Andrew Elfenbein. Romantic Genius: The Prehistory of a Homosexual Role. New York: Columbia UP, 1999. ISBN 0231107536. Price: US$20.50. [Record]

  • Geraldine Friedman

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  • Geraldine Friedman
    Purdue University

Andrew Elfenbein's Romantic Genius: The Prehistory of a Homosexual Role takes for its subject the close association, dating from the late eighteenth century and still operative in some form today, between two seeming dissimilar categories: homosexuality and genius. Never predictable, the study intervenes in many of the most significant debates concerning eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century literature, as well as lesbian, gay, queer, and gender studies, and carves out its own highly original positions in them. In the current critical landscape, it perhaps most goes against the grain by asserting that aesthetics and literature have an irreducible importance to the history of homosexuality. Yet Romantic Genius cannot simply be called a formalist work, as that term is usually understood. More accurately, it historicizes the emergence of aesthetic categories by exploring their implication in a shifting sex/gender system. With its surprising and original claims, Romantic Genius may be said occasionally to stretch a point, but its innovative arguments are always worth reading. The book makes major contributions to the various fields in which it places itself, and scholars working in them will have to take it into account for some time to come. Chapter 1, "The Danger Zone: Effeminates, Geniuses, and Homosexuals," sets out the historical link between the genius and the sodomite on which the rest of the study will draw while also departing from it. Elfenbein approaches this relation neither as a positive fact nor a causal connection, but rather in terms of popular representations, which associate both characters with lawless excess, anti-domesticity, and outsider status. Elfenbein traces these associations and their ambiguous meanings to the competition in the eighteenth century between two discourses on gender: an older one of civic humanism and a newer one of civil humanism. While the former prescribed one correct standard for human character and behavior—manly discipline and self-control, the latter posited two sharply dichotomous and essentialized species of virtue, one for men and the other for women. Both the male and the female genius were caught in the double binds produced by the misogyny of civic humanism and the dichotomousness and homophobia of civil humanism. The association of genius with feminine excess under civic humanism and the question raised by civil humanism of how far gender crossing could go before it went too far meant that the most admirable aspects of genius were "only a hair's breadth from the most despised behavior of the sodomite and sapphist" (27). Much of the interest and strength of Elfenbein's argument lies in the fact that it insists on the fact that there was no consensus as to whether gender crossing was a clue to dissident sexuality or not and does not rely on finding explicit connections between genius and sexual deviance in eighteenth-century treatments, but rather uncovers the suggestive commonalities that surround the male and female genius with "a faint trace of possible scandal [that] only heightened the symbolic value of a work of art and the supposed genius of its creator" (38). Because of its marginal status, genius was the perfect avenue for writers not belonging to the mainstream of the literary system to stake their claims as authors. As outsiders, they wrote from the "innovative margin of the eighteenth-century literary system," producing experimental writing, which included unconventional sex and gender representations as part of a larger claim for authorial status (38). The subsequent chapters consist of studies of Beckford, Cowper, Anne Damer, Anne Bannerman, Blake, and Coleridge, who each in different ways partly adhere to and partly contradict the paradigm of genius set up in chapter one. By treating exceptional ...