Nov 02

Frankenstein at 200

I ended up submitting the blog post I’d planned for here to the local paper, so you can read that version here: https://www.tennessean.com/story/opinion/2018/10/26/after-200-years-frankenstein-still-matters-opinion/1779830002/

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of my favorite books to teach. Last fall I taught a course on the novel, and it’s a mainstay on my syllabi from the British survey to Romanticism to the History of the Novel to Literature and Childhood. This being the 200th anniversary, I was excited to participate in Frankenreads and One Book, Many Conversations, and I hosted two discussions of the novel at the Nashville Public Library. They weren’t as well attended as I’d hoped, but I was still glad to do it.

Aug 28

Hans Christian Andersen’s Sexuality

My book about Disney’s Victorians includes a chapter about Hans Christian Andersen, locating him among other eminent Victorians (including Dickens, the Brownings, Eliot, and Yonge) and exploring the relationship between biography and adaptation. Among the most intriguing aspects of Andersen’s life, as nearly all biographers point out, is his sexuality, and this week I’m thinking about two quite different approaches to nineteenth-century sexuality. The first is Helena Michie and Robyn Warhol’s Love among the Archives, and the second is Eve Sedgwick’s “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl.” The latter was among the readings for V21’s 2018 summer reading group, and part of this post is inspired by conversations in the Nashville area group.

Hans Christian Andersen statue in Kongens Have, Copenhagen (image from Wikimedia Commons)

But first, a bit about Andersen’s sexuality, for those not familiar with the romantic life of the fairy tale author. Andersen never married and, if his own account is to be believed, he died a virgin. But his diaries make clear that he did have sexual urges. In 1834 he recorded, “My blood is churning. Huge sensuality and struggle with myself. If it really is a sin to satisfy this powerful urge, then let me fight it. I am still innocent, but my blood is burning” (Diaries 80). This is typical of the diaries, which reveal Andersen’s struggle between his sexual desires and his compulsion to suppress them. Entries like this appear throughout the diaries, often followed by a small drawing of a cross, a symbol indicating masturbation – which he regularly recorded in his diary.

The diaries are simultaneously salacious and chaste, a paradox that makes biographers curious about Andersen’s relationships. He had intimate friendships with both men and women, and his life can seem to be a series of infatuations. Some biographers – including Jackie Wullschlager and Alison Prince – are convinced that Andersen’s of homosexuality. Others, like Jens Andersen, refuse to label his sexuality, but make clear that it was outside the normative expectations of 19th-century Denmark. All of the recent biographies make his sexuality a central focus, and even the travel writer Michael Booth, in a memoir following the itinerary of Andersen’s travels, feels compelled to dwell on it.

What are we to make of this obsession with Andersen’s sex life? How do we begin to categorize Andersen’s sexuality, and what drives us to do so?

In their biography of George Scharf, a relatively unknown Victorian bachelor, Helena Michie and Robyn Warhol combine a rich archival record with their own affective responses to that record, demonstrating how a biography is constructed as much by the interpretive desires of the biographer as by the records left by their subject. Among the desires motivating Michie and Warhol’s investigation of Scharf is what they refer to as “the ubiquitous and hegemonic marriage plot,” which in modern culture generally (and the Victorian novel in particular) functions as a biographical imperative (Michie and Warhol 67). Even in their slightly amended phrase “romance plot,” they recognize two expectations: first, that biographers explore the love lives of their subjects; and second, that those love lives fit certain parameters: perhaps not heterosexual, but at least diachronic rather than momentary, emotional as well as physical, and monogamous rather than polyamorous. That Andersen fits uncomfortably into such parameters motivates his biographers’ interest in his sexuality.

Michie and Warhol identify two possible partners for Scharf: Jack Pattisson and Freeman M. O’Donoghue. The romance plot they reconstruct thus resists a Victorian norm in the gender of Scharf’s lovers, but in other ways it is “legible in the terms of the literary and cultural romance plots that make agitation for gay marriage so compelling for many” (Michie and Warhol 111). His homosexual relationships seem to have been sequential, non-overlapping, emotional, and monogamous. But Michie and Warhol are careful to note that this conclusion arises both from the limited evidence available and from their own training as readers (especially as readers of the Victorian novels). Scharf may well have had other desires and other sexual experiences that left no trace in the archive.

