“Sentimental Origins: Queer Friendship and the Bildungsroman”

By Kristen Proehl

Over the past fifteen years, my research in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature has been deeply invested in representations of the tomboy figure and, more broadly, queer childhood. In this blog entry, I endeavor to offer some insight into how my earlier research, which was also grounded in nineteenth-century sentimental studies and led to my first book project, Battling Girlhood: Sympathy, Social Justice, and the Tomboy Figure in American Literature, continues to shape and inform my current research projects.

In 2013, I published a short article, titled “Sympathetic Alliances: Tomboys, ‘Sissy’ Boys and Queer Friendship in The Member of the Wedding and To Kill a Mockingbird,” in a special issue on “Carson McCullers and Influence” in ANQ. This article, derived from my dissertation research, explores how nineteenth-century literary conventions shaped what Michelle Ann Abate has termed the “tomboy/sissy dyad” (xvii) of the tomboy narrative tradition. From Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868) to McCullers’s and Lee’s iconic twentieth-century bildungsromans, tomboy narratives frequently portray friendships between gender nonconforming girl and boy characters. Although this article focuses on twentieth-century representations of the tomboy figure, it nevertheless demonstrates the extent to which nineteenth-century sentimental conventions continue to shape the tomboy figure’s development and her relationships with others.

Queer friendships are clearly present in earlier, classic, nineteenth-century tomboy narratives, such as Little Women, and have been the subject of substantial scholarly attention (albeit often under the guise of different terminology). As many have noted, Jo March and her affluent neighbor, Laurie Laurence, are not only friends but also comic foils who repeatedly highlight one another’s gender nonconformity. Jo’s tempestuous outbursts, longing to serve on the Civil War battlefront, and authorial ambitions all work to subvert gender expectations for young women; likewise, Laurie’s passion for art and music, as well as his comfort in the company of young women, challenge gender norms for adolescent boys, a topic aptly discussed by literary scholar Ken Parille. Laurie’s feelings for Jo, which may have always hovered between romantic and platonic love, evolve into decidedly romantic feelings over the course of the novel. Jo’s expressed feelings for Laurie, however, remain platonic or even familial. Jo’s and Laurie’s divergent experiences of friendship create a sense of crisis that seems to only further catalyze their eventual conformity to gender and sexual expectations.

Initially, given the importance of gender nonconforming friendships for the tomboy figure, I imagined that the subject of queer friendship would play a substantial role in Battling Girlhood. While I do address this subject in my first book, it has ultimately become the focus of my second book project. Indeed, one of the key questions that drives my research for the second book project is: why are queer friendships, including many that feature tomboy protagonists, so often at the center of coming-of-age narratives? Like Battling Girlhood, Queer Friendship in Young Adult Literature follows an historical trajectory from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. It also explores the role that nineteenth-century sentimental conventions played—and continue to play—in literary representations of queer friendships. But I also explore a variety of other cultural influences, as sentimental conventions prove to be a significant, though certainly not the only, determining force in the formation of queer friendship. Moreover, although Queer Friendship examines the “tomboy/sissy” dyad, it also considers a host of other relationship formations. I explore, for example, same-gender friendships that trouble the boundaries of romantic and platonic love, including ones that literary scholars, such as Lillian Faderman, have termed “romantic friendships.” Furthermore, I consider relationships that might be considered queer by virtue of the ways in which they traverse differences in race, age, class, and other categories of social identity.  

Indeed, as early Americanist Ivy Schweitzer’s work on the subject reveals, friendship was considered one of the highest forms of love in the classical era. She notes that since the Romantic period the cultural construct of friendship has been “increasingly feminized, privatized, and removed from the public sphere of…democratic politics” (10). The devaluation of friendship, then, in relation to other forms of relationships, is a comparatively modern development. In recent decades, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Schweitzer, and others have revealed how friendship may disrupt binary understandings of gender and sexuality, as well as hierarchies of social identity. Queer Friendship takes seriously Derrida’s claim that friendship is never outside of the realm of politics and is, in fact, vital to structures of democracy and political community. Through close analysis of texts ranging from The Wide, Wide World to The Color Purple, I reveal how queer friendships challenge the devaluation of platonic relationships in contrast to romantic, familial, and/or biological relationships. Queer friendships, I argue, are a pervasive convention of YA literature and play a crucial role in many adolescent protagonists’ understanding of their identities and relation to the world.

In the opening chapters of Queer Friendship, I examine how the long nineteenth century might be considered a staging ground of sorts for queer friendship. The first chapter builds upon an extensive body of earlier scholarship that explores how the turn-of-the-century school story created a landscape for representations of highly intimate, erotic friendships. I focus especially upon E.M. Forster’s posthumously published novel, Maurice, which explores the intersections of boyhood friendship, love, and coming of age in the context of the British school story. Chapter 2 builds upon research that I first published as an essay in Saving the World: Girlhood and Evangelicalism in Nineteenth-Century Literature, edited by Allison Giffen and Robin L. Cadwallader. In this earlier work, I explore the confluences of sentimentalism and evangelical Christianity and how they shape representations of friendship between the girl characters of The Wide, Wide World and Anne of Green Gables. As I extend this research into twentieth- and twenty-first century YA fiction, I argue that queer friendships continue to challenge modern cultural trends that tend to devalue friendships in relation to romantic, familial, and biological relationships. My project, ultimately, offers new insights into how the bildungsroman configures childhood and adolescence as liminal periods of development that allow for friendship’s radical possibilities.

Works Cited

Abate, Michelle Ann. Tomboys: A Literary and Cultural History. Temple University Press, 2008.

Alcott, Louisa.  Little Women: Or, Meg, Jo Beth and Amy, edited by Anne Phillips and Gregory Eiselein. Norton Critical Editions. Norton and Company, 2004.        

Derrida, Jacques. The Politics of Friendship. Translated by George Collins, Verso, 2006.

Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to Present. Harper PB, 2001.

Foucault, Michel.  “Friendship as a Way of Life.”  The Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984, vol. 1. Subjectivity and Truth, edited by Paul Rabinow. New Press, 2006.

Parille, Ken. “Wake up and Be a Man.” Children’s Literature, vol. 29, no. 1, 2001, pp. 34-51.

Proehl, Kristen. Battling Girlhood: Sympathy, Social Justice, and the Tomboy Figure in American Literature. Routledge, 2018.

—. “Sympathetic Alliances: Tomboys, Sissy Boys, and Queer Friendship in The Member of the Wedding and To Kill a Mockingbird.” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews, vol. 26, no. 2, 2013, pp. 128-33.

—. “love of kindred spirits: Queer Friendship and the Evangelical Bildungsroman from The Wide, Wide World to Anne of Green Gables.” Saving the World: Girlhood and Evangelicalism in Nineteenth-Century Literature, edited by Allison Giffen and Robin L. Cadwallader, Routledge, 2018, pp. 171-187.

Schweitzer, Ivy. Perfecting Friendship: Politics and Affiliation in Early American Literature. The University of North Carolina P, 2006.

Kristen Proehl is an associate professor of English at SUNY-Brockport, where she teaches courses in American, children’s, and young adult literature. She has published
Battling Girlhood: Sympathy, Social Justice, and the Tomboy Figure in American Literature (Routledge, 2018) and a variety of other articles and essays on the works of Carson McCullers and Louisa May Alcott, among others. She is currently at work on a second project, Queer Friendship in Young Adult Literature.


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