Sunday, May 31, 2009

Imre: A Tale of Love and Self-Acceptance

In twenty first century western civilization, homosexuality, the terminology used to discuss it and the controversy in which it is mired are inseparable aspects of our culture. For people of the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century, however, this was not the case. Although homosexuality was most certainly of equal prevalence in relation to today, it was not something that was talked about openly. Men and women alike who desired physical intimacy with members of the same sex most often lived in quiet despair. Those who acted upon such desires did so in secrecy for the discovery of one’s homosexuality meant disenfranchisement and public disgrace. In an exact parallel with the controversy of homosexuality in today’s society, social puritans of the nineteenth century believed homosexuality to be a threat to the godly institution of marriage and therefore fought vehemently against it. Though it had not always been the case, homosexuality was deemed a sin by Christianity on the grounds of its non procreative nature. To be a homosexual was, in essence, to rebel against God.

With the unprecedented theories of men such as Sigmund Freud and Charles Darwin at the forefront of the western psyche during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, there arose a great yearning to gain a greater, more scientifically based understanding of human behavior, specifically the seeming phenomenon of homosexuality. Not surprisingly, this exploration sprang forth not out of mere curiosity but from a desire to somehow eradicate the “homosexual problem”. No longer simply branded as a sin, homosexuality quickly began to be regarded as a psychological disease. Homosexuals were no longer depraved and sinful creatures but rather misfortunate souls who nature held dealt a poor hand and for whom it was necessary to find a cure.

In the following excerpt taken from one of the first openly gay American novels entitled Imre by Edward Prime-Stevenson, the narrator and protagonist Oswald ponders to himself the sexuality of his newfound friend, Imre, while at the same time recognizing the narrowness, the coldness, the oppressiveness of the terminology he is using to define the man in question.

Uranian? Similisexual? Homosexual? Dionian? Profound and often all too oppressive, even terrible, can be the significance of those cold psychic-sexual terms to the man who – ‘knows’! To the man who ‘knows’! Even more terrible to those who understand them not, may be the human natures of which they are but new and clumsy technical symbols, the mere labels of psychiatric study, within a few decades of medical explorers (Stevenson 64).

The lack of concrete terminology and understanding exhibited by the novel’s homosexual protagonist concerning homosexuality is immediately apparent and shows that even to a homosexual man, homosexuality is not so simply defined or recognized especially when the person whose sexuality is in question hides their true identity behind what Oswald defines as “The Mask – the eternal social Mask for the homosexual! – worn before our nearest and dearest, or we are ruined and cast out!” (Stevenson 101) Though he deems himself “a man who knows”, he cannot even be certain of Imre’s sexuality and he attempts to define this sexuality in terms that are rooted in ignorant myths concerning the origin or cause of homosexuality. This excerpt represents the limited contemporary understanding of homosexuality even by those who are a part of it, the necessity for a language with which to develop an openly accessible discourse upon the subject and thereby work to demystify and depathologize homosexuality. This is also the goal of the text as a whole. Much more than simply a tale of homosexual male love, Imre follows two homosexual men on a journey to self-acceptance and eventual happiness with each other. Although they do not remove their social masks they reveal their true selves to one another.

Before they arrive at self-acceptance, Imre and Oswald pathologize their homosexuality. Oswald as a young man struggling with the reality that he is physically attracted to men feels he is diseased and must be cured. He seeks the aid of an American physician who tells him to marry at once. Marriage serves as a part of the “social Mask” that Oswald claims homosexuals put on for the world. Quite expectedly, this marriage cure does not “cure” Oswald of his homosexual desire and he comes to the realization that there is nothing to be cured, that it is simply who he is.

I had no disease! No. I was simply what I was born! – a complete human being, of firm, perfect physical and mental health; outwardly in full key with all the man’s world: but, in spite of that, a being who from birth was of a vague, special sex, a member of the sex within the most obvious sexes; or apart from them. I was created as a man perfectly male, save in the one thing which keeps such a “man” back from possibility of ever becoming integrally male: his terrible, instinctive demand for a psychic and a physical union with a man – not with a woman. (Stevenson 96)

Imre equates his homosexuality to possessing a “psychic trace of the woman” within him of which he is ashamed. Oswald tells him not to speak of women as lesser beings and to think of all the great women in history. Think of your mother as I think of mine, he says. However, he chastises gay men whose gender presentation exudes flamboyance and femininity. “To think of them shamed me; those types of man-loving-men who, by thousands, live incapable of any noble ideas or lives. Ah, those patently depraved, noxious, flaccid, gross, womanish beings, perverted and imperfect in moral nature and in even their bodily tissues!” (Stevenson 86).

