Was Walt Whitman gay? Tomorrow’s Parties: Sex and the Untimely in Nineteenth-Century America (NYU Press) poses a different question: how and what did Whitman think of the possibilities of intimacy, including sexual, in a time before desires, pleasures, and relations were made coordinate by the categories of hetero and homosexuality? Hint: Whitman was definitely not gay.

In exploring how sex was imagined in the nineteenth century, author Peter Coviello examines the writings of figures as diverse as the founder of Mormonism Joseph Smith and black abolitionist Frederick Douglas. Coviello’s subjects are loosely grouped around themes: lost futures, marriage, and reckonings with emerging sexual taxonomies. The invented thematic groupings add a necessary structure to a book that draws out the dissonant effects of gender and race on experience.

Beginning with Thoreau’s idiosyncratic attachments to Therien in Walden, Coviello concludes that Thoreau conceived of love as an unsolvable dilemma. Love of another would always fall short of Thoreau’s ideal love, which was himself or someone like that. In Thoreau’s ravishing depictions of sound, which can dissolve the boundaries of the self, Coviello finds echoes of a vision of future carnality that would never come to be.

In Whitman’s wartime correspondence, Coviello discerns another example of an unredeemed future. Whitman’s nursing of soldiers during the Civil War, which lead to an intimate kind of bonding, hinted at the possibility of infusing family relations with desire.  Emily Dickson’s longed for future is pained by the fear of matrimoniality, and she seeks pleasure in dreaming of a death where she will finally be able to love another woman.

Joseph Smith’s advocacy for polygamy reflected a conception of men as close to gods, worthy of experiencing revelation and living in the manner of the patriarchs. Douglas and Jacobs reveal the distinct effect of the experience of slavery, where matrimonial affiliation was forbidden. For Douglas, the ability to enter into that marriage signals acceptance into the body politic. Jacobs’ narrative shows how for former slave women, the experience of dispossession extended not only to legal capacities but to the body itself, and therefore marriage continued to resonate the effects of bodily dispossession.

Sex and the Untimely follows the historical narrative of sexuality described by Foucault and British historian Jeffrey Weeks, where the Wilde trials at the end of the nineteenth century crystallized in the public mind the idea of the homosexual (and, by default) heterosexual identities. These new categories obscured diverse identifications around sex and intimacy, leading to the contemporary moment where the common-sensicalness of sexual identities renders conceptions of carnality and intimacy before the Wilde Trials illegible. Coviello’s reading of Douglas and Jacobs convincingly argues that race was one of the key points of sex coming into meaning in America, pushing historians of sexuality in America to trouble the Foucaldian narrative of sexuality’s coming into being.

The last third of Sex and the Untimely explores the intersection of national politics and worrying about sex.  In Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, Cloverdale’s attraction to those who live at the polar ends of social expectations fills him with shame and repulsion, a kind of homophobia before homosexuality. In The Bostonians, Coviello finds James writing about a character whose love for another woman is misrecognized as a love for feminism, an effect of suffering under a passion that cannot be named.

Coviello’s study excels at expanding a vocabulary to describe feelings about sex prior to sexual identities.  Situating itself in a recent turn towards questions of temporality in queer theory, Sex and the Untimely joins recent scholarship by Kathryn Bond Stockton, Heather Love, and Elizabeth Freeman among others who have employed the close readings techniques of literary analysis to uncover historical sexual epistemologies that have become illegible.

Close readings of specific, isolated texts will not inevitably yield compelling historical conclusions about epistemological shifts over time. Coviello’s sophisticated readings and sustained engagement with queer theory make Sex and the Untimely a valuable contribution to nineteenth-century literary studies, but he misses an opportunity to write without the telos of sexual identities.

Throughout Sex and the Untimely, the 1895 Wilde trials are treated as a kind of watershed moment, before which the storm clouds of sexual identities gathered apace, and after which writers like Henry James mourned the loss of a future of intimacy that would never come to be. As historians like George Chauncey and Matt Houlbrook have demonstrated, “underground” gay subcultures in the interwar period delineated sexual experience with a rich complexity, using terms like “rough trade” and “fairy” to denote sexual preference, gender presentation, and even economics.

It is strange that Coviello, whose meticulous close readings do credit to his provocative conclusions, limits the reach of his work by accepting the myth that the “birth” of sexual classification along the lines of gender as object choice almost immediately homogenized thinking about intimacy. That early identification with the category of homosexual was mostly limited to the educated upper classes alludes to another missed opportunity to theorize the way thinking about carnality and love was inflected by social class.

Sex and the Untimely ultimately succeeds at expanding the analytic vocabulary for describing intimate experience in the nineteenth century. Coviello’s efforts to track the shifting meanings of time and sex will undoubtedly appeal to those with an interest in temporality, and anyone with an interest in Thoreau, Whitman, Dickinson and the other subjects will appreciate Coviello’s careful yet imaginative readings.

Tomorrow’s Parties: Sex and the Untimely in Nineteenth-Century America
by Peter Coviello
NYU Press
Paperback, 9780814717417, 265 pp.
April 2013


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  • Michael Craft

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