Queer Lineations: A Special Report from the 2006 MLA Convention

At the December 2006 Modern
Language Association Convention in
Philadelphia, the Division on Gay Studies
in Language and Literature organized
a session titled “Queer Lineations: Robert
K. Martin and Gay Literary Studies.”
The session, chaired by Jay Grossman,
associate professor of English and director
of the American Studies Program at
Northwestern University, recognized the
scholarly inventiveness and political commitment
of Martin, whose work ranges
widely, including his path-breaking
book, The Homosexual Tradition in American
Poetry as well as writings on Whitman,
Melville, Hawthorne, E.M. Forster,
Thom Gunn, Henry James, Gide, and
Hart Crane.
During the session three distinguished
scholars sounded the depths
of Martin’s work in the contexts of the
continuing unfolding of gay, lesbian, and
queer studies. Attendees representing
different generations of scholars packed
the room, standing around the back
and sitting on the floor. Panelists and
members of the audience paid tribute to
the impact of Martin’s scholarship and
the importance of his open discussions of
homosexuality that opened up not only
the canon, but the profession of literary
studies as well. Martin, despite been recently
stricken with Parkinson’s disease,
attended the panel and took part in some
hearty give-and-take with panelists during
the Q&A.
Eric Savoy, who teaches Comparative
Literature at the University of Montreal,
spoke first, and emphasized the significance
of Martin’s 2004 essay “Newton
Arvin: Literary Critic and Lewd Person”
for understanding the homophobia in the
postwar academic institution:
It is precisely against forgetting, and
against embarrassment that Robert – rather
like Hawthorne in the unvisited archive of
the Custom House – articulates his filial duty
to Newton Arvin. He speaks of the “shock of
recognition” he experienced in 1960: the realization
that, despite the academy’s privilege
of unknowing, “there is no line separating the
books that Arvin wrote and the life that he
lived.” This shock was entirely salutary, for
it prompted Robert’s own determination to come
out sexually, intellectually, and politically:
“I would not ever give them the pleasure,” he
writes, “of discovering a secret that was available
for anyone to see.”
Christopher Nealon of the University
of California at Berkeley began by underscoring
the historical importance of the
publication of The Homosexual Tradition in
American Poetry in 1979:
This is only ten years after Stonewall;
only six years after the American Psychiatric
Association removed homosexuality from its
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental
Disorders. It is before Reagan; it is before
AIDS…I’m so interested in a book like The
Homosexual Tradition—not because it’s a
more properly activist book, but because it is
not burdened with an obligation to imagine
itself as activist. Martin had important
practical work to do in his book, some of which
is so straightforward, so basic, that it takes
your breath away to think he had to do it. He
had to establish that, in some sense, the poets
he was writing about – Whitman and Crane,
most importantly – could indeed be thought of
as gay poets, whether or not the authors themselves
would have chafed at the designation.
He had to establish that sexual identity was a
legitimate feature of literary analysis, even if
shorn of dignifying psychoanalytic language.
And he had to establish that it was damaging
not to read these writers as gay; that we failed
to learn something important about poetic
work and poetic language if we did not read
them as gay.
Acknowledging Martin’s scholarly
contributions on E. M. Forster, Judith
Scherer Herz of Concordia University,
concluded her presentation “Miss Avery
in the Garden with the Sword: Forster
and Friendship” with these remarks:
Robert listened carefully to Forster—to
the voice even more than the words—since for
Forster that is where the meaning often lies:
there and in his uncanny vision, his ability to
see and see through. The novelist, Elizabeth
Spenser said it very well in the Writers Panel
we had as part of that long ago centenary
conference (and she was there because she was
a friend of Robert and Eudora Welty was
there because she was a friend of Elizabeth…
friendship, that’s the key): “It is as though,”
she said, “one were proceeding on a horizontal
plane and then suddenly found that plane cut
through by the upward/downward reach of a
remarkable perception… marvelously unpredictable,
the totally honest response of a mind
to the tangle called life.” And that exactly
describes Robert’s reading and writing, too.
Jay Grossman sums up the impact of
Martin neatly in his introduction to the
session:
The field would look very different, and it
would have taken much longer for the curricular,
pedagogical, and scholarly interventions of
gay, lesbian, and queer studies to have taken
hold in quite the way that they have, without
the work of Robert K. Martin.