Danny Luzon, “The Language of Transcendentalism: Mysticism, Gender, and the Body in Julia Ward Howe’s The Hermaphrodite” (pp. 263–290)
This essay studies the idea of a “third” sex adapted by Julia Ward Howe and other American transcendentalists from the language and theology of European mysticism. It explores Howe’s design of a nonbinary gender category through her dialogue with the figure of the hermaphrodite in the mystic tradition. Specifically, I look at Howe’s unfinished “Laurence manuscript” (written throughout the 1840s and first published in 2004 under the title The Hermaphrodite), tracing how it gives shape to unique intersex modes of knowledge and expression. The novel’s intersex protagonist, who repeatedly claims “I am no man, no woman, nothing,” allows Howe to productively utilize a language of negation and multiplicity, making the apophatic quality of mystic speech, as well as her protagonist’s denial of intelligibility, into a means of spiritual transcendence. In doing so, Howe marks gender categories as dwelling beyond social expression, away from phallocentric discursive constraints and their production of fixed dualistic concepts. Her mystic phenomenology elucidates the indeterminacy of gender, revealing it as something that cannot be adequately conceptualized in language. Howe’s prose thus produces complex dynamics between the spirit and the flesh, in order to free both the self and the body from the sociolinguistic restrictions of social intelligibility.