The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

General Topics Feature | Pregnancy in Faulkner's Artist Novels:  Masculinity, Sexology, and Creativity in Interwar America

Aimee Armande Wilson
University of Kansas

The ways in which artistic creation is and is not like procreation, especially when informed by discourses of masculinity, was a sustained interest of William Faulkner’s. This interest appears most notably in his artist novels, Mosquitoes (1927) and If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (also known as The Wild Palms, 1939). Reading these novels through the lens of inversion, a sexological concept thought to explain same-sex attraction, reveals unconscious eruptions of queer knowledge in the midst of the novels’ heteronormative narratives. At the same time, this reading affords a nuanced picture of sexuality and reproduction as they were theorized between the wars, and illuminates Faulkner’s use of reproductive rhetoric to police the boundaries of “authentic” art.

Keywords: inversion / William Faulkner / sexology / pregnancy / masculinity / artist novel


In 1934, William Faulkner was struggling to write the book that would become Absalom! Absalom! (1936).1 He chalked up his difficulties to the book’s incomplete gestation, stating, “I believe that the book is not quite ripe yet; that I have not gone my nine months, you might say” (Selected 83–84). Faulkner links pregnancy with male creativity by implying that Absalom gestated in the body of a male author, a notion in line with his perception of writing as a feminizing pursuit. For this is an author who claimed that “‘art’ was really no manly business” but rather “a polite painting of china by gentlewomen” (Selected 216). Faulkner was intensely anxious about his self-perceived femininity; as Frann Michel states, he “fabricated an increasingly elaborate set of lies about his military service” in order to prop up his flagging sense of masculinity (7). The ways in which artistic creation is and is not like procreation, especially when informed by discourses of masculinity, was a sustained interest of Faulkner’s. This interest appears both before and after the publication of Absalom, most notably in his artist novels, Mosquitoes (1927) and If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (also known as The Wild Palms, 1939). 

The artist novels draw upon a theory that shaped interwar understandings of gender and sexuality: the theory of inversion as an explanation for same-sex desire. The term “inversion,” in its broadest sense, denotes “a reversal of position, orders, sequence, or relation” (“inversion”). Sexologists yoked this term to what we today think of as gender, sex, and sexuality. The result was a corpus of ideas based implicitly on the binaries of male/female, masculine/feminine, attracted to women/attracted to men, even as these theorists were, in other ways, developing more fluid and flexible notions of embodiment. In the zero-sum accounting of inversion, a gain in one place results in a loss elsewhere; if masculinity is the inverse of femininity, for example, any loss of masculinity equates to an increase in femininity. Because Mosquitoes and Jerusalem both draw on the theory of inversion, but do so at either end of a dramatic shift in cultural norms of masculinity caused by the Great Depression, Faulkner’s artist novels are a particularly rich vein for considering sexuality and gender in the interwar period. 

Critics generally agree that these novels are aesthetically unsuccessful and misogynistic, and I do not disagree with these readings. Of Jerusalem, for instance, Cynthia Dobbs demonstrates that the pregnant female body symbolizes “monstrous fluidity” and “malevolent nature” (821). Of Mosquitoes, Ted Atkinson echoes other critics’ assessment of it as a poorly executed novel of ideas: “Typical of this genre, Mosquitoes contains repeated digressions that seem to serve no further purpose than allowing a budding novelist to work through thoughts on various topics of interest” (3).2 Nevertheless, Atkinson also argues for the value derived from studying the novel in light of changing attitudes about the role of art and the artist in the 1920s. Doing so, he states, “reveals Mosquitoes as a text of remarkable foresight in relation to the turbulent cultural politics starting to take shape” (4). In a similar spirit (though focused on a different aspect of cultural politics), I argue that reading Faulkner’s artist novels through the lens of inversion reveals unconscious eruptions of queer knowledge. Such a reading provides a nuanced picture of gender and sexuality as they were theorized between the wars, and illustrates how reproductive rhetoric can be used to police the boundaries of “authentic” art. 

This reading brings us, on one hand, to familiar terrain: Mosquitoes and Jerusalem position women as inferior, inauthentic artists because procreation—not artistic creation—is supposedly their natural pursuit. Mosquitoes, especially, implies women evolved for procreation, while men evolved for artistic creation. Other interwar artists invoked the language and tropes of pregnancy to make similar comments about gender and art, though Faulkner’s novels employ an uncommon tactic to make this point. In the interwar period, of course, female authors increasingly gained power and prominence in literature. The works of many male artists manifest anxiety over the need to compete with female authors. Some of these works elide the female body and metaphorically re-make pregnancy into a male experience, thereby attempting to co-opt women’s creative faculties. One of the most familiar examples of this strategy is Ezra Pound’s description of T.S. Eliot as a parturient poet giving birth to The Waste Land’s verses, claiming “A Man their Mother was” in the poem “SAGE HOMME.” 3 Conversely, Faulkner’s use of the discourse of inversion foregrounds the female body, suggesting that the ability to get pregnant is the very thing that makes women inferior artists. The means may be different but the end is the same: female artistic and biological creations are inferior to male ones. 