At several moments throughout the text, Oswald speaks of homosexual men who, despite their sexual desire for other men, represent the apogee of conventional masculinity. He himself claims to be such a man. He does so in an attempt to justify homosexuality to society at large, to prove that one can be homosexual yet retain his masculinity. Further than merely retaining their masculinity, he claims that men such as himself may be too much man, that no women could ever satisfy them. He raises such men to the level of an elite class above heterosexual men. In this sense, Oswald is attempting to create a language, to develop a discourse on, to give a shape to true homosexuality. True homosexuals love men both body and soul. The desire for the body is second to the love for the spirit. In other words, sex with another man is a consummation of the love they have for what lies inside their lover. Oswald truly values the intellect above the flesh and this can be seen when Imre embraces him sensually upon his return from camp. Oswald describes his attraction as a “sex demon” rising up within him and he flees from Imre’s arms.

Much more than simply a tale of homosexual male love, Imre serves to create a language with which to develop an openly accessible discourse upon the subject of homosexuality and thereby work to dismantle its pathologization within the western mind. Unlike novels about gay male love that preceded Imre, the novel bestows upon its two protagonists the happy ending that homosexual romance had long been denied in literature. They are not punished for acting upon a desire that society has deemed repulsive and what religion has claimed to be rebellion against the Almighty. Rather the novel ends with both men having accepted themselves for who they are and together looking forward optimistically to a future with one another.

Works Cited

Prime-Stevenson, Edward. Imre A Memorandum (Broadview Literary Texts). New York: Broadview P, 2003.

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Moloch and the Lamb: The Holy War of Conformism and Proto-Counter Culture in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl

During the 1950’s a large movement of American writers, artists, and musicians achieved considerable notoriety for creating literature, works of art and music that dissented from what they deemed the prejudiced and oppressive mainstream American ideals of conformism and materialism. Out of this movement, which soon became known as the “Beat Generation,” a counterculture manifesto entitled Howl by Allen Ginsberg was spawned. Since Ginsberg brought his groundbreaking work to the forefront of the American consciousness, it has become a defining work of beat literature.

Howl is written in free verse, a form of poetry that does not adhere to a uniform rhyme or meter. According to Robert Henson in his article entitled “Howl in the Classroom”, the authorial decision to write in this fashion demonstrates Ginsberg’s personal belief that the “mind is shapely” and when “practiced in spontaneity” it “invents form in its own image” (Henson 8). Howl in and of itself is a repudiation of adherence to uniform rhyme and meter as the sole path to creating poetry that can be considered art. Literary criticism has also defined works such as Howl as stream of consciousness narrative, a term adopted from psychological discourse. Stream-of-consciousness narrative is a mode of narration meant to represent the thought process of the narrator. Therefore not only is Howl a protest against conformity but an authorial confession in which Ginsberg bears his heart and soul for all the world to see.

The poem was originally written in three sections with a fourth section written some time later. Much more than a mere protest, Howl can easily be defined as the chronicle of a holy war that was waged between conformist, materialist, mainstream American culture and the burgeoning proto-counter culture movement of the 1940’s and 1950’s. The first three sections can be read as three waves of attack. Drawing from Ginsberg’s personal experience and that of other poets, artists, dissidents, musicians, junkies, and psychiatric patients, the first section offers a deeply troubling portrayal of the marginalized, pathologized and essentially beaten down members of society whom Ginsberg would refer to as the “lamb” in later reflections upon the poem. In the poem’s opening line Ginsberg tells us “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness” (Norton Anthology 2576). Those who Ginsberg defines as the “best minds” would have been perceived by the mainstream culture as societal rejects. As Mark Doty points out in his article entitled “Human Seraphim: Howl, Sex, and Holiness”, these marginalized members of American society were under the constant threat of being jailed, medicated, or hospitalized because those who refused to adhere to a binary system of heteronormativity, those who exercised their right to political dissent, those who sought enlightenment through experimentation with illicit drugs were deemed deviant and deranged (Doty 7). For Ginsberg to define people who have been driven to insanity as “the best minds” is an audacious and deliberate subversion of conventionality and an attack against what the “Beat Generation” deemed a conformist and materialistic society.

Of the people whom mainstream American culture perceived to be a generation of degenerates, homosexuals and drugs addicts were considered most perverse. Homosexual imagery and experimentation with illicit drugs abound in this first attack. Not only does Ginsberg portray homosexual acts and drug use with shameless candor, he employs religious terminology and mythological allusions in an effort to make these aspects of the human condition holy. Mark Doty echoes this sentiment when he defines Howl as “a chronicle of friends seeking…transcendence…through whatever means they find at hand” (Doty 7). Drug addicts experiencing withdrawals are suddenly transformed into “angelheaded” figures yearning for an “ancient heavenly connection”, homosexual men performing filatio become “human seraphim” and anal sex is “saintly”. In terms of war, homosexuality and drugs become Ginsberg’s artillery as they obliterate preconceived notions of heteronormativity and what it means to be a respectable human being.

