Trans Literary History
This course is about literary representations of gender variance in the past. Focusing primarily on texts that predate contemporary trans discourse, we will consider how gender norms have historically been constructed and subverted in poems, plays, novels, short stories, fables, and myths. As a class, we will take on the role of literary historians: rather than simply transposing today’s ideas of gender and sex onto the past, we will take up analytic tools from trans and literary studies alike to think about the cultural contexts in which different ideas of gender have emerged. How did medieval writers use gender to explore concepts of nature and nurture, and how do medieval texts anticipate contemporary feminist biology? What can fairies and cross-dressing in Elizabethan drama tell us about understandings of childhood gender in the early modern period? In what settings did myths of gender variance signify prophetic gifts or genius? Why did nineteenth-century writers use androgynous characters to explore themes of same-sex sexuality? And what distinguishes a celebratory representation of trans popular culture from a harmful instrumentalization of trans life in the name of allegory or plot?
In order to approach these questions, we will look at myths and “historical” writings from Mediterranean antiquity, medieval bestiaries and romance, early modern plays and verse, Victorian poetry, nineteenth-century French fiction, modernist texts, and contemporary poetic engagements with lost or unwritten archives. Rather than offering ready-made answers, we will work to interpret literary techniques in each text to describe how they produce meaning: how they construct and deconstruct, undermine and reinvent our understandings of gender.
The primary objective of this course is to further your skills as writers and critical thinkers. Over the course of the semester, you will learn to formulate your own research questions; to develop and revise logical, interesting, and exacting arguments about literary texts; to offer constructive feedback on working drafts; and to engage secondary sources. We will tackle the challenges of writing together, working from particulars in texts through multiple drafts in order to craft compelling literary essays.