Year of Publication
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Arts and Sciences
Dr. Marion Rust
This dissertation argues that early American writers often constructed queer ecologies in order to naturalize Anglo-American civilization and justify its expansion into Native American territories. Since there is so little textual evidence on the subject, the major challenge to studying sexuality in early America is approaching sexuality studies creatively—to broaden both our understanding of what counts as sexual discourse and our frameworks for analyzing it. My dissertation addresses this challenge through what many ecocritical scholars of sexuality call queer ecology. In their groundbreaking anthology on the topic, Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erikson remind us that, historically and in the present, discourses on nature and sex often overlap; as a result, sexual politics has had a distinctly “environmental-spatial dimension” that includes organizing landscapes to produce, promote, and prohibit specific sexual practices and identities. My dissertation contributes to this environmental-spatial study of sexuality by asking what role the rise of natural history in the late colonial and early national periods played in producing our heteronormative national imaginary.
Seminal works by scholars such as John D’Emilio, Clare Lyons, Richard Godbeer, and Thomas Foster have made invaluable contributions to our understanding of sex in early America. Likewise, the scholarship of critics like Susan Scott Parrish, Joyce Chaplin, and Kathleen Brown has illuminated how natural history offered new ways of understanding the material world that were used to produce cultural knowledge and norms. My dissertation fills an important gap between these bodies of scholarship by arguing that natural history discourse in early America produces new sexual politics within which sex and nature are inseparable. This critical recognition allows us to rethink sex in early America beyond explicitly sexual acts alone and to avoid the anachronistic search for homosexual identity by instead reading the sexual import of acts, identities, and perspectives tied to nature. In short, we see that how one thought about, and interacted with, the non-human natural world was an important element of sexual knowledge-production in early America. In this period before the rise of sexuality as an identity, yet when new sexual labels and categories such as fops and mollies circulated in colonial discourse, an inappropriate relationship with nature could, simultaneously, suggest non-heteronormative sexual corruption. To explore this connection, I analyze how eighteenth-century curiosity naturalized Anglo-American culture by casting all other settlements and natural spaces as queer ecologies awaiting white improvement. A sexual politics grounded in natural history helps us to understand how an ironically unnatural heteronormativity became naturalized in the new American nation.
My dissertation contributes to the growing fields of queer ecology and sexuality studies in early America by considering the interwoven roles of natural history, sexuality, gender, race, and class during the late colonial and early national periods. It helps us to understand how heteronormativity became naturalized, literally and figuratively, in our national imaginary—and provides tools for contemporary scholars to interrogate such claims for contemporary social and environmental justice projects.
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Parmer, Richard Lee Jr., "Curious Natures: Constructing Queer Ecologies in Early America" (2020). Theses and Dissertations--English. 120.