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

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Queer Americans certainly, James, Stein, Cather, and 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.