Incipit: Reflections on Gender Studies in Our Field


For the next installment of this dialogic series, Rachel Mesch (Yeshiva University) directed a conversation in which four early career scholars, Colin Foss (Austin College), François Proulx (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Jessica Tanner (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), and Raisa Rexer (Vanderbilt University), reflect on the ways in which they address questions surrounding gender and sexuality in their work. They composed their initial essays in advance of the 2019 Nineteenth-Century French Studies colloquium, held in Sarasota, Florida; the ensuing exchange took place in the form of a roundtable discussion at the colloquium and afterwards, in response to the questions raised during the discussion.



This piece re-examines the “loose ends” I never fully tied up while writing my first book on nude photography and literature, The Fallen Veil: A Literary History of the Photographic Nude in Nineteenth-Century France. These loose ends are the anecdotes, articles, and records that forced me to re-examine my own ideas and the historical and scholarly narratives in our field about women and sex, the counter examples and aberrations that challenge approaches focusing on the historical oppression—economic and sexual—of women. Rather than tucking them away, as I did in my book, I unravel these loose ends in order to show how they point to moments of resistance and empowerment within oppressive social structures, and in so doing ask us to reconsider the ways we talk and think about women and sex, then and now. (RR)

For as long as historical and literary studies have been sharing in the task of archival research, the two fields have rightly lamented the lack of diversity in those archives. Meanwhile, both fields have also largely ignored the very sources that might point to a way to find difference where there seems only homogeneity. Often deemed too literary for history and too documentary for literary studies, personal writing—such as diaries, correspondence, and eyewitness accounts—nonetheless engage with the construction and negotiation of gender identity as a cultural and embodied reality. Some historians have even suggested that personal writing suffers from academic neglect because of its “feminine” associations with domesticity and private life. The misreading of these documents can lead to their erasure from our field—and thus the erasure of historical identities—and to the flattening of historical conceptions of gender, sex, and sexuality. (CF)

The model of secrecy and exposure set up in À la recherche du temps perdu (and later theorized by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick) has inflected ways of thinking about and breaking open the “closet” for non-normative sexualities since the publication of Sodome et Gomorrhe I in 1921. Nearly a century later, as archival documents from the turn of the century re-emerge from editorial or familial censorship, our critical methods for apprehending such queer texts need recalibration. If we have been anachronistically reading certain fin-de-siècle archives through a lens that was shaped by Proust’s novel and its twentieth-century reception, what might a different, more germane reading look like? I reflect on this question using a single letter written by Proust in 1905, unpublished and kept out of public view until 2019. (FP)

As a scholar, I have always felt like a bad feminist because I work on male writers. In this essay, I examine the source of this association and explore what it reveals about our approach to gender in nineteenth-century French studies. In some ways, I argue, our field remains attached to the proper logic of second-wave feminism, a paradigm in which the objects we study determine the quality and politics of our work. This logic, which equates politics with referentiality, underlies our turn away from theory and literary analysis toward cultural studies and the archives. If we want to regain an “ideological edge” (Schor), I contend that we must embrace the politics of reading, and the improper logic of literary criticism: a collaborative practice of thinking with literary, critical, and theoretical texts, and thinking together across boundaries of shared objects and subfields. (JT)


Colin Foss, François Proulx, Raisa Rexer, and Jessica Tanner, edited by Rachel Mesch
Volume 48.3–4