Intimate Reception: Reading Ordinary Queerness In American Women's Literature

Jess Shollenberger, University of Pennsylvania

Abstract

This dissertation connects the aesthetic commitment to the ordinary world in twentieth-century women’s literature to the invention and consolidation of modern sexuality. Owing largely to a political antipathy between “the ordinary” and “the queer,” scholars have not addressed the intersections of literary modernism, ordinary aesthetics, and the emergence of queer sexualities. This project argues that the twentieth-century preoccupation with the ordinary cannot be understood apart from representations of queer figures, desires, and intimacies, which are themselves ordinary—neither hidden nor extravagant. The representations I examine are attuned to the specific forms of gendered insignificance that snag on feminine being, subjectivities, and intimacies. The insignificance attached to feminine figures, this project claims, is not so easily redressed by queer alterity defined as the potential to become something extraordinary and different. What I call “ordinary queerness” is an insignificant feature of a changing sexual landscape that required legible subjects and discernible identities. By rendering queerness insignificant, the writer declines to represent a legible subject for discipline, classification, and even description—in other words, interpretation. Through readings of texts by Sarah Orne Jewett, Gertrude Stein, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Elizabeth Bishop, this project finds that representations of an ordinary queerness raise specific interpretive problems for queer literary studies. This project’s method of an “intimate reception” is addressed to those queer figures (characters as well as authors) who might not seem queer enough according to axiomatic frameworks within queer literary studies. This dissertation offers intimate reception as a reading practice and a literary-historical method that is motivated less by critical opposition or indeed by ardent attachments than it is by ordinary affects, insignificant figures, and the distance that inevitably lies between the reader and the queer worlds they desire in a literary text.