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Queering the Underworld

Slumming, Literature, and the Undoing of Lesbian and Gay History

Queering the Underworld

Slumming, Literature, and the Undoing of Lesbian and Gay History

At the start of the twentieth century, tales of “how the other half lives” experienced a surge in popularity. People looking to go slumming without leaving home turned to these narratives for spectacular revelations of the underworld and sordid details about the deviants who populated it.

In this major rethinking of American literature and culture, Scott Herring explores how a key group of authors manipulated this genre to paradoxically evade the confines of sexual identification. Queering the Underworld examines a range of writers, from Jane Addams and Willa Cather to Carl Van Vechten and Djuna Barnes, revealing how they fulfilled the conventions of slumming literature but undermined its goals, and in the process, queered the genre itself. Their work frustrated the reader’s desire for sexual knowledge, restored the inscrutability of sexual identity, and cast doubt on the value of a homosexual subculture made visible and therefore subject to official control.

Herring is persuasive and polemical in connecting these writers to ongoing debates about lesbian and gay history and politics, and Queering the Underworld will be widely read by students and scholars of literature, history, and sexuality.

272 pages | 13 halftones, 1 line drawing | 6 x 9 | © 2007

Black Studies

Gay and Lesbian Studies

Gender and Sexuality

History: American History

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature

Sociology: Race, Ethnic, and Minority Relations, Urban and Rural Sociology


“Why read slumming narratives if not to get the lowdown on low life? With brilliant perversity, Scott Herring celebrates a group of American writers—among them, Willa Cather, Jane Addams, and Djuna Barnes—who remystified what slumming literature had appeared to demystify, thereby undermining the genre’s promise of subcultural legibility. In this original and important work of cultural history, Herring makes a very timely argument for what he calls ‘sexual unknowing’—an argument, essentially, for saving our underworlds by renouncing our fierce and destructive desire to reduce them to objects of knowledge.”

Leo Bersani, University of California, Berkeley

“Scott Herring’s bravely searching book deserves wide and careful attention. At once a compelling account of modern U.S. slumming literatures and a persuasive polemical intervention in contemporary queer studies, Queering the Underworld is original in conception, efficient in execution, and consistently engaging.”

Christopher Looby, University of California, Los Angeles

“Beautifully written and boldly argued, Queering the Underworld makes an invigorating contribution to the fields of American studies and queer studies. In agile readings of varied sources, Herring not only resituates ‘slumming’ as a genre that could sometimes jam the signals of sexual modernity in the U.S., but also demonstrates the larger stakes of an unflinchingly queer approach to the history of sexuality.”

Siobhan Somerville, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

"Powerfully researched, passionately argued and often beautifully written. . . . Herring is scrupulous—and excellent—in setting his chosen texts in dialogue with each other, with the historical forces that produced them."—Denis Flannery, Times Higher Education

Denis Flannery | Times Higher Education

"In this original, accessible, and important work of US cultural history, Herring contributes to scholarship on the anomalous position of slumming literature (sordid narratives about the underworld and its bizarre inhabitants) in the early 20th century."


"This sprightly, informative book does a rare thing: it covers entirely new territory in gay literary studies. . . . A fine, compelling, and original work."

Richard Canning | Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide

“Scott Herring’s Queering the Underworld stages a different departure from identity, whose strength is not its subtlety but its bravado—offering, perhaps, the most original conceptual account of queer identity since Epistemology of the Closet.”

Jordan Alexander Stein | American Literature

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction: Queer Slumming
   Underworld Unknowing
   The Hermeneutics of Sexual Suspicion
   The Suspicion of Sexual Hermeneutics
   Rotten Politics

Chapter One Terra Incognita: Jane Addams, Philanthropic Slumming, and the Elusive Identity of Hull-House
   Disappearing Acts
   Spinster Panic
   Queered Cosmopolitanism
   Twenty Years in Cedarville
   The Limbo of Forgotten Spectators

Chapter Two Willa Cather’s Experiment in Luxury
   Cather’s Case History
   In the Company of Tramps
   Decadent Movements
   The Miseries of Pittsburgh
   Fairy Worlds
   Slumming on Park Avenue
   Capitalism and the Erasure of Gay Identity

Chapter Three “Slightly Known Territory”: Renaissance Admixture and the So-Called Van Vechten School
   A Caucasian Storms Harlem
   The Signifying Slummer
   Parties and Mixers
   Friendship beyond Understanding
   Nugent’s Shtick
   “Just a Case of Mixed Signs”

Chapter Four Antisapphic Modernism
   Les mystères de Djuna Barnes
   Looking for Bohemia
   Stephen Gordon’s Slumming Tour
   Lost in transition
   Watchman, What of the Night?
   Hidden from History
   The Obscure Life

Epilogue: Secrets of the African-American Bisexual Man; or, Double Lives on the Down Low
   Straight Outta Compton
   Never Apologize, Never Explain
   Beyond Subcultural Studies: A Manifesto

Works Cited

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