is first necessary to take a detour in order to explain how the body itself became a source of literary and social interest.


The history of the body and its political significance is tremendously complicated, but it is possible to trace two dominant influences. The first concerns the rise in the seventeenth century of empiricism as a theory and practice of knowledge production. In most histories, this move is associated with John Locke, the British philosopher who argued in his 1690 treatise An Essay concerning Human Understanding that all human knowledge is grounded in experience and that experience itself is accessible only through the senses. This "sensationalist psychology"—the theory that sensory experience is the means by which we come to know ourselves and the world—turned away from theological ways of knowing. In doing so, it informed the thinking of a wide range of subsequent speakers and writers interested in transforming their audiences' relations to themselves and their worlds. Partly due to Locke's influence, Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), the eighteenth-century New England evangelical minister, kicked off the great American tradition of hellfire preaching by attempting through his fire-and-brimstone sermons to make his listeners not only know that the flames of hell burned hot but also to feel the effects of those flames as they licked against the flesh.

A century later, Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880), the nineteenth-century abolitionist and women's rights advocate, wrote a series of tear-jerking, blush-inducing sentimental novels in which she pulled at her readers' heartstrings in an attempt to mobilize support for a wide variety of liberal social and political reforms. George Lippard (1822–1854), Child's contemporary and fellow reformer, published sensational fiction intended to elicit shudders, groans, and screams from its readers by dwelling on the devious schemes and violent crimes of America's upper class, all in the name of advancing the cause of mid-century labor radicalism. In each case, these authors joined leagues of other writers and activists in turning toward the body and its sensations as a means of pushing for the reform of social and political relations that they perceived as unjust. Even Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), one of the most abstract of the nineteenth-century proponents of the philosophy of transcendentalism, worried in a 1836 lecture on the topic of "love" that his audience might find his comments "unjustly cold" and then responded by staging his own "shrink[ing] at the remembrance of such disparaging words" in order to reassure his listeners that he too valued the "warmth" provided by the body and its sensations (p. 99).

The second major influence that contributed to the intensification of the political significance of the body in the nineteenth century concerned the rise of the scientific and popular discourse known as "comparative anatomy." Again, the important contrast here is to earlier theological justifications of political and social hierarchy through appeals to concepts such as divine right kingship and the biblical curse of Ham. (The first posed the rule of the monarch as the will of God; the second explained the bondage of dark-skinned peoples by portraying them as inheritors of Ham's divinely ordained curse.) Like their predecessors, most practitioners of "comparative anatomy" assumed the need for race, class, and gender hierarchies, but they adapted their supporting arguments to more secular and democratic times by focusing on the body and its anatomy as the key to understanding the "natural" differences and inequalities between and among the "species" and "subspecies" of humanity. One of the best known of these arguments appeared in Samuel Morton's Crania Americana (1839), a treatise that attempted to naturalize Anglo-American imperialism, plantation slavery, gender subordination, and class stratification by measuring and comparing "craniological" differences between male and female Native, African, and Anglo-Americans. Similar thinking pervaded the writings of more historically reputable figures. Thomas Jefferson included his observations on the innate mental and aesthetic inferiority of Africans (and the superiority of Europeans) in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1784–1785), while a succession of prominent nineteenth-century Supreme Court justices endorsed the social institutions of slavery, segregation, and white supremacy by viewing them as expressions of inherent racial differences or, to use the period's dominant metaphor for the inter-weaving of race, biology, and reproduction, "blood." There are, of course, important distinctions to be drawn between these influential theorists of race, class, and gender. But they share an interest in and commitment to shielding the social inequalities indexed by these categories from political debate by grounding them in the putatively natural—anatomical or biological—differences between and among bodies.

As an example of these paired influences and how they intersected, consider the final chapter of the most famous antislavery novel of the nineteenth century, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Throughout the novel, Stowe (1811–1896) casts her "African" characters—Uncle Tom in particular—as having a natural penchant for the same brand of liberal Christianity that Stowe strove to practice. This naturalization of Africans as a racial type prone to Christian spirituality and benevolence produced two major effects in the novel. First, it allowed Stowe to follow the racializing logic of the comparative anatomists by asserting a natural racial difference between Africans and Europeans while also inverting the white supremacist conclusions that typically accompanied that logic. Second, it produced a narrative structure in which Christ-like Africans could act as both moral victims and spiritual redeemers, thus enabling the sensitive reader to experience bodily sensations of guilt, outrage, and remorse at the tragedy of Uncle Tom's Christ-like death. Stowe's final chapter brought these two discourses of the body together. In response to a hypothetical question concerning the fate of the former slaves after emancipation, Stowe advised that they be sent to the African colony of Liberia, where they "may put in practice the lessons they have learned in America" (p. 386). Though Stowe later withdrew this recommendation, her initial suggestion is remarkable both for its recasting of the experience of American slavery as an education in Christian civility and for its inability to imagine a national future in which racially divergent bodies could mix. In response to a second question about how readers could expedite this future free of slavery (and freed slaves), Stowe recommended that they "feel right" (p. 386)—a phrase that tethered the mid-century belief that readers could be best motivated to act through the experience of bodily sensation (or "feeling") to the assertion that those sensations must be stimulated only by what is morally and spiritually correct (or "right"). Where the answer to the first question aligned Stowe with the comparative anatomists and their racializing belief in discrete body types (Uncle Tom's body as racial evidence of his unassimilatability), the answer to the second committed her to the sensationalist psychology that underwrote the period's faith in sensory experience as the only sure way of motivating and reforming either the individual or the society of which that individual was a part (Uncle Tom's bodily suffering as a physical catalyst for the reader's spiritual and moral advancement).


