Tomorrow's Parties

Sex and the Untimely in Nineteenth-Century America

265 pages

April, 2013

ISBN: 9780814717417

$26

Paper

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Author

Peter Coviello is Professor of English at Bowdoin College, where he specializes in nineteenth-century American literature and queer studies, and where he has served as Chair of the departments of English, Africana Studies, and Gay and Lesbian Studies. He is the editor of Walt Whitman’s Memoranda During the War, and author of Intimacy in America: Dreams of Affiliation in Antebellum Literature.

All books by Peter M. Coviello

Finalist for the 2013 LAMBDA LGBT Studies Book Award

In nineteenth-century America—before the scandalous trial of Oscar Wilde, before the public emergence of categories like homo- and heterosexuality—what were the parameters of sex? Did people characterize their sexuality as a set of bodily practices, a form of identification, or a mode of relation? Was it even something an individual could be said to possess? What could be counted as sexuality?
 
Tomorrow’s Parties: Sex and the Untimely in Nineteenth-Century America provides a rich new conceptual language to describe the movements of sex in the period before it solidified into the sexuality we know, or think we know. Taking up authors whose places in the American history of sexuality range from the canonical to the improbable—from Whitman, Melville, Thoreau, and James to Dickinson, Sarah Orne Jewett, Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, and Mormon founder Joseph Smith—Peter Coviello delineates the varied forms sex could take in the lead-up to its captivation by the codings of “modern” sexuality. While telling the story of nineteenth-century American sexuality, he considers what might have been lostin the ascension of these new taxonomies of sex: all the extravagant, untimely ways of imagining the domain of sex that, under the modern regime of sexuality, have sunken into muteness or illegibility. Taking queer theorizations of temporality in challenging new directions, Tomorrow’s Parties assembles an archive of broken-off, uncreated futures—futures that would not come to be.  Through them, Coviello fundamentally reorients our readings of erotic being and erotic possibility in the literature of nineteenth-century America.

Reviews

  • "Dazzling intelligence radiates here, out from sentences giving such pleasure,yielding the finest devotion I’ve seen to literature’s own theoretical force. Coviello listens, carefully, brilliantly, for the flickerings, the liquid meanderings, all too easily explained as “sexual”—or never even perceived at all. Here is a critic as joyful as Whitman, with his dark core fully afire."

    —Kathryn Bond Stockton, University of Utah

  • "In Intimacy in America: Dreams of Affiliation in Antebellum Literature, Coviello (Bowdoin College) offered a rereading of canonical 19th-century authors, focused on the problematic role that race played in constructing a sense of Americanness. Coviello returns with an even more ambitious reexamination of 19th century literature, focused on exploring what counted as sexuality during this period. Considering works by Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Henry James, Sarah Orne Jewett, Emily Dickinson, and Frederick Douglass, and writing by Mormon founder Joseph Smith, Coviello aims to disrupt views of the 19th century as primarily anticipating the development of modern taxonomies of sexuality. Instead, he examines 'errant possibilities for imagining sex that have sunk into kind of muteness with the advent of modern sexuality.' Coviello explicates texts and passages in which sexuality is represented as distinctly different from the modern regime of sexual specification, whether it is Thoreau's descriptions of 'exquisite carnal ravishment by sound' or Smith's attempt to pursue 'enlargement' via plural marriage. This book breaks new ground in theorizations of temporality for those working in queer theory, gender studies, and 19th century literature."  

    Choice

  • "Set free from the confines of the contemporary meaning of sexuality, Coviello roves among the literature of the 1840s through the dawn of the twentieth century to unearth a variety of forms that sex took before, and aslant of, the debut of “modern” sexual discourse in the United States during the Oscar Wilde trials of 1895...Coviello analyzes private letters, journal entries, and published works of fiction, poetry, and prose from Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Henry James and others to demonstrate how modes of nineteenth-century affiliation were both gradually accumulating in ways that would soon materialize as sexuality and dispersing from the realm of the sexual altogether...Coviello makes a significant contribution to the study of gender and sexuality more broadly, which has struggled with questions of periodization and naming for decades."

    —Kyla Schuller, GLQ

  • "Succeeds at expanding the analytic vocabulary for describing intimate experience in the nineteenth century. Coviello’s efforts to track the shifting meanings of time and sex will undoubtedly appeal to those with an interest in temporality, and anyone with an interest in Thoreau, Whitman, Dickinson and the other subjects will appreciate Coviello’s careful yet imaginative readings." 

    Lambda Literary

  • “Coviello combines historical analysis and contemporary interpretation of former famous works—queer reading as we call it today.  Coviello always mentions his main problem: it would be impolite and incorrect to apply modern sexualities to the Victorian era.  In the gay movement, Walt Whitman had been renamed as a gay writer—Coviello emphasizes, ‘gay’ hadn’t existed in Whitman’s days.  So Coviello is far from easy deconstructivism.  He takes readers on a 200-page journey into nineteenth-century livelihood.  Modern theorists may assist in social analysis, but Coviello never misuses them for explanations of the past. […] Coviello’s book is worth reading.  He offers great description and interpretation of literary sexual discourse in 19th century America.”

    Sexuality and Culture