Real queer: lesbian modernity and American realism

Yarbrough, Dona Loraine, Department of English, University of Virginia
Fraiman, Susan, As-English-Eng Lit Ops, University of Virginia
Felski, Rita, As-English-Eng Lit Ops, University of Virginia
Lott, Eric, Department of English, University of Virginia
Ladenson, Elisabeth, Department of French Language and Literatures, University of Virginia

This dissertation complicates most histories of lesbian literature in English, which place the origins of modem lesbian narrative in "Sapphic modernism"—avant-garde, experimental writing from the 1920s and 1930s. In the vast majority of lesbian and queer literary criticism, nonnormative sexualities are assumed to be best expressed through experimental forms, especially in discussions of work from this early period. However, if we look not at modernist but at realist lesbian texts from the same period, texts which have received virtually no critical attention, a different picture of early lesbian narrative, and early lesbian subjectivity, emerges. Through an examination of four realist texts, this dissertation argues that realism has been a central aesthetic in the narration of queer identities. Through close readings informed primarily by work in queer studies and feminist genre criticism, the project demonstrates how realist texts reshape traditional forms and concepts in an attempt both to express lesbian subjectivity and to interrogate or transform heteronormative, sexist, and/or capitalist systems. Chapter one argues that in combining the coming out narrative with the survivor narrative, Mary Casal's The Stone Wall (1930) prefigures late twentieth-century radical lesbian feminism by suggesting that heterosexuality is the most unnatural sexual option for women. Chapter two examines how the conventions of epistolary narrative are used in Elisabeth Craigin's Either Is Love (1937) to circumvent the heterosexual structure of Western plot. Chapter three considers how race and class privilege structure the narrative of American individualism, and the narrative of emerging "lesbian pride," in Diana Frederics' Diana: A Strange Autobiography (1939). The final chapter argues that Helen Anderson's Pity for Women (1937), the first social realist lesbian narrative, presents working-class lesbian subjectivity as a narrative impossibility within completely imbricated systems of gender, sexual, and economic oppression. In looking at the way techniques of realism are used (and are useful) in these works, this project not only interrogates the aesthetic assumptions underlying much lesbian and queer scholarship, but also suggests that lesbian narrative during the thirties was perhaps not as marginal as critics have thought.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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