The second section of Howl, which was inspired during a drug-fueled hallucinatory experience, attacks the destructive forces of materialism and conformism. Ginsberg opens with the following rhetorical question: “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?” (Norton 2581). Ginsberg immediately answers with “Moloch…unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!” (Norton 2581). The true state of America, Ginsberg claims, is one of perverted faith, oppression and neglect. It is the capitalistic idolatry of materialism and conformism, which Ginsberg characterizes as “Moloch”, that has transformed the American psyche into an inhuman mechanism perpetually and fruitlessly pining after the almighty buck, that abandons starving children in the streets, that requires young men to perish on the battlefield in service of “democracy”, and that proclaims members of elder generations dead before their time.

This culture, in which skyscrapers, factories, laboratories, and asylums mark the otherwise barren landscape like altars to technological and scientific advancement, subdues the masses into blind acceptance of a hollow existence or drives them to insanity and rebellion. “Moloch” frightens us out of our “natural ecstasy”, transmogrifying the sexual passion of men into “granite cocks”. We “Wake up in Moloch” for it has stolen our dreams and replaced them with its nightmarish visions of death and insanity. In the Old Testament of the Bible, it is written that Moloch was a Hebrew idol that required the sacrifice of children as burnt offerings. “And you shall let any of your seed pass through the fire to Moloch, and so profane the name of your God; I am the Lord” (Leviticus 18:21). By likening the mechanized state of industrialized civilization to “Moloch”, Ginsberg condemns the false idols of materialism and conformism to which he perceives “the lambs” of society are being sacrificed. His condemnation of these false idols is a clarion call for all those under the oppression of materialism and conformism to take up arms.

The third section of Howl is addressed to Carl Solomon, a man Ginsberg befriended while both were patients at the Columbia Psychiatric Institute in Rockland, New York. This is perhaps the most powerful section of Howl. Like those “who broke down crying in white gymnasiums naked and trembling before the machinery of other skeletons” (Norton Anthology 2578), Solomon embodies “the lamb” brought to complete mental ruin by the oppressive force of the psychiatric hospital that seeks to “cure” homosexuals and drug users of their perversity. Ginsberg writes, “I’m with you in Rockland where fifty more shocks will never return your soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the void” (Norton Anthology 2583). In this disturbing image of electroshock therapy, Solomon becomes a casualty of war. He has paid the ultimate price for insurrection against conformist society – his freedom and sanity. Comparable to his efforts in the first section to sanctify homosexual acts and experimentation with drugs, Ginsberg employs religious imagery in his depiction of Solomon’s descent into spiritual death. Solomon makes a “pilgrimage” to a “cross” shaped table upon which he will receive “treatment”. This image is reminiscent of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. Ginsberg is likening Solomon’s demise to a messianic sacrifice, one that will result in the redemption of humankind. However, Ginsberg does draw a difference between Solomon and Christ. Whereas Christ rose from the dead, Solomon’s body will never regain his soul. He is trapped within a “concrete void of insulin metrasol electricity hydrotherapy psychotherapy”, spiritually dead (Norton Anthology 2580). The sole redemption that can be derived from Solomon’s suffering is that the world will be awakened to the barbaric practices of mental institutions and the prejudiced, intolerant nature of the society which allows for such crimes against humanity to occur.

In the fourth and final section of the poem, entitled “Footnote to Howl”, Ginsberg claims “Everything is holy ! everybody’s holy ! everywhere is holy !” (Norton Anthology 2583). This can be read as Ginsberg extending an olive branch to “Moloch” or industrialized civilization. It is essentially an armistice drafted by Ginsberg on behalf of the Beat Generation, inspired by the transcendentalist notion that transcendence or holiness can be discovered in every aspect of the human condition.

Works Cited

Doty, Mark. "Human Seraphim: Howl, Sex, and Holiness." American Poetry Review 35 (2006): 6-8.

Ginsberg, Allen. "Howl." The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Seventh Edition: Volume E 1945 to the Present. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007. 2576-584.

Henson, Robert. "Howl in the Classroom." CEA Critic 23 (1961): 8-9.

The New English Bible. NY: Oxford University Press, 1972.