Given the intensification of the body as a site of political contestation by the mid-nineteenth century, the answer to the question of the relation between the body and sexuality might initially seem obvious. If the body, its sensations, and its anatomy became increasingly significant in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, then surely sexuality must have become more significant as well. Yet it is crucial to recognize that it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that terms like "sex," "sexual," and (even later) "sexuality" began to take on the meanings that they have for us in the early twenty-first century. This does not imply that early-nineteenth-century writers did not speak of the body and its physical relations with other bodies. In fact, their texts were obsessed with that topic. But the vocabulary that they used to understand those relations—"lust," "licentiousness," "wantonness," "chastity," "purity"—tended to be drawn from religious sources, ethnographic surveys, and health-reform debates. And while it might be tempting to assume that early-nineteenth-century writers were merely too repressed (socially or psychologically) to speak straightforwardly about sex and sexuality, such an approach misunderstands the strange and different ways in which those writers (and their readers) talked about and experienced their bodies. Take "lust" as an example. Whereas an early-twenty-first-century liter-ary critic might simply translate "lust" as "sexual desire," an early-nineteenth-century writer would be more likely to think of it in relation to either religious concepts such as "infidelity" and "impurity" or proto-racial concepts such as "savagery" and "barbarity," both of which figured "lust" as a form of social and physical degeneracy that could be countered only through self-discipline and spiritual refinement. (The afterglow of this history can be seen in Lawrence's description of "IT" as having a specifically "dusky body.") The important point here is not that separate religious, racial, and sexual discourses came together in the term "lust" but that the "three" discourses were not separable in the first place. "Sex" and "sexuality," in other words, were not yet names for (and policed as) isolable forms of social practice and individual desire.

A close reading of one of Walt Whitman's best-known poems demonstrates how this historical difference worked in literary practice. In one of his many engagements with the religious and health-reform discourses of the mid-1850s, Whitman (1819–1892) adopts and parodies the anti-onanist or, to use a more familiar term, the anti-masturbation writings of his contemporaries. (Onan is the biblical figure who sins in Genesis 38:7–10 by "spilling his seed upon the ground.") The "villain touch" passage from "Song of Myself" in the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass begins with the question "Is this then a touch? . . . quivering me to a new identity," then moves toward an answer as Whitman's speaker externalizes desire in an attempt to distinguish inclination from will. "Prurient provokers" attack the poet's "I," "stiffening [his] limbs, / Straining the udder of [his] heart for its withheld drip, / Behaving licentious," "Depriving [him] of [his] best for a purpose," "Unbuttoning [his] clothes," "Immodestly sliding the fellow senses away," showing "No consideration, no regard for draining strength" (p. 55). Next, the speaker racializes desire through reference to the military geography of U.S. imperialism in the mid-century. The "provokers" leave him defenseless, deserted by "sentries," "helpless to a red marauder," "given up by traitors" (pp. 55–56). Finally, the speaker identifies with this racialized and treasonous desire, abandoning his will and mapping a geography of "licentiousness" onto his own body: "I talk wildly.... I have lost my wits. . . . I and nobody else am the greatest traitor, / I went myself first to the headland own hands carried me there" (p. 56). As elsewhere in "Song of Myself," this passage equivocates on two critical points: the number of actors in the scene ("You," "I," "provokers," "marauders"), and the bodily location of the speaker's desire ("straining udder," "drip-ping heart," "sliding senses"). But it clearly ends by identifying will and desire through a celebration of the speaker's ecstatic self-abandon. "You villain touch!" the passage concludes, "what are you doing? . . . my breath is tight in its throat, / Unclench your flood-gates! you are too much for me" (pp. 55–56). The passage focuses on what is now thought of as an isolatable "sexual practice," but Whitman presents that practice only through the racial, religious, and health reform discourses of his period.

