The Gay of the Land: Queer Ecology and the Literature of the 1960s
Date of Award
Ph.D. in English
In this dissertation I argue not only that queer ecology is a legitimate and important next step for ecocritics and queer theorists but also that its literary application does a great amount of good in exploring and dismantling the natural/unnatural binary and exposing the ecological impact of the choices humans make everyday. I take as my method a combination of queer and environmental theory and literary criticism, as well as the foundational queer ecocritical works and include important historical and political perspectives influencing the emergence of the environmental and gay and lesbian movements. Through this dissertation, I legitimize more recent American literature, namely that of the 1960s. My reinvented canon includes works traditionally read as either environmental texts or queer texts so my task will be to claim each work for both the queer and environmental side, as well as a combination of both. Also, I argue that the importance of contemporary literature to queer ecology lies in its historical, social, and political situations. My first chapter, on Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, the author’s second novel, explores the deep and abiding homosociality present in the story of the Stamper family, a logging clan in Oregon. I frame my argument about the homosocial (and homosexual) activities of communities of male loggers in the Northwest by addressing the primary homosocial relationships in the novel—those between Joe Ben and Hank Stamper (despite the fact they are both married) and Hank and his brother Leland. Kesey uses these relationships to dismantle and discount the presence of heterosexuality reproduction in the novel. While the physicality displayed by the men of the logging community is often read by critics as Kesey’s way of reinscribing a macho, pioneer mentality into an American literature populated by flaccid men, I read these moments erotically, underscoring their occurrence in the space of the forest as a necessary to the enactment of homosociality. In the second chapter, on Isherwood’s A Single Man, I show how George, the novel’s main character, acts a barometer for the ecological destruction enacted by the “breeders”—the families and their children—who surround him. While mourning the sudden death of his longtime partner, George critiques the functioning of heterosexual couples, their offspring, rampant growth and construction, and the general environmental destruction occurring in California at the time. While the novel is traditionally read as a text that empowers and normalizes a gay man in a long-term relationship, I argue that these critics are ignoring the environmental signs spread throughout the novel. Isherwood reverses the paradigm of queerness as unnatural by making reproduction unnatural, but instead of imposing new binaries in the narrative, Isherwood introduces touching and play as a way of dissolving boundaries. Jane Rule’s Desert of the Heart, which comprises my third chapter, centers on Evelyn, a woman who travels to Reno to seek a divorce from her husband. While there, she meets, falls in love, and has an affair with a young woman named Ann. Despite Evelyn’s admission that the younger Ann makes her feel like a “mother,” the two have a sexual relationship which simultaneously confirms and erases this familial relationship. Like in A Single Man, Desert of the Heart contains moments of play and touch which seek to reinforce the importance of sexual exploration across seeming boundaries as well as normalize and bolster same-sex relationships. Also, as with Isherwood’s novel, the current criticism on Desert of the Heart tends to highlight the politics of Ann and Evelyn’s relationship. While the focus on the sexual politics of the lesbian relationship is not remiss, it ignores the pivotal environmental factors that Rule includes. It is the Nevada landscape that often affords the pair the freedom to escape and love without the policing eye of the casino in which Ann works, the ranch where they live, and the other divorced women there. Rule equates the barrenness of the desert with the couple’s animality, revising the narrative of ecological barrenness by including in the couple’s rich and totally naturalized love affair. The fourth chapter focuses on Margaret Atwood’s first novel, The Edible Woman. Atwood presents the narrative of Marian, a woman in rebellion. On the surface, Marian buys into the heteronormative narrative of marriage and childbirth, but her body tells her otherwise. What occurs in The Edible Woman is a series of strange bodily incidents in Marian—she runs (read: escapes) senselessly from her nearly-fiancée, retreats into the “womb symbol,” the space beneath the bed, finds her tongue and stomach turning against her as she increasing is unable to eat, and then enacts another escape from her future-husband. All of these things add up to a rebellion against marriage and the consumerism tied up to it. While the novel is often read as a protofeminist novel in which Marian is punished with an anorexia forced upon her by narcissistic men and patriarchy in general and then “fights back” by the cannibalization of the cake shaped like a woman, I read the novel as a critique of not only the marriage system and a narrative that reinforces the Mother as the Ultimate Woman (embodied in the novel by the perverse, unmarried Ainsley and the married, distracted Clara) but also a forced and destructive system of “Production-consumption,” as Duncan explains, a system which forces its unnatural food products on consumers. I read Marian’s gradual starvation as a deliberate challenge to the rotundity and productiveness of pregnancy.
Anderson, Jill Elizabeth, "The Gay of the Land: Queer Ecology and the Literature of the 1960s" (2011). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 36.