The Society for Critical Exchange
  MLA 2000
SCE Program
  Economies of Writing I

Private Circulation: Secrecy, Scarcity and the Endurance of Victorian Homoerotica

Elaine Freedgood
University of Pennsylvania

What did it mean, from the 1880s through the 1930s, in Britain and America, for a text to circulate "privately," especially in editions that ran into the hundreds and in some cases, thousands?
An infamous work of Victorian homoerotica, John Addington Symonds's A Problem in Greek Ethics faced the numerous exigencies of closeted printing and distribution: publishing houses had to be secretly and expensively engaged; compositors had to be found who would be willing to set up the controversial type; lists of subscribers had to be carefully drawn up, kept secret and then destroyed; advertising had to proceed on an anxious word-of-mouth basis. It would seem to be miraculous that numerous copies of this text have survived both the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries.
Part of the reason for the survival of Symonds's work is that the practices required by closeting publishing actually combined very happily with the peculiar demands of the rare book market as it developed in the late nineteenth and flourished in the early twentieth centuries. Limited editions, numbered copies, the promise that the type of a particular printing has been "distributed": these marks of secrecy and the need to evade censure and arrest also worked to make books like A Problem in Greek Ethics seem enticingly rare (even when they weren't).
Given the nature of commodity culture, "private circulation" is necessarily an oxymoron; paradoxically the very impossibility of the term makes the textual closet open out into an expansive cultural space. The practice of secrecy is abstracted from those homosexuals (or urnings or inverts or the intermediately sexed) for whom it is a strategy of survival when a queer text becomes a commodity. The impossibility of maintaining "private circulation," and the inescapability of the need to believe in its possibilities, will be explored in the conclusion of this talk.
{footer if any}
return to top