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Gender and Sexual Politics in Ann Bannon’s I Am a Woman

With the onset of World War II, conservative societal conventions of sexuality and gender that had long persisted as essentially de facto tenets of mainstream American culture began to undergo an unprecedented metamorphosis. The tremendous surge of professional opportunities for women stateside and the development of the women’s military organizations aided in bringing lesbian women in particular to the forefront of the American consciousness. When World War II finally came to an end, mainstream American culture regressed back into a paradigm of perpetuating conservative conventions of sexuality, gender and family. Images of the nuclear family (the industrious, perfectly coiffed housewife; the tall, dark and handsome, bread winning husband; the happy, obedient son and daughter) were disseminated through many mediums and ingrained once again within the American psyche. As lesbian women became more public about their sexual orientation and their desire for coexistence in a vehemently biased hetero-normative culture, the contemporary powers saw this as a clear act of defiance against conservative conventions of sexuality and gender.

The greatest impediment that has prevented and continues to prevent LGBT people from fully realizing their inherent human right to life, liberty and happiness is that which is undeniably a product of condemnation and marginalization at the hands of our dominant patriarchal, heterosexist culture and is one that has evolved over time into an internal conflict. Within the souls of LGBT people, so long as they are condemned for who they are, there will always exist a conflict of two equally powerful and opposing desires; the desire to assimilate into, to find validation within the dominant heterosexist culture that largely condemns them and the desire to find validation within themselves, amongst individuals who share their experience, to develop a sense of pride through their marginalization.

From this condemnation and marginalization, a vast body of literature has sprung forth. Stemming from both a conscious and unconscious effort of LGBT people, this literature seeks to enlighten those unlike themselves, to find a place within the dominant patriarchal, heterosexist cultural framework and to communicate their experience with those like themselves so that those others will know they are not alone, to give themselves and others a voice where before they lived in silence. Within the grand scope of what is now termed as LGBT literature there exists a sub-genre known as lesbian pulp fiction. Quite ironically, it was during the tumultuous, McCarthyist, post-World War II era that lesbian pulp fiction planted a strong foothold and flourished in the face of zealous hetero-normative antagonism aimed at homosexuality.
What is immediately striking about this genre is its designation as “pulp.” It is a very curious choice for prior to one even experiencing the substance of a publication within this genre they are met with a negative qualification. “Pulp” denotes sensational or deplorable subjects. A great deal of criticism lesbian pulp fiction has received centers upon the argument that lesbian pulp fiction merely capitalizes upon the desires of voyeuristic heterosexual men and that because such publications offer stereotypical representations of homosexuality and gender and employ homophobic, sexist language, they actually perpetuate rather than dispel conventions of homophobia and sexism.

What must be stressed is that contrary to modernist work such as Imre by Edward Prime-Stevenson or The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, works of lesbian pulp fiction neither codify homosexuality nor attempt to cower beneath symbolism, metaphor or classical allusions. Lesbian pulp fiction, Suzanna Walters claims, “insists on uncoded lesbian sexuality, devoid of…elaborate codings…or the tedious use of nature metaphors to describe female to female sex” (Walters 86). Instead they offer earnest, raw emotion and physicality. It is because they hide nothing and reveal everything that they are qualified as being of a lesser value to society. With concern for the lesbian pulp novel entitled I Am a Woman in particular, it has been argued that author Ann Bannon offers representations of homosexuality within a heterosexual, homophobic, sexist framework. The following examination of I Am a Woman aims to counter this claim by revealing the true liberating, revolutionary intent of various aspects of the novel which have been deemed to be sexist or homophobic.

Though some works of lesbian pulp fiction were created by men using female pen names, they were by and large authored by lesbians for a lesbian audience. Lesbian authored pulp fiction, Suzanna Walters claims, diverges from those of a male authorship that used “lesbian sexuality” for “traditional voyeuristic titillation” as they reached lesbians who not only perceived them as pleasurable but as recognition of a shared experience (Walters 84). Due to the demands publishers faced from censors, narratives often culminated with either reform (the dissolution of a lesbian relationship and the entrance into a heterosexual one) or punishment (the mental breakdown and/or death of a lesbian character) even when written by lesbian authors (Nealon 745). Were lesbian protagonists to be granted a fairytale ending and walk off together into the sunset, there would be a great probability that the narratives could be construed as lurid content. Conversely, if the narratives were to end in tragedy it was more likely that censors would overlook what could have been deemed as obscenity and publication was thus permitted.
This conflict that arose between authorial desire to offer portrayals of successful, happy lesbian relationships and the necessity to reform or punish lesbian sexuality in order for narratives to achieve publication is perhaps the most intriguing characteristic of lesbian pulp fiction and is one that many critics have labeled as compromising authorial integrity and a betrayal of lesbian solidarity. In response to this criticism Sherrie Inness has argued that pulps implied “lesbians were driven to insanity or death because of the society around them that condemned them as abnormal, not because they were inherently psychologically disturbed” (Inness 2005). In other words, the pathologizing of lesbian sexuality represented in pulps is, in truth, the effect of hetero-normative bigotry rather than homosexuality itself.

