Review- Trask, “Cruising Modernism”

Michael Trask, “Cruising Modernism: Class and Sexuality in American Literature and Social Thought” (2003) – I enjoyed Michael Trask’s latest two books, “Camp Sites” and “Ideal Minds,” so thoroughly I decided to have a look at his first book, “Cruising Modernism,” which examines notions of sexuality and class within American modernist literature and social sciences between the nineteen-aughts and the twenties. 

It, too, is quite good, and I say this as someone with next to no connection to the literary writers Trask takes on: Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Hart Crane, and Willa Cather. I’ve either tried them and not liked them (James) or just haven’t tried them and should. I’m something of a cartoon-addled little kid when it comes to literary modernism, preferring the flashy (and wicked) Celines and Wyndham Lewises to the rest, but who knows, maybe I’ll like the others? Either way, Trask makes some compelling points. It’s not enough to talk about these writers as being on one “side” or another of a contemporary culture war read back into the past (this was written in the gay-marriage-fight era). Trask would probably take me to task for my lumbering historiographical take — he’s got the finesse (and digs) of a literary critic who knows his business — but I see all of the writers he talks about as responding to dynamics that upset established class and sexual hierarchies. 

The sheer speed and dislocation of movements of people, capital, goods, ideas, etc. that defined the early twentieth century posed problems for both literature and social science. Both fields were used to thinking in terms of “statics”- fixed rules of society, fixed ideas of what literature was, fixed morality (that a lot of these fixes were quite new didn’t seem to bother them, or did it? They don’t seem now). Then all of a sudden (i.e. the Second Industrial Revolution hit) everything was “dynamics” and people didn’t know whether to shit or go blind. Social scientists located mobility as a major source of numerous “ills,” from labor agitation to homosexuality. They weren’t shy about sort of stirring these ills into one big degeneracy stew, and locating these in specific people, namely hobos/tramps and immigrants, especially the newer waves coming from the Mediterranean. Good (poor) people stay put, quietly work for (whatever offered) wage, and marry someone of the opposite gender. Bad poors wander around, looking for kicks.

Writers had different reactions to these bad poors and their cousins, the neurasthenic and newly-extra-mobile (witness Henry James and his characters flitting across the Atlantic) rich. I’ll be honest here and say I didn’t fully keep score and the close readings of writers I haven’t read and probably wouldn’t like that much threw me a little, but the chapters still held my interest. As far as I can tell, Henry James thought the new mobility made people sad and weird and got them in bad marriages. Gertrude Stein (and many social scientists) preferred nice, reliable, obedient dogs to flighty, self-motivated people (she would have loved doggo memes, I bet, the more misanthropic the better). Workers made Hart Crane horny, and Cather had something going on with the erotics of Catholicism? Either way, interesting stuff to think about. I will grant the work is a bit “dissertation-y” in places, but Trask already showed the ability to play with schema while getting his points across brilliantly that would characterize his later work. I’ve invited him to chat with me on zoom for a YouTube video- hopefully he replies! ****’

Review- Trask, “Cruising Modernism”

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