Like Us: Citing Masculinity in Cold War Poetics
Michael Davidson’s Guys Like Us: Citing Masculinity in Cold War Poetics seeks to re-assess the historiography of the policing of gender roles and its relation to foreign state affairs during the Cold War era in the United States. In this connection, the work can be related to a number of recent historical and cultural studies, such as Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960, edited by Joanne Meyerowitz (1994), Frances Stonor Saunders’s The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (1999) or Thomas Doherty’s Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture (2003), to name but a few. All of these works offer new insights into the variety of discourses subsumed within the official narrative of the so-called “age of consensus.” However, Davidson’s text is innovative in that it analyses the role of postwar countercultural poetry and its adjacent literary criticism in the construction of alternative models of masculinity. In this respect, his study engages two areas of American Cold War culture which had not been studied at length to date: the fluidity of masculine identity and the role of poetry as a site of identity formation.
Davidson, who is professor of American literature at the University of California, San Diego, and author of Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material World, engages the reader with his queer readings of major American poets such as Sylvia Plath or Elizabeth Bishop. His criticism of their poetry is refreshing in that it is historicized and, thus, addresses the social dimension of traits which have traditionally been applied to postwar literature. A good example would be Davidson’s recasting of solipsism in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Insomnia” as “the historical impossibility for a gay person to make […] a declaration [of love]” . Davidson’s rationale for focusing on postwar poetry is clearly stated in the book; he posits that “the questioning of language’s ability to name the unnamable will remain poetry’s special realm” . Therefore, he privileges the poetic genre because he considers it the ideal site to contest ideologies through literature. Consequently, the author explains that the careful reading of poems produced during the Cold War era provides an accurately complex picture of postwar America—a picture which has become blurred by the convenient forgetfulness resulting from a manichean defense of so-called “moral” and, by extension, “democratic” values from the late 1940s to the late 1960s.
Davidson’s compilation of essays includes pieces which originated as conference talks or papers and/or which had been previously published in anthologies or literary magazines. Indeed, the author’s intense and long-term dedication to the study of the representation of masculinity in Cold War poetics is noticeable in that he virtually exhausts all the possible avenues of discussion which the theme lends itself to. Davidson’s treatment of alternative models of masculinity cover: homosociality and homophobia in the Beat Generation, the Black Arts group and the San Francisco milieu; the creation of a queer model of poetic masculinity by literary critics such as F. O. Matthiesen, who opposed the aesthetic criteria of New Criticism; the conflation of blackness and hypermasculine misogyny in the creation of an African-American awareness in the Black Arts movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s; the queer construction of a female masculine persona in the poetry of Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop and Adrienne Rich; the feminization of oriental masculinity and its iconic representation in Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai and, last but not least, the role of cold war ideology in the pedagogy of a certain poetry which was, consequently, canonized. The great variety of topics that Guys Like Us encompasses can, at times, be disconcerting to the reader due to the seemingly loose connections that link the volume’s chapters. Notwithstanding, it is precisely its multiplicity of themes which makes the book a useful reference for anyone interested in particular aspects of postwar masculinity in literature.
Especially informative and innovative are chapters 4 and 6 entitled “ ‘When the world strips down and rouges up’: Redressing Whitman” and “Definitive Haircuts: Female Masculinity in Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath” respectively. The first of these chapters provides a queer reading of Leaves of Grass, foregrounding the many references that Whitman’s poetry makes to cross-dressing and his appropriation of female personae in his writing. Interestingly, this reading only serves the purpose of grounding the use that F. O. Matthiesen made of these gender bending possibilities in Whitman’s texts to create a queer American literary canon in his renowned critical work The American Renaissance (1941). Davidson then goes on to explore how Frank O’Hara appropriated the possibilities such a reading opened for the articulation of homosexual identity in poetry. Thus, Davidson cleverly shows how the crisis in heteronormative masculinity that began in the late nineteenth century in America reverberated well into the twentieth century.
Davidson’s exploration of the representation of female masculinity in Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath is also commendable, not least because it is a topic seldom explored in American literature and virtually ignored in postwar literary studies. As he explains:
Indeed, Davidson foregrounds the silenced elements in both Bishop’s and Plath’s poetry: namely, the depiction of female homosexuality, in the former, and the adoption of a male persona to break free from constrictions enforced on women by domestic ideology, in the latter. In tracing the critical works produced on both writers, the author shows how this silence has been created and institutionalized to serve the purposes of patriarchal heterosexism.
It is worth mentioning that Guys Like Us includes a very pertinent afterword which relates its main purpose to the present-day political situation of the United States. As Davidson implies, postwar studies are usually deemed to be somewhat removed from contemporary concerns. However, as he notes, Cold War discourses of fear, of the vulnerability of democracy, of unity against a common enemy invisible in everyday life, seem to have resurfaced strongly since September 11th. The author explains that the aim of his compilation of essays is to show that “naming becomes increasingly important when pedagogical, juridical, and political systems have the power to redefine and disinform on a massive scale” . Thus, in reclaiming the historical memory of the mechanisms that helped to create a so-called “age of consensus” after the Second World War in the United States, he shows how the postwar era is not as alien to us as it might seem.