Though it is undeniable that a significant source of motivation to write lesbian pulp fiction came from the ability to make a profit off of the voyeuristic desires of heterosexual men, publication was also owed to the common perception of these novels as cautionary tales for young women of the tragedy that befalls lesbian sexuality. Regardless of this fact, lesbian pulp fiction acknowledged lesbian sexuality as a reality when it was otherwise dismissed as ridiculous because without a penis entered into the equation sex was impossible and was therefore read voraciously by many lesbians of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Not only was lesbian sexuality largely dismissed, it was also against the law and often considered a symptom of mental instability. Women could be put in prison or a mental institution. As Carol Seajay has conveyed in her article “Pulp and Circumstance,” these novels are testaments to the “courage it took in the fifties and pre-feminist sixties to pursue a life with women, and how utterly thrilling it could be to discover these secret, underground worlds” (Seajay 2006).

Unlike pulps whose lesbian sexuality resulted in reform or punishment for lesbian protagonists, the ending of I Am a Woman bestows upon Laura Landon and Beebo Brinker the successful, happy relationship that had been so often denied homosexuals in literature. This ending was absolutely paramount in producing the “double effect” of Bannon’s narrative as it went against the contemporary conventional belief that homosexual love must end in tragedy. Laura seeks out Beebo at the Cellar, a frequent haunt for the two lovers, and at first Beebo is callous. Laura has hurt her and acts as if she wants nothing to do with her. Beebo leaves Laura at the bar on the verge of tears and just when we are led to believe that we are being presented with the stereotypical dissolution of yet another lesbian relationship, Laura follows Beebo outside and finally reveals her true feelings. “I love you Beebo. Darling, I love you” (Bannon 232). Beebo replies “I can’t hate you anymore…I’ve given up. There’s nothing left but love” (Bannon 232). With these words the two women embrace, kissing each other passionately and eventually walk off down the street together in loving reconciliation. The decision of the publisher not to alter this ending was risky business and certainly a political act.

Cover art was another aspect of lesbian pulp fiction over which authors had no control and typically adhered to stereotypical depictions of butch-femme roles. Butches were illustrated as brooding, masculine presences with short hair, wearing pants while Femmes were portrayed as exceedingly feminine figures with long flowing hair and scantily clad. Such is the case with the cover art for I Am a Woman. The femme figure dominates the frame. She has long flowing hair and sports a halter top that is beginning to slip off of her shoulders, revealing a tantalizing pair of large, full breasts. Even her facial expression is sexually suggestive as she appears to be in a state of ecstasy, her head tilted back and eyes barely open. The butch figure stands at a distance with a stoic expression, arms straight at her side and appears to have locked the femme figure in her crosshairs. She has short curly hair and is wearing a far less revealing shirt as well as pants. Now these images may seem to be merely endorsing the stereotypical butch-femme role distinction but in actuality they follow very closely to the descriptions given of Laura Landon and Beebo Brinker in the text.

The stereotypical butch-femme role distinction, both in fictional literature and in real world lesbian communities, has had many feminists and homophile organizations up in arms since lesbian sexuality became a topic of public debate. Feminists and homophile organizations have claimed that such a distinction adheres to the hetero-normative system of binary gender. By relying solely upon this argument one might be misled by certain aspects of particular lesbians’ gender presentation and categorize them as either masculine or feminine, butch or femme. According to Judith Butler, gender is not an innate, unalterable aspect of one’s being but rather a continual process of “performative acts” that are merely influenced by societal conventions (Butler 270). In other words, there is no normative body, no essential gender that exists prior to one’s social existence. Butler does not subscribe to the system of binary genders which insists upon categorizing individuals as either feminine or masculine. One’s gender presentation, whether or not it is influenced by societal conventions, is ultimately the decision of the individual.
The first instance of what could be construed as homophobic language that readers are presented with comes when Laura begins to feel an attraction towards her roommate Marcie. It is implied that she has been with a woman before and that the relationship failed. Marcie reminds Laura of a former girlfriend. She insists to herself that she must not fall for Marcie. “That happened a million years ago. I’m not the same Laura anymore. I can’t – I won’t love like that again. I’ll work, I’ll read, I’ll travel. Some people aren’t made for love. Even when they find it, it’s wrong. I’m one of those” (Bannon 19). By the omission of a fairytale ending the reader is lead to believe that LGBT people are incapable of finding love because their attraction to people of the same sex is merely animalistic and sexual with no deeper spiritual basis. Critics may argue that Bannon is perpetuating the belief that homosexual love cannot have a happy ending. However, Laura’s words sound like those of a woman who has had her heart broken and not necessarily one who believes her physical attraction to women is something to deny and be ashamed of. Even if one could prove that Laura is internalizing this homophobic belief, that fact alone does not betray authoritative position on the matter. Of course, as a lesbian herself, it is quite possible that Ann Bannon is drawing upon the emotions of her own experience. Despite that possibility, it is fair to say that when an individual or group of individuals is endlessly subjected to condemnation and marginalization by the majority, they begin to experience self-doubt and develop a sense of resignation with regard to their station in life. Bannon is simply representing a realistic account of what people go through, heterosexual and LGBT alike, when subjected to oppression. It does not mean she herself subscribes to this belief. What it does is subvert censorship and allows the kind of narratives Bannon writes to be accepted by the mainstream culture.