On the other hand, my argument takes us to unexpected territory precisely because Mosquitoes and Jerusalem foreground the female body. Jamie Harker argues that Faulkner’s novels are full of “eruptions of alternative knowledge and communities” (117). These eruptions—surprising implications that become apparent by reading against the grain—emerge in the midst of the main narrative and, Harker states, “threaten to undo the mainstream voice of Southern patriarchy. Attention to these counter-narratives rescues Faulkner from his own planter class pretensions and outs the queer heart of his narrative genius” (117). I borrow Harker’s concept of eruptions for my reading of Mosquitoes and Jerusalem, novels in which eruptions tend to occur in connection with depictions of the female body. Significantly, the bodies are those of women whose gender presentation is masculine; in other words, women who would have been considered inverted. Eruptions occasioned by the bodies of inverted women unsettle Faulkner’s main narratives, making his claims of male artistic superiority less convincing and introducing queer knowledge. The main narratives in both artist novels imply that authentic art is the province of men and reproduction the province of women. However, reading against the grain reveals counter-narratives suggesting that art—the male version of creation—is not as civilized, refined, and evolved as it is depicted to be, and that gender non-conforming women can be successful, productive artists. Finally, the counter-narratives imply that hegemonic masculinity is psychologically harmful to men themselves. I am not arguing that Faulkner consciously or deliberately wrote these eruptions into the text. Rather, he was such an astute observer of humanity that he created characters whose behaviors undermine the main narratives’ implication that male creative faculties are superior to female ones. And Faulkner did not edit out these queer characters and behaviors. Their presence allows us to better understand the prevailing theory of sexuality and gender in the interwar period, as well as the implications of the theory of inversion for a gendered understanding of creative production.


Gender and Sexuality in Interwar America

Even if we resist the biological essentialism that haunts conversations about reproduction, we cannot escape the fact that gender differences are real in sociopolitical terms. These gender differences affect how writers, characters, and readers interact with discourses of reproduction. As Joanna Bourke puts it, “Anatomy may not be destiny, but the belief that it is moulds most lives” (11). Further, the terms “masculinity” and “femininity” carry social meaning, even when “masculinity” is divorced from the male body, as Jack Halberstam so persuasively demonstrates in Female Masculinity. In this essay, references to “men” indicate characters and artists who identify that way, and by masculinity, I mean traits that the original reading audience would have understood as masculine. My use of “women” and “femininity” corresponds. 

John Duvall and others have shown that Faulkner was well-read in sexology and wrote characters who voice or are motivated by its theories.4 Sexology is a discipline concerned with “sexual behaviors, identities, and relations” that emerged in Western modernity in the last decades of the nineteenth century (Bland and Doan 1). The term “inversion,” when employed in the context of sexology, is often thought to be a synonym for homosexuality, but George Chauncey has demonstrated that the term was more capacious, especially in the early years of the discipline. Many behaviors in addition to homosexuality could result in being labeled “inverted.”5 John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman explain that many of the early sexologists who studied same-sex attraction “tended to define it not as homosexuality, but as ‘sexual inversion,’ a complete exchange of gender identity of which erotic behavior was but one small part” (226). In the logic of inversion, Chauncey notes, “a woman could not invert any aspect of her gender role without inverting her complete role” (121). 

The result was that people were often labeled inverted even if they were heterosexual, by virtue of behaviors and traits typically associated with the “opposite” sex. Women who engaged in behaviors coded masculine, such as reading books, smoking cigars, and wearing pants, were often labeled inverts.6 Similarly, the theory holds that “a homosexual male can only be effeminate” (Duvall 53). Many early feminists were labeled inverts because they were aggressive and independent; likewise men who were passive and nurturing (Bauer 99). That sexologists and the general public alike considered some heterosexual individuals to be inverted is key to my analysis of Mosquitoes and Jerusalem because several of the characters on whom I focus are clearly depicted as both heterosexual and inverted.  

As the above comments should make clear, sexologists were attempting to develop more flexible notions of sexuality and gender but nevertheless adhered to the binaries of male/female (biology), masculine/feminine (gender presentation and personality, which sexologists often conflated and referred to as “ the mind”), and attracted to women/attracted to men (sexuality). Further, the first terms in the binaries were thought to “go with” or be linked to each other, and vice versa, such that “male” was assumed to go with “masculine” and “attracted to women.” If men and women are binary opposites, inversion would then explain why some men are attracted to other men, and women attracted to other women (though female homosexuality was usually an afterthought). A homosexual man was often referred to as a woman living in a man’s body, or a person born with a man’s body but a woman’s mind. Today, the idea that a homosexual man is a woman living in a man’s body is offensive, but at the time this idea was thought progressive by many people, including homosexual individuals (Doan and Waters 42–43). Inversion was a way of conceptualizing identity and embodiment that involved neither culpability nor stigma. Rather than seeing homosexuals as people deserving criminal punishment for making immoral choices, as was the norm, inversion positions homosexuals as people deserving of pity and empathy for being born in the “wrong” body. 

Medical understanding of sexuality changed rapidly in the first three decades of the twentieth century, and by the 1920s sexological models of inversion had begun to move away from theories influenced by nineteenth-century notions of sex roles (Chauncey 146). Nevertheless, binary thinking of this sort is powerful and continues to shape lay and medical opinions about gender and sexuality today. In the interwar years, Americans learned about the theory of inversion through the works of Havelock Ellis, Edward Carpenter, Ellen Key, and other writers on sex whose ideas were, at least in the short term, more influential than those of Freud (D’Emilio and Freedman 224–25). This means that, for Faulkner as for most of his contemporaries, sexuality and gender were linked such that a lack of masculinity implied femininity and potentially homosexuality.

What counted as “masculinity” in the interwar period? This question is important because masculinity is less often discussed by scholars than the norms of femininity, but also because the Great Depression altered the predominant notion of masculinity in the United States and Faulkner’s novels reflect this shift. In order to understand inversion and the binaries on which it is based, we have to understand what constituted masculinity as it was constructed in the interwar years. (Femininity was often thought of as the negative of masculinity rather than an entity with meaning of its own, which contributed to the more-frequent theorization of femininity as scholars attempted to counter this characterization.) The most salient notions of masculinity in the first two decades of the century emphasized traits particular to the self, the individual man, rather than his inherited place in society. Smiler, et al., explain that in the last decades of the nineteenth century, “status and prestige came from ‘old’ money, education, reason, and class privilege, but in the modern era, the iconic self-made man obtained his position, power and money through skill, cunning, luck and emotion—following his ‘gut’” (268). Masculinity in the 1920s entailed autonomy, the agency and wherewithal to forge a path based on one’s own talents and abilities rather than family ties. The self-made man superseded family connections. 

