Queering the Underworld: Slumming, Literature and the Undoing of Lesbian and Gay History

May 8, 2008

Since the early 1990s, both queer theory and the related work of lesbian and gay scholarship have concentrated on archival uncoverings (Martha Vicinus), the exploration of textual closets (Eve Kososfsky Sedgwick) and the tender shining of the bright lights of history and critique into forgotten geographies of queer desire (Judith Halberstam and John Howard). The discovery of whether (and how) cultures and persons have been queer has taken up the lion's share of the energy of research and critique.

It is only since 2004 and the publication of Lee Edelman's powerful No Future that queer theory has worked more with negativity, fiercely exploring queer culture's relations to the death-drive, to the non-communitarian, to that which refuses "identity" and, as Scott Herring puts it in Queering the Underworld, to "sensational emptiness".

Herring's powerfully researched, passionately argued and often beautifully written book encapsulates in itself these two stages. Part of its drive is to link a recognised genre of slumming guides in late 19th and early 20th-century America with some key figures in (usually literary) lesbian and gay history: the Chicago philanthropist Jane Addams, the Willa Cather of 1905's unforgettable short story "Paul's Case", the Carl Van Vechten "school" and Djuna Barnes. In this sense it is a work of linkage and uncovering. But for Herring, all these figures work against the pernicious and disciplinary work of sexual categorisation carried out by the slumming genre. What Herring's heroes embrace is, in the case of Addams, "a politics of sexual nonrecognition" that "refuses to engage with particular technologies of sexual identification", in the case of Cather a "queerness that might be defined as company rather than affiliation" and, for Van Vechten and Barnes, a set of inscrutable textual strategies that bypass realism and the ideologies of transparency and surrender that it can be said to promote.

This latter point is argued in a brilliantly conceived comparison of Barnes's Nightwood as a slumming text with the seedier strands of Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, although Herring verges on suggesting that these queasy, gothic Parisian episodes form the main body of Hall's novel. They don't. The effect of this critique is, whatever its weaknesses, bracing, warm and liberated from the more puritan and identity-fixated strands of queer theory. There is, though, one area where Herring leaves his reader wanting, and sometimes needing, more than he is always prepared to provide.

Queering the Underworld insists on the attention queer reading should seriously pay to hard and unyielding surfaces, often prim and faded in the case of Addams, simultaneously glamorous and abstemious in the case of Cather and kaleidoscopic in the case of Van Vechten and Barnes. Herring is scrupulous - and excellent - in setting his chosen texts in dialogue with each other, with the historical forces that produced them and - perhaps his greatest strength - with the histories of how the criticism that most opens up these texts can be spectacularly blind to the implications of its own readings.

He is less strong on the stylistic and formal particularities of texts but given the inevitably surface-obsessed focus of this book, he needs to be. So, quoting from Cather's "Paul's Case", Herring refers to one of that story's most rich and poetic paragraphs - one fantastically suited to his own mode of reading and its suspicion of sexual hermeneutics - as simply "garbled". There is far more involved than writing in a "garbled" fashion here - hardly a Catherian trait - and Herring needs to explore how Cather's writing (as opposed to what she writes) does much of the cultural work he so compellingly outlines.

It almost seems that by so scrupulously attending to what surrounds "Paul's Case", Herring fails to let that text's surface engage him as it probably should. His treatment of Van Vechten probably also has more space-clearing than it in all honesty needs, but towards the book's end Herring comes close to giving Barnes's textual surfaces the attention they invite, and which his project so seriously, wittily and bracingly requires.

Queering the Underworld: Slumming, Literature and the Undoing of Lesbian and Gay History

By Scott Herring
University of Chicago Press
£32.50 and £13.00
ISBN 97802263907 and 3914
Published 7 March 2008

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