When Laura, Marcie, Burr and Jack go for drinks at The Cellar, Burr speaks condescendingly about the presumably lesbian patrons and readers are once again presented with homophobic, sexist language. “All those gals need is a real man. That’d put them on the right track in a hurry…Any girl who doesn’t like men is either a virgin or else some bastard scared the hell out of her. She needs gentling” (Bannon 34). Now this is clearly language deeply steeped in prejudice. Burr is of the school of thought that lesbianism is caused by a woman’s experience with men or her lack thereof. What must also be taken into account is Laura’s response to Burr. “We’re human beings…We have no right to sit here and laugh at them for something they can’t help” (Bannon 34). As homophobic and sexist as Burr’s beliefs may be his attack against the lesbians in the bar provides Laura with the opportunity to defend homosexuality. Laura seizes this opportunity and nearly risks revealing her own homosexuality when she claims “You talk about us as if we were horses” (Bannon 34).

What is also very interesting and deserves attention is when Laura poses the hypothetical scenario of a father being the cause of a girl’s lesbianism. “What if the bastard is her father...And he scares the hell out of her when she’s five years old?” (Bannon 34) This belief can be traced back to Freudian psychology which claimed that women who experience trauma in childhood at the hands of a male figure, namely their fathers, are more prone to becoming lesbian. Now this is once again clearly an androcentric belief as the female’s sexual destiny is subject to her experience with her father or another man. In I Am a Woman, Laura’s tumultuous relationship with her father alludes to the contemporary school of thought that homosexuality was possibly the result of childhood trauma. In other words, the emotional abandonment and physical abuse Laura experienced with her father following the death of her mother and brother has driven her away from the society of men and into the arms of women.

Fast forward to Chapter 14 of the novel when Laura finally comes face to face with her father after over a year of estrangement and admits to him that she is a lesbian. He responds by asking, “Did I do that to you, Laura?” (Bannon 206). Although she confirms his inquiry, it is very interesting and important to point out that from the narrator’s relating of Laura’s inner thoughts we learn that she is not quite certain that her father is the cause of her homosexuality. She responds “without certain knowledge” and merely “the urge to hurt him” (Bannon 206). This small bit of narration is an authorial hint that Bannon does not subscribe to Merrill Landon’s androcentric point of view but hides it well enough that censors would have passed over it.
Another example of Bannon’s use of language that could be construed as homophobic is when Laura and Beebo Brinker have sex for the first time. The passage that begins with “Laura felt such a wave of passion” through the paragraph that begins with “No, no, no, no,” is significant to the novel as a whole because the language used to describe Laura and Beebo’s passion can be construed as representing the nature of homosexuality as instinctual, animalistic sexual desire, which would be one of many aspects of lesbian pulp fiction that would cause censors in the 1950’s to allow publications such as Ann Bannon’s novels to exist.

However, this passage can also be read in another way. We learn earlier on in the novel that it has been over a year that Laura parted with her former girlfriend Beth and that for over a year Laura has remained sexually abstinent. For a grown woman who has already experienced the profound pleasure that sex can bring a person, a year is quite a long time to go without sexual gratification. Without a doubt Laura’s libido is going to be raging, begging to be satiated. Perhaps she does not love Beebo and the sex that the two women engage in with one another is purely physical for Laura, at least in beginning. When heterosexual partners engage in sex purely for the physical gratification they may be condemned by certain religious zealots but certainly not by society at large. What Bannon is subversively revealing here is heterosexist hypocrisy. She is trying to convey with this scene that homosexuals have just as much right as heterosexuals to have sex for fun.