Michie finds “archival consummation” in a close reading of a letter from Pattisson to Scharf, announcing the former’s engagement (Michie and Warhol 92), and Andersen’s biographers seek similar details that might betray his sexuality: Karl Gutzkow’s accusation that Andersen is a “half-man” (Andersen, Diaries 245), or Andersen’s love letter to Edward Müller (Wullschlager 111), or Theodor Collins’s warning about his relationship with Harald Scharff (J. Andersen 475). Jens Andersen’s supposition that Andersen’s friends destroyed or returned letters evidencing his relationships (171-2) implies that those relationships existed. But in all these cases tacitly assume that if he engaged in a homosexual relationship, it would be with one person at a time: the potential relationships with Edvard Collin, Edward Müller, Henrik Stampe, and Harald Scharff are non-overlapping. In this sense, then, the biographers bring their own normative assumptions about Andersen’s desires.

HCA by Thora Hallager 1869

Andersen in 1869 (image from Wikimedia Commons)

My goal isn’t to uncover Andersen’s “true” sexuality (I don’t read Danish, for one thing), but rather to consider how understandings of his sexuality have changed over time, and how they might inform the production and reception of adaptations of his works. And in this sense, Sedgwick’s “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl” has led me to rethink Andersen’s sexuality, and especially his (only slightly encoded) recording of his own masturbation in his diary. Andersen’s physician Emil Hornemann described Andersen’s sexuality as  “ascetic” (J. Andersen 525-6). Such a conclusion underscores Andersen’s chaste conversations with prostitutes and his series of emotionally intense but nevertheless platonic relationships with both men and women.

But accepting that conclusion means accepting some assumptions about sexuality. Calling Andersen’s sexuality “ascetic” makes sense only if we assume it was externally focused. But Sedgwick posits another “sexual identity”, recognizable in the nineteenth-century culture in which both Andersen and Austen lived but no longer identified as such. In the intervening centuries, “The identity of the masturbator was only one of the sexual identities subsumed, erased, or overridden in this triumph of the homo/hetero calculus” (Sedgwick 826). Because Andersen’s biographers focus singularly on his relationships they perhaps miss an equally intriguing conclusion. Certainly Andersen’s erotic energies were centered on other people, but he may have physically expressed that energy by himself. In this sense, his sexuality was far from ascetic.

For Sedgwick, considering masturbation as a distinct sexuality lets us see “so powerful a form of sexuality run so fully athwart the precious and embattled sexual identities whose meaning and outlines we always must insist on thinking we know” (Sedgwick 822). The point is less a historical claim about Austen (or Andersen) than a presentist reevaluation of our own assumptions about sexuality. What Andersen’s biography helps us to see — and what linking his biography to Disney’s adaptations like The Little Mermaid or Frozen helps us to see — is that sexual identity exists along multiple intersecting axes, including not just the biological sex or gender assignment of one’s self and one’s partner, but the number of partners (including zero), whether sexual expression is physical or emotional, the cultural and historical communities in which one exists, and other factors that no list could exhaust.

Works Cited
Andersen, Hans Christian. The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen. Patricia L. Conroy and Sven H. Rossel, editors and translators. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1990.
Andersen, Jens. Hans Christian Andersen: A New Life. Translated by Tina Nunnally. New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2005.
Booth, Michael. Just as Well I’m Leaving: To the Orient with Hans Christian Andersen. London: Jonathan Cape, 2005.
Michie, Helena and Robyn Warhol. Love among the Archives: Writing the Loves of George Scharf, Victorian Bachelor. Edinburgh University Press, 2015.
Prince, Alison. Hans Christian Andersen: The Fan Dancer. London: Allison and Busby Ltd., 1998.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl.” Critical Inquiry 17 (Summer 1991), pp. 818-837.
Wullschläger, Jackie. Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller. London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 2000.
Zipes, Jack. Hans Christian Andersen: The Misunderstood Storyteller. New York and London: Routledge, 2005.