Even within marriage, the satisfaction of individual desires began to take precedence over familial needs. For instance, sociologist Ernest Groves argued in his 1928 book The Marriage Crisis that companionate marriages, increasingly prevalent in the 1920s, shifted the focus from the family unit to the individual: “Family life ceases to be a means of economic production, and is an end in itself that is required to furnish individual satisfaction to outweigh the cost it imposes” (qtd. in D’Emilio and Freedman 266). Although Groves refers to changes that affected both men and women, this new emphasis on the individual within marriage aligns with the decade’s focus on autonomy as a key factor of masculinity and is therefore privileged. Finally, since “gender differences were routinely attributed to men’s superior evolution” in the 1920s, biology—not culture, nor the economy—provided the rationale for this particular definition of masculinity (Smiler 266).7

Whereas breadwinning was one aspect of masculinity among many in the 1920s, it became central in the 1930s. This is not to suggest that autonomy and the self-made man ceased to be relevant, but that the Great Depression pushed economic issues to the forefront of discourse about gender. The term “breadwinning” is important here, because it expresses the financial as well as familial obligations that many people ascribed to men (Warren 319). Breadwinning was so important in the 1930s that it was “required to obtain status, participate in consumer culture, acquire a mate, and maintain appropriate appearance” (Smiler 275). The most masculine man, in this logic, acquires a mate, begins a family, and provides financially for that family. This logic led to an obvious corollary: many men who lived during the Great Depression felt emasculated by their inability to find work. 

The shift in focus from autonomy to breadwinning and its concomitant familial obligations means that Americans defined and related to masculinity in different ways when Faulkner penned his first artist novel, Mosquitoes, in 1927, as compared to when he wrote the second artist novel, Jerusalem, in 1939. The novels reflect this shift in their depiction of masculinity as it relates to the artist. Faulkner depicts the artist’s masculinity as the inverse of femininity in both male- and female-identifying artists. Importantly, these novels foreground the female artist rather than erasing her. In Mosquitoes, counter-narratives erupt thereby, subversively implying that women who are inverted—that is, women with a female body and male mind—can be productive artists. 

Mosquitoes and the Self-Making Man

Mosquitoes is a product of the 1920s in that it engages the prevailing idea of masculinity as self-making. It is, on the surface, a novel endorsing a masculinist vision of the artist: an independent, male figure whose creative process eschews both women and money. Yet the novel’s connection between the self-made man and artistic creation, particularly its depiction of women and reproduction in forging this connection, creates space for eruptions that unsettle the dominant narrative. 

The action in Mosquitoes revolves around a party of artists aboard the Nausikaa, a yacht owned by Mrs. Patricia Maurier. Maurier is a generous if unsophisticated patron of the arts who brings the artists together for a four-day cruise on Lake Pontchartrain. Much of the novel consists of various characters, almost always male, pontificating about art. Dawson Fairchild (a writer modeled on Sherwood Anderson) frequently debates aesthetics with Julius Kauffman, an art critic. Other artists on board include Gordon, a muscular, taciturn sculptor (one of the few artists present who actually produces art rather than just talks about it), Dorothy Jameson, an unsuccessful painter, and Eva Kauffman Wiseman, a homosexual poet and sister to Julius. Also on board are Maurier’s niece and nephew, college-aged twins named Pat (female) and Josh Robyn. The cruise is punctuated by difficulties, from the mundane to the serious: the guests dislike the food, several of the men are unsociable, Pat sneaks off the yacht with a deckhand only to get lost in a swamp on the way to town, and the yacht is marooned for more than a day before a tugboat can free it. The characters are plagued throughout by heat, stagnation, and mosquitoes. 

During one of his many monologues, Dawson Fairchild lays out a theory of artistic creation that aligns masculinity with self-sufficiency. In a stunningly sexist passage devoted to art and reproduction, Fairchild muses that the purpose of art is: 

Getting into life, getting into it and wrapping it around you, becoming a part of it. Women can do it without art—old biology takes care of that. But men, men…A woman conceives: does she care afterward whose seed it was? Not she. And bears, and all the rest of her life—her young troubling years, that is—is filled. Of course the father can look at it occasionally. But in art, a man can create without any assistance at all: what he does is his. A perversion, I grant you, but a perversion that builds Chartres and invents Lear is a pretty good thing. (320; ellipses original)

This passage is key to my reading of Mosquitoes and is one to which I will return, for it encapsulates both the main narrative’s depiction of the artist as a self-sufficient man as well as an eruption that unsettles this narrative. For now, however, the important point to note is Fairchild’s insistence on the artist’s self-sufficiency and the superiority of male creative faculties. For despite Fairchild’s label of “perversion,” he clearly values male artistic creation above female reproductive creation. After all, Chartes and Lear get names; a child is an “it.” Although the novel regularly lampoons Fairchild’s ideas on art, his conception of the artist as an independent man squares with the novel’s most successful artist, Gordon. Gordon eschews the company of other artists and is indifferent to Mrs. Maurier’s money. He has other stereotypically masculine traits, too; he is physically strong, decisive, and emotionally closed-off.

