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Renée Bergland's Philosophies of Sex Reframes Discussion of 19th Century Literature

February 15, 2013

English Professor and Hazel Dick Leonard Chair Renée Bergland has co-edited a new anthology of critical work on the "lost" manuscript of Julia Ward Howe entitled Philosophies of Sex: Critical Essays on The Hermaphrodite.

Many are familiar with Julia Ward Howe as the author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and inventor of Mother's Day. But a previously unpublished manuscript — The Hermaphrodite — changes the way that nineteenth century literary scholars can look at Howe.

"Howe talks about issues of polarity…I think she thought every person had male and female elements. But in gender, being perfectly in balance is actually a problem," Renée Bergland says. "Why is society constructed that you'd be forced to choose?" 

The discovery of The Hermaphrodite, "makes [Howe] seem much more thoughtful… Howe is associated with military patriotism…and maternal feminism.  Clearly, she's trying to balance those things, but both are very gender-conventional."

Though letters indicate that portions of the manuscript were read by Howe's peers, The Hermaphrodite was never published in Howe's lifetime. It was rediscovered by Gary Williams at the Houghton Library at Harvard in 1995.

Bergland and Williams crossed paths while Bergland was researching Maria Mitchell, a friend of Howe's.  Bergland reached out to Williams and suggested The Hermaphrodite for her nineteenth century American studies women's reading group. After a study weekend, the pair began gathering essays for Philosophies of Sex: Critical Essays on The Hermaphrodite.

In selecting contributions, Bergland and Willams looked for "as many different angles and takes as we could so that there were many ways in…for students and professors."

Scholars and students using older anthologies for nineteenth century literature, Bergland says, "probably haven't thought about transgender/intersexuality issues because it previously wasn't a part of nineteenth century literature…We wanted [Philosophies of Sex] to give the theoretical tools that nineteenth century scholars might not have."

In addition to contributing an essay entitled, "Cold Stone: Sex and Sculpture in The Hermaphrodite" and co-editing, Bergland also collected images for the collection, including etchings of Howe and taking her own photos of relevant sculpture. "What I'm most proud of is the illustrations," she says. "I worked really hard on collecting them." 

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