Jun 14

Alice in Disneyland

Alice in Wonderland Ride

It has been almost a year since I last posted on this blog, and it had been almost a year before that post, too. Excuses abound (a first child, a new job, a new house in a new city), but I’m recommitting to posting here more regularly. I am partly inspired by Dan Cohen’s essay from a few months ago, about his own desires to write more on his own blog in support of movements to “re-decentralize” the web

But I am also at a point in my current research project that I want to make more public. While I was still teaching at a college outside Orlando, I developed a course called “Disney’s Victorians,” in which we read a bunch of Victorian texts that Disney has adapted, like Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandTreasure Island, and Oliver Twist. With Walt Disney World down the street, I thought it might appeal to students, giving them an entry point into Victorian literature. That summer I attended an NEH seminar in California, and since we had some time set aside for research I drove down to Burbank to visit the Walt Disney Company Archives. I thought maybe I”d find one or two things to use in the class.

I found so much more than that. The archives contain a fascinating record not just of Disney’s films but of the research behind them. Research reports dating back to the 1930s include surveys of competing adaptations, which I would expect, but also scholarly and biographical contexts that might inform the animators’ work — something that surprised me! Two days in the archives resulted in an article about Disney’s Charles Dickens adaptation Oliver & Company in the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, and that barely scratched the surface of what I found. The rest of that research will be included in my next book, tentatively titled Disney’s Victorians: Literary History in the Age of Corporate Media. I connect a historical period to a global media company to address a range of topics in literary studies, including form, history, authorship, empire, gender and sexuality, adaptation theory, and institutional processes. 

Alice in Wonderland Dark RideOver the coming months I will share parts of my book-in-progress on this blog: starting today, June 14th, 2018, which happens to be the 60th birthday of the Alice in Wonderland dark ride at Disneyland. When the ride opened in 1958, Disneyland was still in its infancy. Considered the first amusement park to make storytelling its central focus, the Anaheim theme park opened in 1955. Disney’s cartoon musical Alice in Wonderland (1951) featured prominently in the lead-up to the theme park’s opening, especially on the television program Disneyland. The film also inspired the spinning tea cups at the Mad Tea Party, which was among the park’s first attractions.

The 1951 film is the one you know. In the last sixty years it has become probably the most recognizable version of Alice, displacing even Lewis Carroll’s books and John Tenniel’s illustrations. The movie was the culmination of decades of attempted adaptations and false starts. The 1923 short film “Alice’s Wonderland” was among Walt Disney’s first cartoons. It was inspired by Carroll’s book, though it uses only the basic idea of a girl in a fantasy world to justify the gimmick of a live-action girl interacting with cartoon characters. Disney brought the film with him when he moved to Los Angeles, and used it as his demo. He found a distributor and created a series of Alice films, which he eventually leveraged into a second series, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and eventually Mickey Mouse.

Mary Pickford 1916.jpg

Mary Pickford, who at one point was slated to play Alice in a Walt Disney feature.

The Disney Company, this story reveals, starts with a Victorian text. And the connection to Alice didn’t stop there. The company had some version Alice in Wonderland in production from the 1920s through 1951. In the book, I use archival materials and press releases to reconstruct what Simone Murray has called “phantom adaptations,” versions of a film that reached some stage of production but were never completed. These phantom adaptations include a version starring Mary Pickford as a live-action Alice interacting with animated characters; dozens of pages of suggestions about how to adapt specific characters, choose voice actors, and fit the studio’s own Alice among existing adaptations; and a script written by Aldous Huxley, complete with a frame narrative in which Lewis Carroll and Alice meet the actress Ellen Terry.

Each of these adaptations struggles with a question of form. While the Alice books offer rich material for the cartoon, whose key formal feature is the “gag,” animators continually struggled to connect those episodic moments into a single, unified story with compelling characters. In the book I discuss how the various phantom adaptations approached this struggle.

For now, though, I’ll leave you with the option to watch a ride-through of the Alice ride at Disneyland (you can wish the ride a happy 60th birthday):