This theory of the artist as a self-sufficient man also aligns with Faulkner’s vision of his own creative process. Faulkner characterized the creation of authentic art as a masculine pursuit involving a hard body and difficult physical labor. To wit, his introduction to As I Lay Dying compares his writing process on the novel to shoveling coal and stoking fires (Guttman 17–18). For Faulkner, self-sufficiency is just as important as hardness for the creation of art. He credits the former as the key to his ability to write The Sound and the Fury (1929), saying, “One day I seemed to shut a door between me and all publishers’ addresses and book lists. I said to myself, Now I can write” (qtd. in Blotner 212). Authorial independence, for Faulkner, requires disregarding the wants of publishers and instead writing without concern for what will sell; authentic art is untainted by commercialism. 

That Faulkner should insist on the artist’s distance from both femininity and commercialism is no coincidence. Like many of his modernist contemporaries, Faulkner characterized consumerism and the marketplace as feminine. He saw writing as a pursuit that feminizes men, as my opening quote suggests, but thought writing with the goal of making money was worse.8 As Sondra Guttman argues, Faulkner needed the money that came from sales of his popular novels such as Sanctuary (1931), but he despised the “softness” it inspired (17). For example, he reflected on the moment when he started to experience commercial success with the comment, “I began to get a little soft…I began to think about making money by writing” (Introduction v). In this logic, then, the artist is necessarily feminized by the attempt to publish, yet must retain his masculine hardness to create authentic art. Thus, although the novel lampoons Fairchild, the theory of art he espouses cannot be dismissed. The relationship between masculinity and art that Fairchild describes is corroborated elsewhere in the novel and in Faulkner’s self-presentation. Much like the prevailing idea of masculinity in the 1920s, Fairchild’s comment figures the artist as male, and the version of masculinity that “goes with it” emphasizes autonomy. The male artist is as much a self-made man as he is a self-making man, capable of artistic procreation without a partner. 

Fairchild suggests something of the push-and-pull of masculinity and femininity generated by the artist’s mind in competition with the feminizing effects of the marketplace. The idea is implied in the notion that men’s minds are capable of self-fertilization (“a man can create without any assistance at all: what he does is his. A perversion, I grant you, but a perversion that builds Chartres and invents Lear is a pretty good thing”). Lisa Rado reads this “perversion” as hermaphroditism rather than self-fertilization, a distinction that might seem slight but that has significant repercussions for my argument. Rado’s position is that Faulkner “imagines his creative consciousness as itself both ‘male’ and ‘female’ in response to modern changes in the cultural constructions of gender” brought on by the field of sexology (15). Rado’s interpretation is reinforced by the novel’s inclusion of “Hermaphroditus,” a poem that was, in the context of the novel, written by the artist character Eva Kauffman Wiseman, but that was, in reality, published earlier by Faulkner under his own name. Rado argues that Faulkner adopted the concept of hermaphroditism for himself because it allowed him to explain the aspects of his personality and behaviors—including his penchant for writing—that he perceived as disturbingly feminine (22). 

While I find Rado’s argument for hermaphroditism compelling, I do not agree that it is the most accurate label for the “perversion” of male artistic creation as described by Fairchild. The crux of the issue is Fairchild’s interest in the product that results from the artist’s mind. He is more concerned with Chartres and Lear than he is with the balance of male and female traits in the creative consciousness. Fairchild even refers to art as “reproduction from within” at another point in the novel (320). As such, the mind of the artist in this example is best understood as self-fertilizing, capable of impregnation without a partner. Hermaphroditism does not convey the same emphasis, especially since many hermaphroditic animals require a partner for fertilization.9

The difference between hermaphroditism and self-fertilization carries multiple implications. First, it strengthens the connection between the novel and the prevailing attitudes surrounding masculinity in the 1920s. Second, the change reveals one of the “eruptions of alternative knowledge and communities”—to recall Harker’s words—that destabilize the main narrative’s implication that male creative faculties are superior to female ones. Regarding the connection between the novel and contemporary attitudes toward masculinity, recall the argument made by Smiler, et al., that gender differences were typically attributed to the “superior evolution” of men. This notion is borne out in Fairchild’s quote. He claims that men do not need women to find fulfillment, “getting into life” as he calls it, because men are capable of conceiving, gestating, and delivering artistic offspring on their own. 

The idea that male creation is evolutionarily superior to female procreation gains further support from an earlier scene. Faulkner’s description of the environment in which Pat (the niece of Mrs. Patricia Maurier) and David, a ship steward, become lost connects female fecundity to prehistoric earth. Pat and David leave the Nausikaa for some fun in a nearby town, but quickly find themselves lost in a swamp on the way. The mist enveloping the swamp

might have been the first prehistoric morning of time itself; it might have been the very substance in which the seed of the beginning of things fecundated; and these huge and silent trees might have been the first of living things, too recently born to know either fear or astonishment, dragging their sluggish umbilical cords from out the old miasmic womb of a nothingness latent and dreadful. (169) 

The passage directly links female procreation with reproductive processes so old they predate humanity. In addition to being associated with the nonhuman world, female procreation is threatening. Umbilical cords and wombs are supposed to nourish the beings attached to/within them, but the swamp in which David and Pat wander withholds nourishment—they are unable to find potable water—and, further, the swamp attacks them with a plague of mosquitoes. Less an example of womb envy than fear of women’s reproductive capacities, “miasmic,” is a particularly apt description of the environment as Faulkner depicts it. Through this figurative language, the novel underscores Fairchild’s implication that male creation (read: art) is preferable over female procreation because it is more evolved and less threatening. 

