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:

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.

Jul 23

Postcorporate Form; or, Art After Disney

With Comcast dropping its bid, The Walt Disney Company’s purchase of 21st Century Fox looks increasingly likely. Together those two companies account for about 47% of the domestic cinema market, and their merger would further flatten a media landscape dominated by a handful of companies.

I’m currently working on a book about The Walt Disney Company’s adaptations of Victorian literature, arguing that analytic categories like historical periodization and literary form remain relevant even as readers’ experiences are shaped less by teachers and scholars than by global media corporations. There are such things as “corporate histories” and “corporate forms,” and they exert a strong influence on the reception even of centuries-old works. It’s essentially a project about literary history, but it also has me thinking about a more contemporary genre that emerges from a media climate controlled by a handful of major players.

That thinking is partly inspired by postcolonial studies. Among the important questions asked by global and postcolonial scholars is the extent to which artists after colonialism accept, reject, or reinvent the colonizer’s artistic forms. Robert Stilling’s forthcoming book shows “how postcolonial artists reimagined the politics of aestheticism in the service of anticolonial critique,” and iGlobal Anglophone Poetry Omaar Hena argues that “the renovation of aesthetic forms” allows global anglophone poets to look both backwards to “irreparable historical realities” and forward to “more robust models of worldly belonging that would match the aesthetic and political complexities of the contemporary world” (3).

One has merely to mention the East India Company to demonstrate that colonialism and global capitalism have always come hand in hand, and it’s not at all uncommon to hear companies like Disney or Facebook compared to the colonial nation-states that exerted their dominance in the nineteenth century. Critical works like Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart’s How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic (1991) and the National Labor Committee’s Mickey Mouse Goes to Haiti (1996) take the comparison seriously, but does art do the same work? Might there be an analogue in “postcorporate forms,” works that “renovate” (to use Hena’s term) corporate forms in the service of anti-corporate critique?

I have in mind three very different works. The first is Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003), a futurist dystopia set in Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom. In a rejection of the copyright system with which Disney is inextricably linked, Doctorow distributed his novel under a Creative Commons license (you can download it for free from his website). Part of Hena’s argument is that the colonizer’s aesthetic forms also determine which writers gain — or don’t gain — institutional recognition, and so colonial power structures still determine which works succeed. In a sense, Doctorow subverts a similar power structure.

Banksy’s Dismaland (2015)

The second is Banksy’s 2015 art installation Dismaland, which leveraged the form of the theme park in its critique of corporatism, media culture, police brutality, and predatory lending. Though Banksy disavowed any direct aim at Disney, the decrepit castle at the park’s center certainly evokes the castles around which Disney’s parks are built, and the whole concept of a “theme park” is linked to Disney: the first recorded usage in the OED is a 1960 reference to efforts to duplicate Disneyland.

The third work I have in mind is Jon Cozart’s “After Ever After” series, the best among myriad YouTube Disney parodies. Cozart imagines the next step in the characters’ stories and links them to issues of contemporary concern: Ariel is poisoned by BP’s oil spill; Aladdin and Jasmine face both American islamophobia and the threat of ISIS; Pocahontas and Elsa lead violent uprisings against (respectively) British colonials and climate-change-deniers; Mulan ponders gender realignment surgery. Cozart has three videos, one of which you can watch here:

Striking about Cozart is his clear fondness for Disney: the videos are as much homage as parody, and if they take aim at Disney’s films it is only in their formal reliance on a “happy ending.” Yet they implicate corporate actions in environmental destruction, racism, and imperialism. There is some irony in the leveraging of these critiques through homage to a company that is far from innocent of those same charges (see Dorfman and Mattelart and the National Labor Committee).

These are just initial thoughts on this topic, and a slight deviation from the argument I’m developing in Disney’s Victorians. Of course the analogue between “postcorporate” and global or postcolonial writing needs some further thinking. But this is a line of inquiry I might pursue in a future post, or perhaps a longer work.