Cather learns to love, and identify, again, and differently, reaching out to Paul across the gulf separating the butch lesbian author from the effeminate boy, in a way which critics such as Judith Butler and Christopher Nealon, as well as Sedgwick, have seen as potentially significant in marking a moment of a historical, as well as an individual’s affective shift, in which recognising a shared gay identity.(10) Away from gender toward sexual object choice.
To consider this realignment is to consider only one aspect of Sedgwick’s essay which contains so many more, including a lovely reading of my favourite Cather novel, The Professor’s House, in its final pages.
Sedgwick wryly points out to us that it is not quite the one you might suspect: “‘Insincerity,’ Cather writes, ‘Art that is artificial and insincere […] for which there is no forgiveness in Heaven, no forgetting in Hell’”.(4) As Sedgwick puts it, “The odd oversight of the framers of the Criminal Law Amendment Act and the 1885 Labouchère Amendment to it, in omitting to include by name the unspeakable crimes of artificiality and insincerity, doesn’t slow Cather a bit in this determined act of redefinition”.(5) According to Sedgwick, Cather repudiates Wilde’s effeminate art of the artificial in order to distinguish it, and him, from herself, and her own sincere, American, butch art, steeped in a prairie realism, resting firmly on a love of the natural.
Yet, as Sedgwick also points out, even as Cather disavows Wilde, she creates a space for some kind of awkward, future recognition of a shared sexual identity, a sort of off-hand, partially redemptive gesture toward the desires and acts which, when compared to the unspeakable aesthete’s sin of artistic artifice, are really not so bad as all that.
As Cather goes on to write: “‘The sins of the body are very small compared with that’”; with artificiality.
Sedgwick continues, in a careful and attentive reading, to show Cather’s apparent change of heart toward Wilde through her rendering of the adolescent, criminal, would-be Wildean aesthete, Paul, in Cather’s own favourite of her short stories, ‘Paul’s Case’ from 1905.
Pamela Thurschwell Department of English, University of Sussex P.
"Paul's Case" is set in Pittsburgh in the early twentieth century, when the city was a major American center for the production of iron, steel, and glass.
They are also keen representations of American identities, and examples of Cather's developing experimentation with narrative form.
These stories are therefore perceptive studies of urban settings.