Yet by reading against the grain, we can detect a counter-narrative in which the male, self-fertilizing mind is less evolved than Faulkner implies. Humans are not, as a species, self-fertilizing. The vast majority of self-fertilizing organisms are plants and invertebrates (Avise xi), a fact that undercuts the main narrative by positioning men lower on the evolutionary scale than women. Although the “ladder of nature” is obsolete in biological sciences today, in Faulkner’s day many people believed that humans occupied the top rung of the evolutionary ladder.10 Changing the description of Fairchild’s theory of art from hermaphroditism to self-fertilization, with the attendant heightened focus on reproduction, therefore reveals an eruption that unsettles an otherwise misogynistic depiction of male minds as more evolved and civilized than women’s. To be sure, female reproduction still reads as oppressive in Mosquitoes. Yet Faulkner’s use of biological and evolutionary metaphors complicates his comparatively sympathetic depiction of male creation by aligning it with forms of reproduction that would have been considered less evolved at the time of the novel’s publication. 

A second example of an eruption that disturbs the main narrative brings us to Faulkner’s portrait of the female artist. This counter-narrative suggests that inverted women can create authentic art: in the binaristic logic of sexology, inverted women might have a female body but they have a male mind. This counter-narrative is most clearly exemplified in the character of Eva Kauffman Wiseman. Mosquitoes, when read with the grain, puts forth the essentialist idea that women cannot be artists because they do not possess the self-fertilizing (male) mind necessary for the creation of authentic art. As much as Fairchild stresses male independence, he also argues for women’s dependency. He claims women need an other, a child, to be biologically satisfied: “A woman conceives: does she care afterward whose seed it was? Not she. And bears, and all the rest of her life—her young troubling years, that is—is filled” (320). In other words, women care about neither the partner nor the art; only the child matters. (And, apparently, the only part of women’s lives worth discussing is the childbearing years.) Julius Kauffman, the art critic aboard the Nausikaa and brother to Eva, similarly states that women “bear geniuses. But do you think they care anything about the pictures and music their children produce? That they have any other emotion than a fierce tolerance of the vagaries of the child?” (248). Unlike male minds, which are supposedly evolved for artistic creation, Fairchild and Julius imply that the minds of women are best suited for biological reproduction.11 

While Fairchild’s and Julius’s ideas generally square with prevailing gender norms of the day, in that biological reproduction and caregiving were assumed to be the most important elements in a woman’s life, the novel nevertheless contains an eruption in the midst of this heteronormative, misogynistic logic. Eva represents the possibility of successful female artists. Faulkner clearly depicts her as an inverted woman, a person with a woman’s body and a man’s mind. That Eva is biologically female is never in doubt, but she is a masculine person who is attracted to other women. Several critics note Eva’s gender fluidity. Frann Michel comments on her “ambiguously gendered name,” Eva Kauffman Wiseman, and argues that she “fits [Havelock] Ellis’s account of the female invert as a masculine woman by virtue of her sharing of the male character’s profession [writing], conversation, and desire” (12). Furthermore, the typescript version of Mosquitoes makes it clear that Faulkner wrote Eva as a homosexual woman.12 This earlier version of the novel includes a scene in which Eva watches, longingly, as two women passionately embrace (McHaney xvii). Since Faulkner attributed some of his own poetry to Eva (the aforementioned “Hermaphroditus”), she is more closely aligned with the “real” artists on the Nausikaa than with the unsuccessful, unproductive ones. If male minds are capable of self-fertilization, and if inverted women have male minds in female bodies, it follows that Eva would be capable of creating authentic art. The character of Eva, then, lends unexpected support to Fairchild’s comment that artists create with “the ultimate intention of impressing some woman” (250). Fairchild here expresses the notion, common in Faulkner’s oeuvre, that sexual desire inspires art.13 Even though Fairchild’s example is that of the heterosexual desire of a male artist for a woman, the presence of Eva suggests that a woman’s desire for another woman can be just as inspirational, and that this woman’s mind, at least, is not attuned to reproduction. We can thereby see how the counter-narrative involving Eva unsettles Faulkner’s attempt to use reproductive rhetoric to define authentic art as an exclusively male project. 

The successful female artist, subversively suggested in Eva, becomes part of the main narrative in Jerusalem. In this novel, Faulkner confronts the threat of the female artist more directly, granting the possibility that authentic art can be created by women, but ultimately using reproductive rhetoric to reinforce the supposed superiority of male artists. Just as inversion explains Eva’s artistic abilities in Mosquitoes, inversion similarly explains why Jerusalem’s Charlotte Rittenmeyer is an authentic, productive artist, and why her lover, Harry Wilbourne, finds financial success writing formulaic short stories for mass-market publications. Finally, the logic of inversion underpins one of the most confusing and disturbing scenes in the novel: Harry performing an abortion on Charlotte. Unlike Mosquitoes, however, Jerusalem privileges breadwinning rather than independence as the defining trait of masculinity, a change in tune with prevailing attitudes in the United States in the wake of the Great Depression.

If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem: Masculine Women and Feminine Men

When Charlotte and Harry meet, she is a frustrated artist, bored with her life in New Orleans with her husband and two children. Harry is a medical resident just months away from completing his training. Charlotte quickly persuades him to leave school and run away with her to Chicago. Her affection for Harry is genuine, but the affair allows her access to something just as important to her as love: space, time, and inspiration for art (recall my earlier point about sexual desire inspiring art). The couple struggles for money since Harry did not complete his medical degree and they eventually move to a remote mining community in Utah where his lack of credentials is irrelevant. The isolation of the community presents unforeseen difficulties, however. Charlotte’s contraceptive douche bag ruptures in the extreme cold of Utah in winter, but she is unable to replace it because the community is too remote to have stores or medical services beyond those Harry provides. Soon pregnant, she asks Harry to perform an abortion on her. He has the technical knowledge and experience to perform the procedure successfully, but resists for months on the grounds that he loves her too much. When Charlotte eventually prevails, Harry makes a mistake and the wound gets infected. In the end, she dies and he is sentenced to fifty years of hard labor.14 

