Julie Abraham

Hyman H. Kleinman Fellowship in the Humanities

BA (Hons.), University of Adelaide, Australia. MA, MPhil, PhD, Columbia University. Special interest in lesbian/gay/queer studies, 20th-century British and American literature, contemporary feminisms, and literatures of the city; author of Are Girls Necessary?: Lesbian Writing and Modern Histories, Metropolitan Lovers: The Homosexuality of Cities, and numerous essays; editor of Diana: A Strange Autobiography; contributor to The Nation and The Women’s Review of Books. SLC, 2000–

Course Information

Current undergraduate courses

First-Year Studies: The Invention of Homosexuality

Different historians trace the invention of modern homosexuality to different historical moments from the 16th to the mid-19th centuries. The invention of heterosexuality, it would seem, followed after. Certainly the term “heterosexual” appeared only after the term “homosexual” was coined in the late 19th century. Neither meant, at first, what they mean today. In this class, we will study the development of modern understandings of same-sex desire in relation to understandings of sex, gender, race, class, nation, nature, culture, and opposite-sex desire. We will be drawing centrally on literary works, especially novels, which have been crucial sites for the construction and dissemination of modern understandings of sexuality. But we will also be reading histories, science, laws, letters, and polemics—and watching films. Although we will be considering both earlier and more recent materials, we will focus on the period from the 1880s to the 1960s. By the 1880s, almost everyone agrees, a recognizably modern understanding of homosexuality was becoming available. The sexual/cultural landscapes that subsequently developed were not radically rearranged until the 1960s, when the gay and women’s liberation movements insisted on a political analysis of sexuality. This course will serve as an introduction to a broad range of modern literature, to fundamental works in the history of sexuality and contemporary lesbian/gay/queer studies, and to critical thinking about how we talk, read, and write about sex. Conference work may be focused on any period from the 19th century to the present.

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Queer Americans: Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Willa Cather, and James Baldwin

Year

Queer Americans certainly, Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Willa Cather, and James Baldwin each fled “America.” James (1843-1916) and Stein (1874-1946) spent their adult lives in Europe. Cather (1873-1947) left Nebraska for Greenwich Village after a decade in Pittsburgh—with a judge's daughter—along the way. Baldwin (1924-1987) left Harlem for Greenwich Village, then the Village for Paris. As sexual subjects and as writers, these four could hardly appear more different; yet Stein described James as “the first person in literature to find the way to the literary methods of the 20th century,” Cather rewrote James to develop her own subjects and methods, and Baldwin found in James’s writings frameworks for his own. In the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, James, Stein, and Cather witnessed the emergence of modern understandings of homosexuality and made modern literature, each pushing boundaries always, in subtle or dramatic ways. Stein, for example, managed to parlay the story of her Paris life with Alice B. Toklas into an American bestseller in 1933. In the second half of the 20th century, Baldwin began to dismantle modern understandings of sexuality and of literature. Examining the development of their works side-by-side will allow us to push the boundaries of lesbian/gay/queer cultural analyses by pursuing different meanings of “queer” and “American” through an extraordinary range of subjects and forms. Beginning with James on old New York, vulnerability, and ruthlessness, this course will range from Cather’s plantations and pioneers to Stein on art and atom bombs and Baldwin on sex and civil rights. We will read novels, novellas, stories, essays, and memoirs by James, Cather, and Baldwin—plus Stein’s portraits, geographical histories, lectures, plays, operas, and autobiographies. Literary and social forms were inextricable and inseparable from the gender and cross-gender affiliations and the class, race, and ethnic differences that were all urgent matters for these four. James’s, Stein’s, Cather’s and Baldwin’s lives and works challenge most conventional assumptions about what it meant—and what it might mean—to be a queer American. Conference projects may include historical and political, as well as literary, studies that focus on any period from the mid-19th century to the present.