If "sexual practice" cannot be said to stand on its own here and elsewhere in the nineteenth century, then how did the isolation of concepts of "sex" and "sexuality" come into being? Again, this question opens onto a tremendously complicated history. But three major factors stand out. The first concerns the rise of industrial capitalism in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century. In contrast to agrarian economies where slaves, apprentices, and servants tended to be integrated hierarchically into households in which men and women played vital roles in the manufacture of domestic and commercial goods, the new industrial economy created separate urban and semi-urban neighborhoods for the laboring classes who were free—in theory—to live outside of those households by selling the labor power of their bodies to the highest bidder. In practice, this freedom was curtailed in at least two ways: by structural inequalities within labor markets dominated by the owners of capital and by legal limits placed on what types of labor could be bought and sold.

The literary response to labor inequalities focused on class antagonisms and the policing of "vice" in neighborhoods where laborers lived and socialized, whereas the response to illegal labor was writing that scrutinized "prostitution" as the social problem of the nineteenth-century urban world. New York byGas-Light, the journalist George Foster's 1850 exposé of murder and mayhem in New York City's Five Points district, typifies the interweaving of these two responses. Originally serialized in the New-York Daily Tribune, Foster's sketches portrayed the city's gambling dens and oyster cellars as a savage underworld nurturing among men and women of all races "the monster vice of humanity . . . licentiousness" (p. 120). There can be no doubt that Foster knowingly marketed these sketches to the voyeuristic impulses of the Tribune's middle-class readership, but he claimed to write them in an attempt to gather the knowledge necessary for the moral reform of prostitution in New York's vice districts. To the latter end, he followed his reformist predecessors in isolating "licentiousness" as the cause of social disorder and dissent, but he also gave that cause a new name: "sexual appetite" (p. 82). Though familiar to twenty-first-century readers, this naming of the "sexual" as the linchpin of moral reform and regulation would have impressed Foster's audience with its novelty.


The following passage from Walt Whitman's 1855 version of "Song of Myself" marks one point of origin for twentieth-century understandings of sexuality and the body.

Is this then a touch? . . . . quivering me to a new identity,

Flames and ether making a rush for my veins,

Treacherous tip of me reaching and crowding to help them,

My flesh and blood playing out lightning, to strike what is hardly different from myself,

On all sides prurient provokers stiffening my limbs,

Straining the udder of my heart for its withheld drip,

Behaving licentious toward me, taking no denial,

Depriving me of my best as for a purpose,

Unbuttoning my clothes and holding me by the bare waist,

Deluding my confusion with the calm of the sunlight and pasture fields,

Immodestly sliding the fellow-senses away,

They bribed to swap off with touch, and go and graze at the edges of me,

No consideration, no regard for my draining strength or my anger,

Fetching the rest of the herd around to enjoy them awhile,

Then all uniting to stand on a headland and worry me.

The sentries desert every other part of me,

They have left me helpless to a red marauder,

They all come to the headland to witness and assist against me.

I am given up by traitors;

I talk wildly. . . . I have lost my wits. . . . I and nobody else am the greatest traitor.

I went myself first to the headland. . . . my own hands carried me there.

You villain touch! what are you doing?. . . . my breath is tight in its throat;

Unclench your floodgates! you are too much for me.

Whitman, Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose, pp. 55–56.

The second major factor influencing the isolation of sex and sexuality from a broader range of desires and practices is really the structural complement to the the rise of industrial capitalism. Where lower-class men and women were represented as appropriately housed in urban vice districts where bodies and sexual appetites spiraled dangerously out of control, their middle-class counterparts increasingly inhabited class-and race-segregated neighborhoods in which men were expected to leave home during the day to "work" and "produce" while women were supposed to stayed at home to "consume" and "reproduce." This familiar social geography resulted in (and from) the development of what historians now call the "cult of domes-ticity"—the mid-century sex-gender system that idealized the middle-class home as a refuge where "true women" practicing the "feminine" virtues of piety and sentiment could prevail against "true men" and the "masculine" countervirtues of profit and rationality. These complementary gender ideals created many effects, but one of the most notable is the slippery slope of sexual normalization that we still live with (and on) today. The ideals of "true womanhood" and "true manhood" could never be fully embodied in everyday life (even among those with the social and economic means of doing so), but they could link one's gender identity and class status more and more tightly to one's ability to control what Foster called the "sexual appetite." When Foster's sketches landed on the early morning doorsteps of New York's middle-class homes, they contributed to this system of sexual regulation both a warning and a promise. Any individual man or woman, Foster advised, could "pervert" the "operation of the sexual appetite" by falling prey to the seductions of urban vice; yet men and women could also transform that "appetite" into the "purest and holiest passion implanted in the heart" if they properly managed its effects (p. 82). While it is possible to understand this linkage of class, gender, race, and sex as indicative of a specifically middle-class dynamic of repression, it is more accurate to think of it as a sign of that class's increasingly serious investment in the isolation and refinement of its newly sexualized body as a means of asserting and morally justifying its social privilege.

