This essay was published on July 3 2019, in response to Emily Rutherford’s review of Outrages.
When the BBC’s Matthew Sweet called out Naomi Wolf mid-interview, some listeners would not have been hugely surprised. It appeared to be just another manifestation of what Casper Schoemaker, writing on the bestselling Beauty Myth in 2004, called “Wolf’s Overdo and Lie Factor (WOLF),” this time surfacing in Wolf’s new book,Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love.
In a terribly calm, very British way, Sweet asked (sounding, incidentally, more like an examiner in a doctoral viva than an interviewer), “Several dozen executions [for sodomy]? I don’t think you’re right about this.” (Wolf never claims there were.) With this loose thread having been tugged, it appeared that the entire core hypothesis of Outrages had unraveled — a supposition apparently shored up when Houghton Mifflin Harcourt recalled the 35,000 copies of the book’s U.S. print run.
I should declare an interest here. I’ve known Naomi Wolf for six years. She’s spoken twice at my university, at my invitation, and was received enthusiastically both times. She’s held research fellowships at other academic institutions, and has shared her research widely in talks, while teaching at SUNY, and in public lectures. I published her essay on Edith Wharton (excerpted in the TLS) in an academic collection I edited. She’s warm and generous in person, with a sharp mind and a gift for articulacy. For me, as for many thousands of others, her Beauty Myth was a jolt into feminist activism. It’s a book which won’t ever be knocked out of my all-time “top ten feminist reads.”
I wanted to understand the huge backlash against Outrages. I spoke first to Emily Rutherford, an historian based at Columbia University, and author of the article “Impossible Love and Victorian Values: J. A. Symonds and the Intellectual History of Homosexuality.” “I do think Outrages has very significant shortcomings, but I say that as an expert in the field who has read it very carefully,” Rutherford told me, identifying that “Wolf clearly wrote her book to be read by scholars as well as the wider public, including footnotes and a bibliography and framing it in terms of an argument that makes a historiographical intervention. In engaging with and criticizing that argument, then, I’ve sought to treat her with respect.” [ Ed: Emily Rutherford’s review of Outrages can be found here at Public Seminar.]
Another John Addington Symonds scholar I contacted (she features in Outrages, rather bizarrely, as an as-yet-unborn character) declined to comment on the book. A source at Oxford (Outrages is very loosely based on Wolf’s Oxford DPhil thesis) confirmed that members of the English Faculty have been told not to speak to the press. I asked Wolf how close Outrages is to her doctoral work. “It’s quite different,” she told me, adding: “It’s a popular book, not a thesis.”
These scholars’ reluctance to comment is, perhaps, symptomatic of an unwillingness to enter into what’s been categorized, not least by Sweet himself, as an intellectual fray hinging on legal terminology. The implication is that if you’re not a scholar of nineteenth-century jurisprudence, with all the meticulousness that that necessitates, then you’re ill-equipped to comment on it. But Wolf insists that the book’s key argument has been derailed by the line of enquiry opened up by Sweet. She’s keen to emphasize that “Outrages is a book about John Addington Symonds, a really important figure who’s largely forgotten, and his story is a moving one of how someone continued to tell the truth about love” — even when that was a dangerous thing to do.
It’s hard to see how Wolf’s reading of Symonds’s and Whitman’s poetry could have been quite so compelling without some engagement with the legal context. To have examined the lives of these poets without reference to the Obscene Publications Act of 1857, for example, would have been absurd. “The heart of the book,” Wolf told me, “has been misrepresented. It’s a story about how words and love were silenced.”
In writing about nineteenth-century poetry it’s perfectly legitimate — mandatory, even — to acknowledge the scrupulous, peer-reviewed work of previous scholars, as Wolf largely does. As Susie Steinbach, Professor of History at Hamline University, Minnesota, said to me of Outrages, “If you’re going to say that a bunch of good historians are all wrong, then you need to make sure that they are in fact wrong, and that you are right.”
Wolf is, then, guilty of scholarly boundary-crossing. If she wrote Outrages imagining that she had authority in all of the disciplines it covers — that she was a truly interdisciplinary writer, as versed in jurisprudence, say, as in literary analysis — then she was falling into a common trap. As Steinbach argues in “Who Owns the Victorians?,” it’s near-impossible for individuals to “become equally expert and comfortable in two or more disciplines, and then produce works that draw equally on those disciplines.”
Denying the utility of interdisciplinarity is hugely prescriptive: Who hasn’t felt the delight of being an intellectual pirate, navigating other disciplines and plundering them in order to return to one’s own shores with new insights and perspectives? That swag, however, is also pored over by others — peer reviewers, doctoral examiners, interviewers — and it’s their scrutiny which gives it much of its worth. We admit to our own scholarly limitations in order to respect those whose work in other fields comes from an altogether more knowledgeable place. Academics can be sympathetic when a writer makes a mistake, but perhaps less forgiving when they regard them as little more than a looter who’s made an incursion into the choppy seas which they regard as their sovereign territory.
In a letter defending Outrages, Baroness Helena Kennedy cites “a high level of sexism in the mix.” On this latent misogyny, Rutherford observes that “those posting long nit-picking threads on Twitter have tended to be men.” Steinbach, to some extent, concurs. “A lot of the criticism […] seems to have the goal of taking her down a peg,” she told me, adding, “On the one hand, such criticism seems warranted. On the other hand, the bar for ‘overly confident’ […] is a lot lower for women than for men.”
Wolf will recover, and her book remains an important, moving account of the misery institutionalized homophobia causes. The central message of love finding “a voice of some sort” (to quote Wolf’s epigraph, taken from Symonds) has relevance today. As Wolf told me, “Readers who have read the book are understanding better where certain kinds of state intervention come from.” Rutherford too, praises the book for getting people talking. “I can’t think when the last time was that I talked to this many non-academics, in real life and on social media, about Symonds and his context”, she told me. “It’s an opportunity for historians and other scholars to get out there and talk — with Wolf, with each other, with the public — about this subject matter and how we analyze evidence and make arguments about it.”
While a very public furor isn’t quite the “opportunity” a writer hopes for, it is at least one which makes many scholars go back to their sources and ask serious questions about who gets to tell the stories of history, and around where “academic” work crosses over into the mainstream.
Emma Rees (@EMMAREES) is the director of the Institute of Gender Studies at the University of Chester, UK, and the author of The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History.