Though publications of lesbian pulp fiction employed stereotypical cover art in order to attract heterosexual male readers, have been edited in order to circumvent the watchful eyes of McCarthy era censors, and their narratives have been interpreted by ignorant critics as homophobic, sexist denunciations of lesbian desire, fledging and veteran lesbians alike were profoundly influenced by publications like Ann Bannon’s I Am a Woman. Not only did they inform lonely and closeted women that others like them existed in the world but also overtly and covertly challenged societal and political conventions of sexuality and gender. Undoubtedly, American culture has since evolved into one of greater tolerance and understanding since the days when lesbian pulp fiction was new and unchartered territory. Be that as it may, while pseudonymous male authors purveyed lesbian sexuality to voyeuristic male readers in which lesbian relationships resulted in reform or punishment, lesbian authors like Ann Bannon with their courage and optimism were influential in lesbians seeking out one another and forming communities. Despite sexual and gender oppression that lesbian women continue to face to this day, lesbians of the post World War II era experienced a radical evolution in their collective consciousness which has led to an enduring sense of both pride and community.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith, and Sue Ellen Case. "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory." Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1990. 270-82.

Inness, Sherrie A. "Novel: Lesbian." GLBTQ gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender & queer encyclopedia. 15 Apr. 2009

Nealon, Christopher S. "Invert History: The Ambivalence of Lesbian Pulp Fiction." New Literary History 31 (200): 745-64.

Seajay, Carol. "Pulp and Circumstance." Women's Review of Books 23 (2006): 18-19.

Walters, Suzanna D. "As Her Hand Slowly Crept Up Her Thigh: Ann Bannon and the Politics of Pulp." Social Text 23 (1989): 83-101.

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Emancipation of the Soul

For nearly 150 years, the institution of slavery was a legal practice in the United States. Beginning with anti-slavery sentiments during the War of American Independence, a large movement to abolish slavery grew throughout the greater part of the 19th century eventually leading to the American Civil War and the emancipation of all African American slaves. Perhaps America’s most powerful speaker of the abolitionist movement was Frederick Douglass, a former slave and author of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Douglass’s text, in which he relates his journey from a life of servitude in the south to his eventual freedom in the north, is an example of what is now known as the slave narrative, a literary form that documented the life experience of African slaves. Transcendentalist writers Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman, authors of Walden and I Sing the Body Electric, Song of Myself respectively, were contemporaries of Frederick Douglass and also fellow advocates of the abolitionist cause. The following aims to compare Walden and Song of Myself with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and examine them as slave narratives in service of the transcendent, pleas for liberation of the human soul.

In Narrative, Douglass demonstrates that the institution of slavery not only dehumanizes slaves but their masters as well. The spiritual health of slave owners is jeopardized by the horrors they inflict upon their slaves. He claims that slaveholding patriarchs have not only subjected their female slaves to brutal beatings but have raped them and fathered children with them as well. Such acts of barbarism, Douglass states, lead to a disintegration of family values as slave owners eventually sell their own children into servitude or subject them to severe punishments over the course of their lives. “The master is frequently compelled to sell this class of his slaves…for, unless he does this, he must not only whip them himself, but must stand by and see one white son tie up his brother…and ply the gory lash to his naked back” (Narrative 2073) In an effort to deny the atrociousness of their transgressions, slaveholders such as Thomas and Sophia Auld adopt a transmogrified religiosity. Douglass makes a point to differentiate between genuine Christianity which teaches love for all of humankind and the perverted form of Christianity which proponents of slavery utilize to justify their subjugation and brutalization of fellow human beings. “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” (Narrative 2125). He states that when slave holders claim to be Christian it is by no means an indication of their good nature, but rather a duplicitous act serving as a hollow justification of the horrors they enact upon their slaves.

Sophia Auld, who serves as Douglass's primary representation of the devastating consequences slaveholding has on the spiritual health of slave holders, is described as being transformed from an individual of lofty ideals into a callous fiend. “That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon” (Narrative 2086). By illustrating the devastating consequences slaveholding has had on the morality of Thomas and Sophia Auld, Douglass is essentially making the claim that the abolition of slavery is necessary in order to revitalize the spiritual health of all humankind.

In Walden, Thoreau reasons that true freedom can only be attained by becoming both economically and socially self-reliant. One could even say that Thoreau takes an approach to matters of economics that mirrors the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin who said that the greatest sin was debt. When one is in debt they are beholden to another person or an institution and therefore very much a slave. In other words, autonomy possesses the greatest weight in economics and human social interaction. To be in need is essentially to be in chains. However, Thoreau’s vision of self-reliance is the transcendent gratification of one’s ability to construct the reality in which they exist rather than merely living debt free.

