Must Read Book

Chauncey, George, Gay New York (1994).

This is the book that to my mind really established the history of sexuality as a field that could reshape our view of American culture. I was already trying to write about sexuality when I read it for the first time—in fact I read it on the New Jersey Turnpike as I road the bus to and from the archives in which I did research for my dissertation—but it pushed me to re–evaluate the questions I was asking. As a result of Chauncey’s successful marriage of an evocative, textured social history with a genealogical history of changing cultural understandings and categories, I began to look for the structures that shaped understandings of sexuality, and to recognize the instabilities and tensions that riddled modern sexuality. Chauncey’s account of a working-class sexual culture in which only the passive partner in anal acts was regarded as queer is the first example I turn to shake my students out of their commonsense view of sexuality and to make them think about what it means to historicize sexuality. I also send my research students to the library admonished with Chauncey’s experience of doing research, of discovering a richly documented gay world in sources that he had been assured contained no mention of gay life.

Recommended by Stephen Robertson, University of Sydney

Stephen Robertson received his PhD from Rutgers University, and now teaches Modern American History at the University of Sydney. His first book, Childhood, Sexual Violence and Legal Culture in New York City, 1880-1950, to be published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2003, deals with the modern redefinition of sexual violence in terms of age, and with the response of ordinary New Yorkers to sexual modernity.