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Abstract

This dissertation examines one aspect of the representation of queer white masculinity in the Southern novel between 1936 and 1970, which I argue revolves around the disciplinary notion of honor. What I call "queer honor" refers to a specific genre of tragic literary narrative that mobilizes homophobic-homoerotic relations of proto-fascist power between Southern men in predominantly or exclusively white male homosocial spaces. The first line of inquiry in this project is historical -- how and why did historical ideas about honor come to impact the aesthetic development of representations of white masculinity in the Southern novel of this period? Southern historians have conventionally argued that by the mid twentieth-century, honor was no longer a prime animating force in Southern life, a fact that seems to be undermined by the intense, even obsessive investments in honor that the authors under consideration in this project display. The novels here by William Faulkner, Julien Green, and James Dickey are all both inward looking and backward looking, reflecting a pervasive and even solipsistic interest in white masculinity and white male homosociality. These impulses engage not only the inward-looking regional history of the American South, but also a deep history of queer iconography yoking same-sex desire to physical violence, dating back to the ancient world. I begin by asking why figurative descriptions and thematic examinations of honor emerged in the Southern literature of the 1930s, and why they paradoxically reveal queer relations of power and desire between white Southern men. I argue this pattern of queer relations take the form of particular type of authoritarian homophobic-homoeroticism. Honor, which in these novels is often exposed to be a performative veneer of itself, or merely a series of ritual motions, tends to turn men away from domestic responsibility, heterosexuality, and the law, even as it nominally reinforces commitments to these normative sociopolitical structures. It also instills in men a fear of other men, paranoia about being perceived as men, and the intensification of male masculinity into competitive hyper-masculinity. The second question is methodological. How ought one read and critique the literary representations of queer white masculinity in the Southern archive of this period? Theorizing queer Southern white male sexuality poses a specific problem, I argue, within the field of anti-relational queer theory. Although many scholars have formulated "shame" to be the crucible from which queerness emerges, Southern historians like W. J. Cash and writers like Faulkner take "honor" to be the motivating complex or sensibility around which all white Southern masculinity develops. My project examines what happens when these two notions -- shame and honor -- converge on the site of the queer white Southern male body in the literature and history of the American South. The third question is about form, genre, and aesthetics. How does the obsession with honor produce a unique strain of narrative within the form of the novel, and within the genre of Southern Gothic literature? I argue that the phenomenon of queer honor reveals a violent, homophobic, even white supremacist genre that summons its thematic reserves of Gothic horror from the very gestures of authority, subjugation, and violence that have historically repressed queer, non-gender-conforming, and non-white American citizens. This tendency anticipates postwar traditions of gay male representation and iconography, as well as historically queer canons of literature and art. What binds this aesthetic tradition together across ancient and modern history are fascinations with hyper-masculinity, sadomasochism, and exclusively male homosocial domains, as well as an investment in the idea of queer male desire as an inherently warlike or martial phenomenon. The last question is about culture and politics. How might one use the concept of queer honor to study the homophobic-homoerotic relations of power in American political and cultural life more broadly? In the introduction and coda, I suggest that queer honor is a phenomenon that can be said to apply to any hyper-masculine domain of culture and politics where presumably heterosexual white men are interested exclusively in the company of other presumably heterosexual white men, and cite Tony Kushner's dramatization of Roy Cohn as the most exemplary representation of this cultural phenomenon in the period of American literature after which my project ends.

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