The John Boswell Prize recognizes an outstanding book on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, transsexual, and/or queer history published in English. It is awarded in odd-numbered years, covering books published in the previous two years.
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Allan Bérubé, John D’Emilio, and Estelle Freedman, My Desire for History: Essays in Gay, Community, & Labor History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011)
My Desire for History elegantly surveys the pioneering work of the late Allan Bérubé and makes clear his genius as a public historian. The essays themselves—part history, part memoir—are wide-ranging, accessible, and powerful, and include several selections from Bérubé’s unpublished manuscript on the history of the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union. Taken together, the pieces offer not only a retrospective of where the field has been, but an agenda for the future in terms of bringing race and class more centrally into LGBT history. D’Emilio and Freedman’s skillful introduction situates Bérubé’s journey within a broader story about the origins of LGBT history in community history projects. It is a moving reminder of the generosity and interdependence that have sustained this field from its earliest days.
Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009)
Canaday’s stunning analysis of the U.S. state during the twentieth century carves out a bold new place for sexuality at the center of political and legal history. Through a compelling series of case studies, The Straight State tells a story about the bureaucratic regulation of sexual and civic identities that are made problematic through their interaction with state actors and processes. Canaday’s insights about how federal power made homosexuality increasingly visible over time are sure to inspire fresh directions in work not only in GLBT history, but on citizenship and state-formation in history and beyond. This is a truly original book.
In Criminal Intimacy, Regina Kunzel combines cultural, social, and intellectual history to produce a work of grand scope and great originality. Through a careful and finely textured analysis of the writings of prison officials, inmates, reformers, and academic investigators, Kunzel places the prison right in the middle of the history of sexuality in the United States. She argues convincingly that attention to sexual relationships in prison dramatically complicates any simple straight-line theories about the historical evolution of sexual identities. And she suggests that the prison is a good place to look if one wants to understand the tensions, anxieties, and contradictions that have swirled around sex across the last century or more.
In this rich and densely researched book, Meeker explores how young women and men learned more about their homosexuality, particularly if they were living in small and isolated places where gays and lesbians were not openly visible or apparent. He argues that three innovations in communication helped individuals to see themselves as members of larger sexual communities: the rise of a homophile movement in the 1950s, broad public interest in homosexuality created by the media in the late 1950′s and early 1960s, and the emergence of gay and lesbian self-published guides, gossip sheets, and magazines that circulated broadly and help forge a sense of large community and eventually of its political possibilities. In sum, this book marvelously charts the connections among desire, identity, and community.
A landmark study in queer history, Jens Rydström’s Sinners and Citizens contributes countless new insights to the field, illuminating distinctive sexualities in Scandinavia, examining rural along with urban phenomena, and bringing a needed focus to sexual practices, in addition to sexual identities and cultures. It reminds us that, for hundreds of years, same-sex sexuality and bestiality were a conceptually linked pair, two closely related kinds of unnatural intercourse. Elegantly written, the book argues a principal historical transformation, from a rural penetrative sodomy paradigm to an urban masturbatory homosexual paradigm, dating roughly from the 1920s and 1930s. Rigorously researched, Sinners and Citizens mines government reports, the daily press, scientific journals, forensic psychiatric statements, mental hospital records, church periodicals, and sex reform movement literature, as well as questionnaires from 286 informants born before 1945. Forming the core of the study, the author has unearthed 2,333 court cases of bestiality and same-sex sexuality from Sweden’s eight provincial archives and 84 of its 96 district courts – a massive achievement. With great care and sober reasoning, the multi-lingual Rydström has detected important patterns in the evolution of modern sexuality, while he has delicately narrated lives hitherto beyond the pale of academic inquiry. His book is model of scholarly innovation and daring.
Honorable mention: Nadine Hubbs, The Queer Composition of America’s Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music, and National Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004)
Nadine Hubbs has written a powerful transdisciplinary study of the creation of modernist American music and its genesis in queer culture in the mid twentieth century, entitled The Queer Composition of America’s Sound. Much more than a “great queers in history” project, Hubbs’s study theorizes queer, national, and musical identity and demonstrates the Thomson-Copland circle’s connections to and genealogy with Paris, the continent, and both lesbian and gay culture at the time. Hubbs analyzes Virgil Thomson’s and Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) and its “queer theology,” what “being musical” meant in the 40s and 50s, and the significance of the difference between tonal and atonal music. Supporting her arguments with archival personal letters, music manuscripts, and theory, Hubbs elegantly structures her work around musical tropes–Intermezzo, Coda, Reprise—as she teaches us about music composition, identity, history, and “the sexuality of culture.”
Laura Doan, Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture (Columbia University Press, 2001)
Each was excellent in its own right; together they made for interesting parallels and contrasts. In one case a historian relied on sources normally used by literary scholars; in the other, a literary scholar plunged into the kind of documents historians customarily work with. In Love Stories, Katz spans a whole century; in Fashioning Sapphism, Doan zooms into a key moment in English history. Katz explores a topic badly understudied by historians and throws light on a neglected aspect of history; Doan steps into a much-investigated episode and offers a provocative revisionist view of Radclyffe Hall and The Well of Loneliness. Together these books demonstrate the value of a history grounded in meticulous research, careful sifting of evidence, and the imaginative reading of sources.
Sapphic Slashers examines the 1892 trial of Alice Mitchell in Memphis, Tennessee, for the murder of her lover, Freda Ward. Duggan sets the trial in the social, intellectual, and cultural context of the period, connecting the emergence of American modernity to the appearance of the lesbian as subject in both the popular press and the medical literature of the time. Duggan juxtaposes the “lesbian love murder” narrative with the contemporaneous narrative of lynching in order to interrogate the overlapping categories of race, gender, and sexuality. The result is a creative, original, and fascinating work based on solid empirical research and informed by queer theory.
Honorable mention: Gregory M. Pflugfelder, Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600-1950 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999)
Mark Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)
Richard C. Trexler, Sex and Conquest: Gendered Violence, Political Order, and the European Conquest of the Americas (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995)
George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (New York: Basic, 1994)