On the Record with Peter Coviello
A professor of English at the University of Illinois, Chicago, Peter Coviello specializes in 19th-century American literature and queer studies and formerly served as Chair of the departments of English, Africana Studies and Gay and Lesbian Studies at Bowdoin College. Coviello recently penned Tomorrow’s Parties: Sex and the Untimely in Nineteenth- Century America, which was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award in LGBT Studies and an Honorable Mention for the Alan Bray Memorial Book Prize from the Modern Language Institute’s GL/Q Caucus. His writing has appeared in noted venues including the LA Review of Books, Frieze and The Believer. Coviello chatted with the Review via email about his upcoming talk at Oberlin, titled “The Wild Not Less Than the Good: Thoreau, Sex, Biopower,” his approaches to Walden and what he’s working on next.
What made you think of approaching Walden through the lens of gender and sexuality?
Well, I’m a scholar who specializes in 19th-century American literature and queer theory. I’d just written a book about sex in the 19th century — sex, that is, before categories like “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” had really taken hold — and there I’d found a lot that was intriguing and useful in [Henry David] Thoreau. For a man famous for being priggish and chaste, he thought a lot, and with force and intricacy, about carnality, desire and the relation of these things to capitalism.
How do you bridge those notions of Thoreau’s personality, specifically his preference for solitude and chastity, with sexuality and wildness in your studies?
It’s a good question. My sense is that part of what’s at stake for Thoreau when he immerses himself in the kind of solitude Walden is so famous for describing is a desire to wrench himself — his whole self, his body, its desires — away from the ways of being that the world makes available to him. He doesn’t want a body that’s merely instrumental, turned to use, made a tool for profit — or, for that matter, for reproduction. He’s really, as he says, in love with wildness, and part of what this means is that he wants a way to inhabit his body, to live out carnality, that doesn’t just cede to these other instrumentalizing imaginings of the flesh.
What approach did you take in reading Walden? Do you think there is a “better” way to read Thoreau or, specifically, Walden? And did you refer to other texts by Thoreau or other Transcendentalist thinkers?
I mean, there are great multitude of ways to read Walden, and Thoreau! I’m using him to help ask some questions about this decades-deep critical undertaking called queer theory, since I think his work gives us real purchase on some of the generative impasses we find there right now. So I’ll be talking about a lot of other people, most of them scholars working in queer theory in one way or another, from Michel Foucault and Eve Sedgwick out to Jasbir Puar, José Muñoz, Rod Ferguson and a range of others. As far as other texts from the period: yes. Though I’m mostly talking about [“Higher Laws”] from Walden I end up talking a lot too about some of his essays — one of them is, promisingly, about chastity — and a bit about a book he wrote before Walden, called A Week On the Concord And Merrimack Rivers.
In your studies, did you ever try to follow in Thoreau’s footsteps and spend some time in nature yourself ?
I’ll tell you what I long ago told another interviewer. It’s an answer I learned mostly from reading another 19th-century American writer, Herman Melville. I said to him, when he asked why I so much preferred cities to the country, bars to camping, etc: “My respect for nature is predicated on the harm I know it wishes to do to me.” So, yeah. I like the outdoors as much as any person who would much, much rather be on a subway!
What’s your next project? Did working with Walden and Thoreau influence what you chose to study next?
This talk is really a follow-up to my last book, which was called Tomorrow’s Parties and was about sex in 19th-century America. My next book is about sex and race and religion. It’s about, more precisely, Mormonism! That is, it’s about 19th-century Mormon polygamy and what I call the biopolitics of secularism.
So what’s on the agenda for your talk at Oberlin?
Well, I’ll be talking first about the vexed status of wildness in Walden, and how and why he links it to things you wouldn’t imagine he would — like vegetarianism, hunting, masturbation. And then I’ll be talking about what Thoreau’s tense relation to wildness has to do with some of the recent turns in queer theory, and about how these might help us think our way more exactingly through some knotty contemporary problems, only one of which is the conjoined problem of sex, securitization and sexual violence on campuses.
What do you see as the value of wildness in the context of Walden? What have you taken away from studying it, and what do you hope other readers will gain from it?
Well, I think that the way Thoreau at once reveres wildness and is, in his way, wary of it — not of wildness itself, but of how the world around him wants to capitalize on what is wild in the self — is instructive, in a range of ways. He reminds us that the world is forever making claims on us, often contradictory claims, even on those aspects of ourselves we think are most private, most primal, most our own. This is why I think Thoreau’s thinking about wildness can be especially useful for helping us to see clearly into some of the paradoxes of how we think about sex and sexuality.
Interview by Vida Weisblum, Editor-in-Chief