To express the ability of the individual to construct their own reality, Thoreau speaks of life as a river and tells us to use a metaphorical tool he calls the “Realometer”. Like with the Nilometer, a measurement tool allegedly used in determining the depth of the Nile, we are encouraged by Thoreau to use the “Realometer” (our divine intellect) in order to sift through the sediment (trivial matters of the life) until we reach the bottom (reality). According to Thoreau, only when we reach the bottom can we can say “This is” reality. What is very interesting and important to discuss is this saying is reminiscent of God’s repeated command in the Book of Genesis “Let there be”. When Thoreau constructs his home on the shore of Walden Pond he likens this endeavor to God’s creation of the world. His intent in likening himself to God is not in any way an attempt to place himself above the rest of humanity, but rather to show all of humanity that they too possess the divine within themselves and can create little worlds of their own.
It is also important to note that Thoreau’s vision of self-reliance did not repudiate the value of friendship but rather welcomed it with open arms. “I have occasional visits in the long winter evenings…from…a most wise and humorous friend, whom I love much…” (Walden 1944). It was the refusal of need that Thoreau tried to convey. One must remember that an important belief of the transcendentalist movement, influenced greatly by eastern philosophical traditions, was that the body and soul have always been entitled to ultimate provision. The natural world possesses everything required of the body for nourishment and the soul has always been in possession of everything there is to know. It is simply up to the individual to utilize nature’s bounty and to seek the knowledge that is inherent within their soul through various forms of meditation. True enlightenment or freedom comes with the ability to meditate and find peace in every act of life. Therefore, when Thoreau aggrandizes solitude he is not speaking of loneliness or seclusion but rather the act of looking deep within oneself. Thoreau states that one can experience lonesomeness amidst a vast crowd if they share no connection with those people. “We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers…Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows” (Walden 1943). Thoreau sees solitude not in terms of physical proximity to others but rather as a state of consciousness which for him nears nirvana.
For Whitman, human bodies can unite with others sexually and spiritually, and are essentially one in the same. The body is the intermediary between one’s soul and the physical world. In the sections seven and eight of I Sing the Body Electric, the reader is presented with an image of a male and female slave at an auction. The poet tells us that he has aided in the auctioning of these slaves by offering a morbid taxonomy of their physical and reproductive the prowess. Both slaves are advertized as the progenitors of generations:
This is not only one man, this is the father of those who shall be fathers in their turns, In him the start of populous states and rich republics,
Of him countless immortal lives with countless embodiments and enjoyments

She too is not only herself, she is the teeming mother of mothers, She is the bearer of them that shall grow and be mates to the mothers.

Ultimately these slaves become merely potential subjects of animal husbandry for would be buyers. This image of the slaves being treated like cattle ultimately employs Whitman’s own body-centric belief as a satirical device and reveals slave auctions as a transmogrified version of worshipping the human body that slavery has lead humanity to. In fifth section of Song of Myself, Whitman focuses less upon the body and speaks of wisdom that transcends the physical:
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass
all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my
sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love (Whitman 2213)

In this stanza, Whitman is claiming unity with the God and unity with every man and woman that has ever been born. Because he is one with God and one with all of humankind, humankind is unified with God as well. Like Thoreau, Whitman is informing every human being of the divinity they possess within themselves. The peace and knowledge Whitman claims surpasses every human struggle is that because we are all one with God there can be no distinction made between us that condemns one and elevates the other. Though it is not said outright, Whitman vision of unity encompasses African American slaves and thus refutes the legitimacy of an institution that would seek to justify the subjugation of spiritual equals.
For slaves, the road to liberation was not simply comprised of the tales they would later relate but was ultimately defined by the telling of those stories. This was certainly true for Thoreau and Whitman as well. Narrative in the Life of Frederick Douglass, Walden, I Sing the Body Electric and Song of Myself were not merely documentations of a journey from servitude to liberation, but were distinctive decrees of physically and spiritually freed men, the final chapter, so to speak, in the authors’ quests for spiritual freedom. These slave narratives were not merely stories but acts of liberation in and of themselves from the spiritual oppression of nineteenth century conventions. Though completely escaping racism was impossible for Douglass, Thoreau, and Whitman, despite the all encompassing nature of their progressive thought, they each created and taught to others a vision of self not bound by ignorance and fear. Whitman, Thoreau and Douglass all insisted on not merely liberation of the body but rather liberation of the soul. They sought liberation in service of the transcendent.

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Emancipation of the Soul by Joshua Alan Blodgett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.
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