A Pioneer in Queer Theory
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's academic writing spoke to actual social concerns| From Obituaries | By Katie Koch
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Hal Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's husband, speaks about her time and legacy at BU. Watch the rest of the memorial symposium Honoring Eve, held October 31, 2009. Photo by David Shankbone
The week that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick died, in April 2009, two eleven-year-old boys, one from Massachusetts and one from Georgia, hanged themselves after being bullied for acting “gay.” To followers of Sedgwick — a controversial academic and author of groundbreaking works like the 1991 essay “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay” — the deaths were both a sad irony and a reminder of the work yet to be done.
Sedgwick, a former College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of English, died on April 12, 2009, at fifty-eight. A founder of queer theory, she drew a loyal following in academia for her ability to combine rigorous textual criticism and progressive ideas about the interplay of sexuality and culture.
“Eve Sedgwick’s work, far from being out-of-touch, was dedicated to supporting different ways of being in the world that would prevent the kind of suffering that led to these tragic suicides,” says Erin Murphy, a CAS assistant professor of English.
Sedgwick taught at BU from 1981 to 1983, a short but fruitful period in which she oversaw the growth of women’s studies at BU, the creation of a women’s writing collective, and the formation of her own groundbreaking ideas about sexuality and gender.
She earned a bachelor’s degree at Cornell University and a master’s and doctorate in English at Yale University. She taught briefly at Hamilton College before arriving at BU as a budding talent in literary criticism.
When Sedgwick came to BU, the Women’s Studies Program was in its infancy; it had no full-time faculty or offices and offered only a minor. Sedgwick agreed to take over the fledgling program, which did not receive full funding until 2001. “She helped to redefine the core courses and tried to put a fire under the support and funding for women’s studies,” says Deborah Swedberg (GRS'78), a CAS lecturer in women’s studies, who worked with Sedgwick.
The writing group that Sedgwick formed at BU still meets today. Called ID 450 — a made-up course number she used to get group handouts printed at the campus copy center — it consisted of roughly a dozen women, ranging from twenty-something graduate students to middle-aged mothers. Many of the members went on to become authors and professors.
“ID 450 was very productive for the individuals involved, and I think all the writing and talking we did was influential in her books,” says Swedberg, an ID 450 alumna.
After leaving BU, Sedgwick worked at Amherst College, Dartmouth College, and the University of California, Berkeley. In 1985, she published Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, a collection of critical essays on the social norms that dictate male bonding in famous works of fiction. The book helped legitimize gay and gender studies as academic disciplines.
“She wasn’t just interested in ferreting out the homosexual subtext” in classic works, says Keith Vincent, a CAS assistant professor of modern languages and comparative literature. “One of her conclusions is a way to look at the world.”
From there, Sedgwick’s fame increased. She joined the English department at Duke University in 1988, when it was a breeding ground for progressive scholars and a focal point for the nascent culture wars over American higher education. Her essay “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” which she delivered at the Modern Language Association annual meeting in 1989, drew unexpectedly intense criticism as going too far in its reading of the sexual subtext in Sense and Sensibility.
“In some ways it ruined her life for a while,” Murphy says. “But she didn’t stop after that exposure.”
In 1990, Sedgwick published Epistemology of the Closet, widely considered a founding text of queer theory. “Instead of looking at these dichotomies” of heterosexual and homosexual,” Vincent says, “she stepped back and looked at the conditions that framed that in the first place.” Although “queer” appeared only twice in the text, the book laid the groundwork for queer theory’s inquiry into how Western society categorizes, or challenges, its ideas about sexuality and gender.
To her admirers, Sedgwick’s academic writing was important because it spoke to actual social concerns. One New York Times book reviewer wrote in 1993, “Sedgwick not only has a witty and engaging style, but an ability to link postmodern concerns to contemporary issues like AIDS, breast cancer, the nature of addictive behavior, and therapists who try to force male children into their proper ‘gender assignment.’”
Yet for all Sedgwick’s ability to incite controversy, her personal life was, from an outsider’s perspective, remarkably ordinary. She and her husband, Hal Sedgwick, were married from 1969 until her death. Although they lived apart for long stretches of time because of work conflicts, Hal loved to sit in on Sedgwick’s classes and “was very close to her queer world,” Vincent says. Although many queer theorists saw heterosexual marriage as the enemy, “it makes sense that she would be married,” he adds. “She questioned what we think we know about what marriage should be.”
In 1991, Sedgwick was diagnosed with breast cancer, a disease she battled on and off for eighteen years. Her struggle with illness produced A Dialogue on Love (1999), a memoir that vividly explores death, loss, depression, and family by mixing poetry, prose, and notes from Sedgwick’s sessions with her therapist.
Sedgwick left Duke in the late 1990s to become a Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, in part, she said at the time, to live closer to her husband after learning her cancer had returned. She taught at CUNY until her death.
In October 2009, the Boston University Junior Faculty Gender & Sexuality Studies Group organized a symposium, Honoring Eve, which brought together more than 200 scholars and students to discuss the future of Sedgwick’s ideas.
“She was an incredibly warm and generous person,” Swedberg says. “She always kept things moving. She just had that fertile of a mind.”