April 15, 2009
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a Pioneer of Gay Studies and a Literary Theorist, Dies at 58
By WILLIAM GRIMES
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, whose critical writings on the ambiguities of sexual identity in fiction helped create the discipline known as queer studies, died on Sunday in Manhattan. She was 58.
The cause was breast cancer, her husband, Hal Sedgwick, said.
Ms. Sedgwick broke new ground when, drawing on feminist scholarship and the work of the French poststructuralist Michel Foucault, she began teasing out the hidden socio-sexual subplots in writers like Charles Dickens and Henry James. In a 1983 essay on Dickens’s novel “Our Mutual Friend,” she drew attention to the homoerotic element in the obsessive relationship between Eugene Wrayburn and Bradley Headstone, rivals for the love of Lizzie Hexam but emotionally most fully engaged when facing off against each other.
Several of her essays became lightning rods for critics of poststructuralism, multiculturalism and gay studies — most notoriously “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” a paper delivered at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association in 1989. In it, Ms. Sedgwick argued that Austen’s descriptions of the restless Marianne Dashwood in “Sense and Sensibility” should be understood in relation to contemporary thought on the evils of “self-abuse.”
Such subtexts, she insisted, are woven throughout literary texts, and the job of criticism is to ferret them out, especially the repressed themes of same-sex love.
“It’s about trying to understand different kinds of sexual desire and how the culture defines them,” she told The New York Times in 1998, explaining the function of queer theory. “It’s about how you can’t understand relations between men and women unless you understand the relationship between people of the same gender, including the possibility of a sexual relationship between them.”
Eve Kosofsky was born in Dayton, Ohio, and grew up in Bethesda, Md. After graduating from Cornell with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1971, she earned a master’s and a doctorate in English at Yale. In 1969, she married Hal Sedgwick, who survives her. The relationship struck some readers of Ms. Sedgwick’s work as anomalous: one of the creators of queer theory was straight, although she disliked the term, which ran counter to her notion of sexual orientation as a continuum rather than a category.
In addition to her husband, Ms. Sedgwick is survived by her mother, Rita Kosofsky of Bethesda; a sister, Nina Kopesky of Asheville, N.C.; and a brother, David Kosofsky of New Orleans.
From the late 1970s to the late ’80s, Ms. Sedgwick taught at Hamilton College, Boston University and Amherst while developing a critical approach focusing on hidden social codes and submerged plots in familiar writers. Her essay on “Our Mutual Friend” was included in the influential collection “Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire” (1985).
In 1988, Stanley Fish, who was transforming the English department at Duke University into a center of the new trends in criticism, recruited Ms. Sedgwick to Durham, N.C., where she taught for the next 10 years. While there, she published “Tendencies” (1993), “Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction” (1997) and her best-known work, “Epistemology of the Closet” (1990), which argued that Western culture could be understood only by critically dissecting the socially constructed concepts of homosexuality and heterosexuality.
In 1991, Ms. Sedgwick discovered that she had breast cancer. After treatment, the disease recurred in 1996, and she began turning her critical attention to social definitions of illness. In the book “A Dialogue on Love” (1999), she used conversations with her therapist, whom she saw while she was recovering from the effects of chemotherapy, to address her feelings about death, depression and sexual identity after having a mastectomy.
She moved to New York to be with her husband, a professor of visual perception at the State College of Optometry, and in 1998 began teaching at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
She continued to produce literary and social criticism, notably in the book “Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity” (2003), an attempt to link queer theory to the emotions. At her death, she was working on “Proust and the Little Queer Gods.”
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