Although Charlotte is never mistaken for a man, her actions would read as masculine to audiences in the 1930s and would, in truth, signal masculinity to many readers today. She is a more successful breadwinner than Harry, initiates their first sexual encounter, leaves her children (an act thought to be unnatural for women), finds housing for herself and Harry, and persuades him to perform the abortion against his inclinations. The novel provides enough information about her early life to indicate that her masculinity is a consistent trait rather than a recent reaction or a power grab enabling the affair. Early in their courtship, Charlotte explains that she arranged her marriage to her husband, a man nicknamed Rat, to suit her desires. She states, “All my family were brothers except me. I liked my oldest brother the best but you cant [sic] sleep with your brother and he and Rat roomed together in school so I married Rat” (35). This statement’s suggestion of incest begs for commentary, which I will provide later. Charlotte here indicates that she took the lead in her marriage; stating “I married Rat” implies she arranged it rather than him. Second, this statement indicates Charlotte’s desire to fit in with her all-male siblings, and even a yearning for masculinity for herself. Her oldest brother, presumably the fullest embodiment of adult masculinity among the siblings, is the one to attract her attention. In the logic of Faulkner’s artist novels, she is an inverted woman along the lines of Eva, with the added trait of successful breadwinning which thus allows her to meet family obligations in ways beyond those defined by conventional norms of femininity, such as caretaking. Decisive, action-oriented behaviors allow Charlotte to arrange a life in which her art thrives.

Also like Eva, Charlotte is capable of creating art that is authentic in Faulkner’s terms. He consistently aligns Charlotte’s sculptures with masculinity and the “hardness” that characterizes his ideal art. Her sculptures are durable and heavy, “something with weight in your hand…that displaces air and displaces water and when you drop it, it’s your foot that breaks and not the shape” (35). Some of her figures are “fantastic and perverse” with a “lean epicene” quality that is both “sophisticated and bizarre” (74). Her art is, then, unexpected and experimental (like As I Lay Dying) rather than formulaic like the works that brought Faulkner money but not creative fulfillment. By depicting both Charlotte and her art as a male endeavor, the main narrative reinforces a misogynistic notion of art as masculine: Charlotte may be a woman, but she is an inverted woman and her hard, experimental art is the offspring of a male mind. 

Harry is her foil, an inverted man whose female mind enables him to successfully participate in the feminized marketplace of pseudo-art. For Faulkner, John Duvall argues, “Masculinity is the power to feminize the other” (55). In the case of Jerusalem, Charlotte’s masculinity causes Harry to feel more acutely the lack of his own. Indeed, he frequently thinks, “She’s a better man than I am” (113). While this statement is an accurate indication of Charlotte’s gender presentation, it is also indicative of Harry’s frame of mind regarding his own masculinity. Harry’s masculinity is in doubt, doubted by himself and likely by the novel’s original audience. Throughout the affair, he anxiously tries to figure out his role in the relationship. Charlotte tells him she does not want a traditional husband, stating, “If it was just a successful husband and food and a bed I wanted, why the hell do you think I am here instead of back there where I had them?” (89). But the ideological linkage between masculinity and breadwinning is not easily abandoned for Harry. At the beginning of the affair he struggles to find work because he failed to finish his medical degree. Instead of continuing his search for work, he spends his days sitting on park benches, calculating the couple’s insufficient budget and blaming it on his lack of manliness: he “shift[s] the various components of the sum and their bought equivalents here and there like a jigsaw puzzle, knowing that this was a form of masturbation (thinking because I am still, and probably will always be, in the puberty of money)” (80; italics original). This statement makes clear that he cannot think of himself as a fully adult man if he is poor and jobless. Instead, he figures himself as a child playing games when he should be working. Shifting the puzzle pieces of his finances will not change the budget, nor will it increase his sense of masculinity. 

Harry continues throughout the novel to equate masculinity with finances in a way that manifests his anxiety about both. After Charlotte’s death, Harry considers his role in it, thinking, “A miser would probably bungle the blowing of his own safe too. Should have called a professional, a cracksman who didn’t care, didn’t love the very iron flanks that held the money” (250). The verb “bungle” denotes confused, clumsy mistakes suggestive of anxiety and nervousness. (Charlotte, in the end, seems to agree, calling Harry several variations of “bloody bungling bastard” while on her deathbed [17].) Furthermore, the metaphor subtly refers to Charlotte’s masculinity in the connection forged between her body, which is lean, muscular, and hard, and the “iron flanks” of the safe. Earlier in the novel, Harry calls her leg a “flank” in a tender moment: after a swim, Charlotte walks by a dozing Harry who wakes to kiss her “sun-impacted flank” (94). Similarly, Faulkner wrote a love poem to Helen Baird, the woman on whom Charlotte’s character is based, praising “her boy’s breast and the plain flanks of a boy” (qtd. in Blotner 151). Taken together, the language suggests that part of what Harry loves about Charlotte is her masculinity, and the metaphor captures this aspect of his affection for her. But her masculinity also seems to exacerbate his anxiety because it calls his own into question. Duvall’s aforementioned argument that masculinity, in Faulkner’s hands, “is the power to feminize the other” (55), accurately describes the dynamic between Harry and Charlotte. 

