Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
In this dissertation, I recover nostalgia—unpopular, too frequently dismissed, and presumptively conservative—as a generative emotional position from which to read queer texts. My archive assembles a group of post-Stonewall texts—literature, film, television, and advertising—that marshal the pre-Stonewall literary past to support reflection on the pressing issues of recent gay life: same-sex marriage, the myth of the down low, effemiphobia and anti-feminism, and HIV/AIDS. Shuttling critically between modernist literary history and contemporary culture, I propose nostalgia as a useful affective mode for negotiating our relationship to queer history. Against both the pervasive narrative of gay progress circulating in mainstream culture and the theoretical impasse of academic models of queer temporality, a number of recent films and other cultural products perform alternative approaches to queer history, approaches marked by formal and/or thematic nostalgia. Queer nostalgia designates, on the one hand, specific kinds of nostalgic feeling for the queer past and, on the other hand, nostalgia's own theoretical, temporal, and formal queerness. While Heather Love argues that the queer past is not necessarily any worse than the queer present and that nostalgia is one way among many of "feeling backward," I push her important theoretical achievement past its own stated purpose by centralizing nostalgia. In so doing, I propose in this project the possibility of a reverse teleology: What if the supposedly "bad" gay past is felt to be in fact "better" in some respects—less unforgiving, less programmatic—than the supposedly "good" gay present? The contemporary archive I assemble thus offers a fresh entry point into literary history, enabling us to ask such questions as, How is nostalgia at play in the 2011 repackaging and publication of an affordable new edition of Walt Whitman's "Calamus" and "Live Oak" sequences, issued just as same-sex marriage cases wound their way to the Supreme Court and popular discussion of same-sex marriage reached high pitch? Or, what kind of nostalgia do we observe in two very different filmic representations of Truman Capote released only one year apart, in 2005 and 2006? Throughout, I use the popular contemporary archive as a critical springboard into literary history. Each chapter of "Queer Nostalgia Across the Gay American Century" focuses on a pre-Stonewall queer literary figure. My central texts—a 1997 episode of the TV drama Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, the second season of Amazon's series Transparent (2015), the films Capote (2005), Brother to Brother (2004), and Christopher and His Kind (2011)—suggest that in a rush to secure material equality we may have been too quick to jettison queer pasts that offered pleasures, communities, and opportunities inaccessible in the present. Guided by this hypothesis, I reconsider what nostalgic reading, nostalgic viewing, and nostalgic histories offer queers living under what Jose Muñoz calls "the tyranny of the now." In chapter 1, "Gay Democracy in the Shadow of the Capitol: Walt Whitman and the Neoliberal Literary Imagination," I argue that the neoliberal United States, taking shape since the mid-1990s, produced a gay nationalist version of Walt Whitman around which the mainstream LGBT movement gathered in shared pride, recognition, and a progressive version of queer history. As some American gays and lesbians began to agitate for full citizenship under the law by means of access to marriage and military service, representations of Whitman and readings of his poetry began to tether his semi-secret same-sex desire to his long-celebrated nationalism. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, beginning with Betsy Erkkila's "Whitman and the Homosexual Republic" (1994), Whitman, once the closeted patriot, became the gay American ur-citizen. This Whitman, I argue, elides a queer Whitman who slips out of the grip of homonormative revision but can be accessed from a nostalgically-inflected readerly position. The story of Whitman since the neoliberal 1990s thus inaugurates the dissertation by tracing the limitations of progressive anti-nostalgic narratives. While in chapter 1 I critique of the progressivist anti-nostalgic narratives that accrue around Whitman, in chapters 2, 3, and 4 I turn to a reparative mode of reading, revealing how nostalgic re-imaginings of Richard Bruce Nugent, Truman Capote, and Christopher Isherwood not only reshape the literary historical record but also evidence the theoretical potential of queer nostalgia. In chapter 2, "'It never really was the same': Brother to Brother's Black and White and Queer Nostalgia," I read the 2004 film Brother to Brother, which presents a fictionalized account of the final months of the life of the Harlem Renaissance artist and writer Richard Bruce Nugent. Set partly in the early 2000s and partly in the 1920s, the film is nostalgic for the earlier black queer moment. An anti-nostalgic reading of this film would insist that it merely substantiates the claims made by queer theorists that nostalgia is bad history and worse theory—uncomplicated, unrigorous, and sentimental. My reading, however, reaches beyond accusations of sentimentality and historical inaccuracy to insist that the nostalgia prevailing in Brother to Brother functions as an anti-racist and anti-homophobic rejoinder to paranoia about the so-called "down-low" phenomenon, which obsessed the media and the public during the early 2000s. Nugent's black queer 1920s community of artists, recollected in flashback, serves as an instructive contrast to the co-constituted homophobia and racism of the film's own moment of production. In chapter 3, "Truman Capote's Swans: Effeminacy, Friendship, and Style in Douglas McGrath's Infamous (2006)," I argue that McGrath's film, which recounts Capote's research travels to Kansas in the late 1950s, displays nostalgia both for mid-century gay male relationships with women and for the aesthetic styles and embodied performances of mid-century gay male effeminacy. In opposition to the effemiphobic rhetoric of many contemporary gay cultures, Infamous highlights Capote's effeminacy and his relationships with women as creatively and personally productive, offering nostalgic alternatives both to the gay cultural attachment to masculinity and to powerful historical narratives about the inherent abjection of queerness at mid-century. In chapter 4, "In the Past, Across the Ocean: Nostalgic American Dreams of 1930s Berlin," I argue for the specificity of place as essential to queer nostalgia. Reading the 2011 Isherwood biopic Christopher and His Kind (based on the autobiography of the same name) and the second season of Amazon Prime's successful series Transparent, I show how contemporary post-Stonewall nostalgia for Weimar Berlin functions as a counterpoint to today's queer culture, which has witnessed a schism between the gay and trans* communities. These two nostalgic texts long for the years immediately preceding Hitler's rise to power, during which the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld coined the inclusive label "sexual intermediaries" and agitated for social justice on their behalf. At the same time, and just as powerfully, they long for the location of that confluence of sexual understanding and freedom, the urban space of Berlin. In a coda, in which I read the 2005 documentary Gay Sex in the 70s, I show how nostalgia can be understood as a queer mode of grief that refuses the normative schedules of mourning offered by the psychoanalytic tradition descended from Freud and by more recent mental health professionals such as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. I trace the ways in which the crisis of AIDS structures our nostalgic imagination of the queer past and, looking back upon the work of this dissertation, I foreground the disease—fears of it, radical political action around it, tragic stories marked by it, homophobic mainstream reactions to it—as an implicit but vital force in each of the chapters of the dissertation. "Pleasure in the Past" reanimates nostalgia as an emotional position from which to read queer cultural history. The title signals a double valence, functioning both as an invitation to take pleasure in what the queer past offers us today and as a mandate to pay close attention to what was pleasurable for queer subjects who lived in the past. Against the widely accepted criticisms of the emotion, which indict it as politically conservative, historically incorrect, aesthetically unsophisticated, retrograde, sentimental, and immature, this dissertation recovers nostalgia, showing how multifarious, complex, and rich the emotion can be. Our nostalgia for Whitman, Nugent, Capote, and Isherwood—and for their historical moments—performs vital queer work as we negotiate pressing issues of sexuality, race, authorship, history, and representation.
Chair and Committee
William J. Maxwell, Jeffrey Q. McCune, Jr., Melanie Micir, Amber J. Musser
Windle, Elisabeth, "Pleasure in the Past: Queer Nostalgia in the Gay American Century" (2016). Arts & Sciences Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 1013.