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Before Activism: Queer Identity and Literature in the Early Twentieth Century

What was queer life like when terms such as “homosexuality,” “gay,” and “lesbian” were new, and few people used them or knew what they meant? What possibilities did queer people imagine for how their lives could turn out, with no firmly established vocabularies or role models available? How did queer people express their political beliefs, desires, and aspirations before the onset of social movements after World War II? How do these queer imaginaries look different from or similar to those that would come after? To investigate the sexual and gendered contours of this period, we will explore how authors in the early twentieth century tackled these and related questions in literature, grappling with the political and social challenges and possibilities of the time. The seminar is organized around three key sites of literary production – London, New York, and Paris – and the writers who resided in them, thus taking part in new cross-cultural experiments and innovations in art and literature. These cities were locations where authors from around the world entered debates about what it meant to experience non-normative sexuality and gender in the first few decades of a new century, a period of political and social unrest not unlike our own.

To these ends, we will explore a survey of queer literature from the first half of the twentieth century, ranging from fiction by Oscar Wilde, Nella Larsen, and Virginia Woolf to poetry by Langston Hughes, Federico Garcia Lorca, and the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. We will also read several short pieces of relevant contemporary scholarship and theory on the history of sexuality, queer literature, and transnational studies.