In keeping with the binaristic logic of inversion, Harry’s lack of masculinity manifests as an excess of femininity. At one point he manages to find work writing short stories for mass market publications, despite having no professional training for this work. The stories he writes are formulaic and mildly scandalous, generally told from the first-person perspective of a female narrator. He, like Faulkner, is derisive toward this kind of work, dismissing the idea that the stories might have artistic value. Harry calls his stories “sexual gumdrops” (104), a term which implies both their sensationalized subject matter as well as a squishiness that recalls Faulkner’s comment about “get[ting] soft” when he began thinking about making money off his writing. Characteristically, then, this novel positions writing for pay as a femininizing endeavor, and through this positioning underscores the depiction of Harry as an inverted man. The prevailing notion of masculinity in the 1930s is, in Faulkner’s logic, particularly difficult for a male writer to live up to since breadwinning means thinking about and pursuing publication, and writing for pay is a feminizing pursuit. But Harry, already feminized by his initial lack of work and by Charlotte’s masculinity, takes to commercial writing easily. His soft, formulaic stories stand in stark contrast to Charlotte’s hard, heavy, experimental sculptures. Unlike Mosquitoes, Jerusalem’s most successful artist is a woman, while the man creates insubstantial fluff. Yet this dynamic actually supports the idea put forward by Fairchild, that only the male mind is evolved for the creation of authentic art, since both Charlotte and Harry are inverted. Thus, the novel reinforces the devaluation of the female mind as unsuited to artistic creation. 

Nevertheless, Jerusalem eventually condemns Charlotte as a trespasser in the male realm of authentic art through the use of a well-worn misogynistic trope, that of the uncontrollable female body. Yet this condemnation also contains within it the novel’s most surprising eruption of alternative knowledge.  Charlotte’s insistence that Harry perform the abortion gives rise to an eruption that reveals the main narrative as hypocritical and cruel. The main narrative implies that Charlotte may have been able to create authentic art for a while (though only because she has a male mind), but the reproductive drive of her body overwhelms everything else, drowning her in a flood of female blood. The main narrative blames Charlotte’s death on her presumably unnatural creative desires. The counter-narrative, however, implicates patriarchal gender norms in her death. 

To explain, we need first to consider the novel’s consistent depiction of pregnancy as incompatible with the creation of authentic art. Charlotte’s relationship with Rat is procreatively fertile (they have two daughters together), but it is artistically sterile. The sterility that results from incest preoccupied Faulkner throughout his career, and we can understand Charlotte’s marriage as another example in this vein.15 As is clear in the aforementioned passage about Charlotte arranging her marriage to Rat, their relationship is akin to incest since she chooses Rat as a substitute for her brother. Their marriage is marked by a kind of sterility, albeit creative rather than biological. Later events in the novel bear out the suggestion that art and reproduction are incompatible. Charlotte’s affair with Harry is creatively fertile but biologically sterile because contraceptive douching successfully prevents pregnancy for much of their relationship. After the douche bag breaks, Charlotte quickly becomes pregnant; this pregnancy brings a swift end to her art and, eventually, a painful, bloody end to her life. The final time she engages in an artistic endeavor of any kind takes place several weeks after the douche bag breaks but just before she realizes she is pregnant. She and Harry attempt to communicate with the Polish-speaking miners with whom they live in Utah. Harry is unable to convey any messages, but Charlotte overcomes the language barrier through her drawings (169–70). A week later she misses her period and realizes she is pregnant, then two weeks later asks Harry to perform the abortion (171–73). He resists for several months, during which time she does not create art of any kind.16 Faulkner thereby makes the misogynistic argument that pregnancy is incompatible with artistic creation; even inverted women cannot overcome “old biology,” to use Fairchild’s words. 

This reading necessitates a reconsideration of Charlotte’s death as resulting from circumstances more complex than punishment for an abortion, as most critics have read it. Indeed, the novel does not condemn abortion in general. Harry performs one in Utah for a neighbor, and this woman suffers no ill effects.17 While punishment of a kind is legible in the bloody manner of Charlotte’s death, it is best read as punishment for her masculinity or, to be more precise, her ventures into the male realm of art. Yet a counter-narrative in the abortion scene also implicates hegemonic masculinity in Charlotte’s death.  

In this scene, Harry’s failure to meet the norms of masculinity manifests as an inability to wield the phallus. When preparing to finally perform the abortion on Charlotte after months of her insistence, Harry is visibly nervous, with hands that shake uncontrollably (185–86). Charlotte attempts a joke to calm him down, metaphorically turning Harry’s penis into a surgical knife: “We’ve done this lots of ways but not with knives, have we?” (186). She then encourages him to “ride me down” with the knife (186).18 Harry nevertheless wounds her in the process of performing the abortion. The connection between the phallus and the surgical knife leads to the conclusion that Harry’s indecision, nervousness, and shaking are related to his lack of masculinity. Charlotte eventually dies in an outpouring of blood from between her legs, a liquid excess reminiscent of the long-standing trope of the female body as leaky, unruly, and uncontrollable.19 The main narrative is overtly heteronormative: Harry failed to be a real man by giving in and doing the abortion, and Charlotte failed to be a real woman by exerting control over her man and trying to deny her biological destiny. In other words, Charlotte may have the mind of a man, and may therefore be able to create authentic art for a while, but her female body’s biological drive catches up with her. Moreover, in the binaristic thinking of sexology, Harry cannot simply choose to “be a man” when he needs to. He may have impregnated Charlotte, but he is still inverted; he has the body of a man but the mind of a woman.

By reading against the grain, however, we can detect a counter-narrative that implicates society’s demands on men to live up to gender norms, and illuminates the psychological damage these norms can cause for people who fail to fulfill them. In the abortion scene, Faulkner emphasizes Harry’s anxiety over his inability to perform, and it is this anxiety, his uncontrollably shaking hands, that causes him to wound Charlotte. He is anxious because he doubts his own ability to wield the phallus. His failure to fulfill the sociocultural norms of masculinity makes him desperately anxious, and this anxiety leads to his mistake during the abortion. 

