Sunday, June 09, 2013

On My Nightstand

Just finished reading Anne Zimmerman's An Extravagant Hunger: The Passionate Years of M.F.K. Fisher (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2011). Fisher was one of the first Americans to write articles and books about food that inspired the culture of food we know today. She created the idea of the food writer and Zimmerman tries to trace her life using her writing and archival details discovered among letters between Fisher, her family and friends. Sadly, Fisher the subject is more interesting than Zimmerman's study which reaches too far, too often. While Fisher wrote about her life and her love of food there are too often silences and gaps in her life that cannot be filed with Zimmerman's interpretation and psychology.  

After finishing Zimmerman's book I began William Benemann's Men in Eden: William Drummond Stewart and same-sex desire in the Rocky Mountain fur trade (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012). Benemann has written a biography of one of those fascinating 19th-century individuals who draw historians to stories. Born to a Scottish noble family he made his way to America and was enthralled by the world of trappers and mountain men on the Rocky Mountain frontiers. Individuals like Stewart are fascinating subjects, but writing about them is tricky. It is too easy to replicate their ideas about frontiers and Native-Americans in popular history. Benemann not only wants to recover Stewart's life but to claim him as a 19th-century homosexual man. As Michel Foucault and Carol Smith-Rosenberg have warned it is always dangerous to read history backwards and to see homosexual culture in periods before homosexual identity developed. 

Benemann while sensitive to his sources wants desperately to see homosexuality and same-sex desire in his biography of Stewart. This makes for enjoyable reading as popular history but forces Benemann to mine his sources in ways that are not always comfortable. There are lots of discussions about dress and deportment as indicators of sexuality, that at times reach too far. At the same time Benemann used Stewart's fiction as sources again for questions that are hard to answer. This allows him to see same-sex desire and a community of individuals engaged in such behaviour everywhere. 

It is a fascinating book, especially Benemann's discussions of the trapper gatherings, but the pace and style of the writing is filled with too many characters that are never fully realized as Benemann tries to make his case for Stewart's sexuality. 

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