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Previous courses

Perverts in Groups: The Social Life of Homosexuals

Year

Contradictory assumptions about the relations of homosexuals to groups have dominated accounts of modern LGBT life. In Western Europe and the United States, from the late-19th century onwards, queers have been presented as profoundly isolated persons—sure that they are the only ones ever to have had such feelings when they first realize their deviant desires and immediately separated by those desires from the families and cultures into which they were born. Yet these isolated individuals were also seen as inseparable, always able to recognize each other by means of mysterious signs decipherable by no one else. Homosexuals were denounced as persons who did not contribute to society, homosexuality as the hedonistic choice of self-indulgent individualism over sober social good. Yet all homosexuals were supposed to be stealthily working together, through their web of connections to one another, to take over the world—or the political establishment of the United States, for example, or its art world, theatre, or film industries. Such contradictions can still be seen in the battles that have raged since the 1970s, when queers began seeking public recognition of their lives within existing social institutions, from the military to marriage. LGBT persons have been routinely attacked as threats (whether to unit cohesion or the family), intent on destroying the groups that they have been working to openly join. In this class, we will use these contradictions as a framework for studying the complex social roles queers have occupied and some of the complex social worlds that they have created—at different times and places and shaped by different understandings of gender, race, class, ethnicity, and nationality—over the past century and a half. Our sources will include histories, sociological and anthropological studies, the writings of political activists, fiction, and films.

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Pretty, Witty, and Gay

Spring

Are you ready to review your cultural map? As Gertrude Stein once said, “Literature—creative literature—unconnected with sex is inconceivable. But not literary sex, because sex is a part of something of which the other parts are not sex at all.” More recently, Fran Leibowitz observed, “If you removed all of the homosexuals and homosexual influence from what is generally regarded as American culture, you would be pretty much left with Let’s Make a Deal.” We do not have to limit ourselves to America, however. The only question is where to begin: in the pantheon, in prison, or in the family; in London, Paris, Berlin, or New York; with the “friends of Dorothy” or “the twilight women”? There are novels, plays, poems, essays, songs, films, and critics to be read, read about, listened to, or watched. There are dark hints, delicate suggestions, positive images, negative images, and sympathy-grabbing melodramas to be reviewed. There are high culture and high camp, tragedies and comedies, the good, the bad, and the awful to be enjoyed and assessed. How has modern culture thought about sexuality and art, love and literature? How might we think again? Conference work may be focused on a particular artist, set of texts, or genre or on some aspect of the historical background of the materials that we will be considering.

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Queer Theory: A History

Spring

Queer Theory emerged in the United States, in tandem with Queer Nation, at the beginning of the 1990s as the intellectual framework for a new round in ongoing contests over understandings of sexuality and gender in Western culture. “Queer” was presented as a radical break with homosexual, as well as heterosexual, pasts. Queer theorists and activists hoped to reconstruct lesbian and gay politics, intellectual life, and culture; renegotiate differences of gender, race, and class among lesbians and gay men; and establish new ways of thinking about sexuality, new understandings of sexual dissidence, and new relations among sexual dissidents. Nevertheless, Queer Theory had complex sources in the intellectual and political work that had gone before. And it has had, predictably, unpredictable effects on current intellectual and political projects. This class will make the history of Queer Theory the basis for an intensive study of contemporary intellectual and political work on sexuality and gender. We will also be addressing the fundamental questions raised by the career of Queer Theory, about the relations between political movements and intellectual movements, the politics of intellectual life, and the politics of the academy in the United States, in particular, in this new millenium.

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Virginia Woolf in the 20th Century

Fall

“On or about December 1910,” Virginia Woolf observed, “human character changed....All human relations shifted—those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change, there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.” In her novels, essays, reviews, biographies, and polemics, as well as in her diaries, letters, and memoirs, Woolf charted and fostered the cultural and political forces behind those changes as they developed across the century. Over the course of that century, Woolf's image also changed from that of the “invalid lady of Bloomsbury,” a modern, a madwoman, and perhaps a genius to that of a monster, a feminist, a socialist, a lesbian, and an icon. While focusing on the development of her writing, we will also consider her life and its interpretation, her politics and their implications, and the use of her art and image by others as points of reference for new work of their own. Her family, friends, lovers, and critics will all appear. We will also be reading her precursors, her peers, and those who—in fiction, theatre, and film—took up her work and image in the decades after her death. This course will serve as an introduction to 20th-century fiction, feminist literary study, lesbian/gay/queer studies, the study of sexuality, and the study of politics in literature. Conference projects might focus on one other writer, a range of other writers, or one of these approaches to literary analysis.

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