The idea that hegemonic masculinity is psychologically harmful runs directly counter to the “mainstream voice of Southern patriarchy” that, as Harker explains, characterizes the main narratives in most of Faulkner’s novels. As we have seen, Jerusalem is no exception. That one of the novel’s narratives, albeit a counter-narrative, would depict the psychological wounds inflicted on men who fail to meet the demands of hegemonic gender norms, while the novel’s main narrative physically wounds a woman who rejects these gender norms, smacks of hypocrisy. Nevertheless, as I stated at the outset, eruptions are not intentional but rather become evident when read against the grain. Faulkner was a man who understood intimately the consequences of failing to meet society’s standards of masculinity. As such, we should not be surprised that an eruption of this sort would appear in Jerusalem

It is easy to dismiss Mosquitoes and Jerusalem as misogynistic and outdated, especially since they are some of Faulkner’s least aesthetically successful novels. Yet reading them through the lens of inversion reveals eruptions that destabilize the patriarchal main narratives. These eruptions recuperate neither the misogyny nor the aesthetic shortcomings of the novels, but their presence does give additional reason for paying attention to them. Mosquitoes and Jerusalem provide richly textured pictures of gender and sexuality as they were understood in the interwar period. These novels illustrate the ways inversion shaped interwar notions of gender and sexuality, while also highlighting the limitations of any concept rooted in binaries that carry sexist valences. The idea that female minds are evolved for biological creation is a classic example of essentialism, to which Faulkner adds the idea that the male mind, the inverse, is evolved for artistic creation. In Faulkner’s artist novels, we see how essentialist ideas of gender can be combined with reproductive rhetoric to police the borders of art, demarcating who is and who is not capable of authentic creativity, and for how long that creativity will last. Yet in the midst of these misogynistic main narratives, counter-narratives frequently erupt, illuminating gender non-conforming characters as catalysts for queer plotlines. 


1 My thanks to the anonymous Space Between reviewers, who offered careful suggestions that pushed my thinking in productive directions. I am also grateful to the members of my writing group for their thoughtful feedback.

2 See also Claus Daufenbach, who states that Mosquitoes has “obvious flaws” (547), and John Earl Bassett, who argues that it is “his most imitative work” (50). Even still, both critics conclude that Mosquitoes reveals much about Faulkner’s developing aesthetic.

3 In the same poem congratulating Eliot on The Waste Land, Pound writes, “Ezra performed the Caesarean operation” (qtd. in Koestenbaum 120).

4 On Faulkner’s familiarity with sexology, see Rado (14), Duvall (155–56), and Michel (8).

5 On the more capacious definition of inversion, see also Bauer (87–89) and Funke (134–35). Transgender is not an accurate term for individuals labeled “inverted” for two reasons. First, the term transgender is anachronistic and, as Jack Halberstam argues, applying current terminology to earlier iterations of queer lifestyles “denies them their historical specificity” rather than “produc[ing] methodologies sensitive to historical change but influenced by current theoretical preoccupations” (46). Second, inverted is a much broader term than transgender. A person labeled inverted might, for example, have been labeled by doctors as a woman and have identified as a woman, but act and dress in ways that seemed masculine to contemporaries.  

6 See Bauer (99) and Heilmann (117–54)

7 Yet culture and the economy did undeniably shape the ideology of masculinity. Chris Forth argues that the American labor movement in the early years of the twentieth century “insisted upon the working man’s right to a certain standard of living that would allow him to meet ‘civilized needs,’ thus initiating a reorientation of proletarian male identity away from production towards consumerism” (157). In the 1920s, men’s participation in the consumer marketplace, long associated with femininity, became acceptable to an extent.  

8 On Faulkner’s gendered attitudes toward the literary marketplace, see also Michel (7–8).

9 On hermaphroditism, John C. Avise states, “approximately 99% of all [vertebrate] species consist of separate-sex individuals, meaning that each individual is either male or female. Most of the other 1% of vertebrate species are hermaphroditic, and essentially all of these are fishes” (xi). Among hermaphroditic fish, only a small proportion is “selfing,” that is, reproducing by self-fertilization (xii).

10 The “ladder of nature” had a stronghold on scientific thinking for some 2,000 years; this stronghold was just beginning to loosen in the early years of the twentieth century as Darwin’s ideas took root (Gopnik 40).

11 I refer to Julius Kauffman and Eva Kauffman Wiseman, siblings, by their first names to avoid confusion.

12 Minrose Gwin argues that the deletion of this scene, along with several others like it, is most likely attributable to the publisher and not Faulkner (130–32).

13 That Faulkner believed sex fosters artistic creation is well-documented. See, for example, Golden (737).

14 The novel interweaves two distinct narratives, “Old Man” and “The Wild Palms.” “The Wild Palms” is the story of Charlotte and Harry. “Old Man” takes place during the Mississippi River flood of 1927. 

15 The most obvious example of incest as a threat to identity is that of Quentin’s attraction to Caddy in The Sound and the Fury, but other examples abound. See also Rado (20, 26).

16 Many critics, such as Janet Carey Eldred, read the abortion as the event that puts an end to Charlotte’s art rather than pregnancy. As my timeline shows, however, months pass between the conception and the abortion, during which time she does not create art of any kind. Pregnancy is therefore the more likely precipitating event.

17 In this stance, the novel is not entirely at odds with prevailing attitudes toward reproductive control in the 1930s. The difficulties associated with supporting a family during the depression brought about broader acceptance of abortion and birth control. For more, see Henninger, Weingarten, Craig, and Capo.

18 The full quote is “What was it you told me nigger women say? Ride me down, Harry” (186). Charlotte thereby connects transgressive sexuality with race, a combination familiar to readers of Faulkner’s novels. The relationship between race and sex in this scene is complex and part of a broader pattern in Faulkner’s oeuvre. While such an investigation is worth pursuing, it is beyond the scope of this article.   

19 The characterization of excessive, uncontrollable liquid as feminine is echoed in “The Old Man” plotline of Jerusalem. Cynthia Dobbs explores this characterization at length.

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