While the concepts of sex and sexuality were thus in the process of being isolated and refined in the crucible of urban class formation, similar dynamics were at work in the context of the capitalist expansion and settler colonialism that characterized U.S. nation-building projects of the period. Read carefully, mid-century novels, political tracts, and sermons did more than choose sides in the battle between demonized lower-class neighborhoods and idealized middle-class domiciles. They also linked those battles to the consolidation of the nation and the rapid expansion of its territorial borders. Stowe, for instance, consistently argued for the national abolition of slavery by portraying the plantation economies that dominated the U.S. South and Southwest as a breeding ground for (interracial) sensuality and vice (a claim that advocates for slavery reversed by painting industrial capitalism as responsible for the development of urban vice districts). Margaret Fuller similarly sprinkled throughout her feminist treatise Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) allusions to the exotic perils of "savage sensualism" (p. 285), women "enslaved by an impassioned sensibility" (p. 302), "Oriental" polygamy (p. 320), metropolitan "sty[es] of sensuality" (p. 324), and "Turkish slave-dealers" (p. 324). Though marshaled in a variety of contexts and to diverse political ends, these metaphors consistently suggested that battles fought over (and against) the "sexual appetite" were also battles for racial and national purity. Almost three decades later, the Page Act of 1875, the prototype for the turn-ofthe-century onslaught of racially restrictive immigration legislation, realized these metaphorical associations by invoking the threat of prostitution in order to bring the immigration of Chinese women (and the settlement of many Chinese men) to a virtual standstill. In each of these complexly interrelated cases, popular and literary discourses of the body and its newfound sexuality provided authors and reformers with the rhetorical terrain upon which they could map their competing visions of the nation's past, present, and future.


So what does it mean to take on the project of writing, thinking, and talking about the literary and social history of nineteenth-century bodies and sexualities today? One effect of scholarship attentive to this question has been to make our current usage of the terms "body," "sex," and "sexuality" less familiar. And while this skeptical turn can be viewed as a radical departure from the Freudian assumptions of early- and mid-twentieth-century writers and critics such as Lawrence and Fiedler (as well as some feminist and queer scholars today who still write of it as either "repressed" or "liberated"), it also resonates strongly with the literary and historical archives of the nineteenth century.

For this reason, it might be best to return in conclusion to that century's greatest poet of bodies and their diverse sensualities, Walt Whitman. Looking back over his long career in his essay "A Backward Glance o'er Travel'd Roads" (1888), Whitman recognized that questions focused on sexuality and the body had become increasingly significant across a wide spectrum of social and political contexts. But he also knew that the related tendency to isolate discussions of sexuality from those contexts would only lead to misunderstandings of the politics of the body and its social relations. When discussing objections to his poems as obscene (and efforts to censor them as such), Whitman thus responded by defending his right to speak of the "fact of sexuality, as an element in character, personality, the emotions, and a theme in literature" (p. 669). Yet he also distanced himself from contemporary writers and critics who were beginning to isolate the "sexual fact" from its social and political contexts when he added that he would not "argue the question by itself; it does not stand by itself. The vitality of it is altogether in its relations, bearings, significance—like the clef of a symphony" (p. 669). In many respects, Whitman's twofold strategy—his insistence on speaking simultaneously of and against the isolation of sexuality—is as astute a form of literary body politics today as it was when he originally published it in 1888.

See alsoEthnology; Labor; Leaves of Grass;Proslavery Writing; Psychology; Reform; Sensational Fiction; Urbanization


Primary Works

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays: First and Second Series. New York: Vintage, 1990.

Foster, George. New York by Gas-Light and Other UrbanSketches. 1850. Edited by Stuart M. Blumin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Fuller, Margaret. The Essential Margaret Fuller. Edited by Jeffrey Steele. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. 1784–1785. Edited by Frank Shuffleton. New York: Penguin, 1999.

Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. 1923. New York: Penguin, 1977.

Locke, John. An Essay concerning Human Understanding. 1690. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1947.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. 1851. New York: Penguin, 2001.

Morton, Samuel George. Crania Americana; or, AComparative View of the Skulls of Various Aboriginal Nations of North and South America. Philadelphia: J. Dobson, 1839.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly. 1852. Reprinted in "Uncle Tom's Cabin": Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism, edited by Elizabeth Ammons. New York: Norton, 1994.

Whitman, Walt. Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose. New York: Library of America, 1996.

Secondary Works

Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. 1960. Rev. ed. New York: Dell, 1966.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1, AnIntroduction. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1990. First appeared as Histoire de la sexualité, vol. 1, La volonte de savoir (1976).

Rubin, Gayle. "The Traffic in Women." In Toward anAnthropology of Women, edited by Rayna R. Reiter, pp. 157–210. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975.

Bruce Burgett

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Sexuality and the Body

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