On 13 March 2020 my partner and I began sheltering-in-place in Manhattan with nearly 2 million other people on an island of 22.82 square miles (59.1 km2). We, literally, live on top of each other, so social distancing always seems at best wishful thinking. (If you removed my apartment’s floors and walls, I suspect we’d rarely remain a six foot distance from any of our neighbors.) As we looked out the window from our six-floor walk up in Harlem, the people on the normally busy Broadway below grew fewer and fewer. While the unpopulated urban streets became a symbol of a new normal, panicky ideas began crowding in our heads. We began spraying shoes with 99% isopropyl alchohol, washing and rewashing incoming groceries, and slathering our hands with sanitizer. (O our poor chapped hands!) Our keys and credit cards had never gleamed cleaner.
In the midst of day-in-day-out disinfecting in the US, brave people still marched against racial inequality as scary infection statistics rose, as Breaking News braced us every morning, as a Cheetoh-haired President golfed and harumphed against an alleged hoax, as people gasped and passed …stepping back and taking a deep breath never seemed so crucial … time passed … we exhaled …
During my own privileged “Coronysteria” where I had shelter, food, and health insurance, I continued tepidly to do research. In indirect proportions to the city’s emptier avenues, our kitchen became crowded with books. In anticipation of our inevitable isolation at home, my partner and I ventured to my office before the campus shut down, and we picked up every book that I thought I might need to do the Queer research project in which I was engaged. Shelves emptied; bags repleted. An Uber ride and six-floor walk-up trek later, we deposited six bags of books at our door and then doused them in Lysol. My patient partner sighed as our small Manhattan apartment filled up with my primary and secondary sources and, over the next stay-at-home months, more Amazon boxes arrived with more and more books. The life of the mind takes up a lot of limited space in a 450 square foot apartment.
All of these new strategies for research had contrasted dramatically from my prior project for my Queer Literacies book. For that project in the previous two years, I had visited LGBTQ archives all over the United States. I traveled to San Francisco (GLBT Historical Society), Los Angeles (ONE Institute; Mazer Lesbian Archive), Chicago, (Gerber/Hart Archive), and Philadelphia (Wilcox Archive @ William Way Center). Now I couldn’t even take a subway downtown to the LGBTQ collection at New York Public Library, or the LGBT Community Center National Archive, or the Lesbian Herstory Archive in Brooklyn. I missed brick and mortar archives, paper cuts from manila folders, and the sneeze-inducing dust of crumbly collections. Luckily at all of these collections, I had taken a lot of permissible photos of their treasures. I had a GDrive and an external hard drive full of primary sources. With my smartphone, I had snapped pics of folders, letters, flyers, and paraphernalia of all kinds. Yet still, I couldn’t request and sit in direct contact with all of those rich primary sources that I so loved and, more importantly, I couldn’t pick the brains of those archivists that I so admired and needed as I excavated the fonds for which they lovingly cared.
Early in the pandemic, I still had unrequited hopes for a trip across the pond to participate in the face-to-face conference at Homerton. I had done archival work there before chronicling the Victorian teacher training programs at Cambridge with Pam Hirsch. So returning felt familiar and something to look forward to. A comforting retracing of my own past.
Fast forward: September came, September went. (As did October through March.)
Still, I longed for the past, the quiet, comforting (more-often noisy and discomfiting) annals of the past. On my shelf at the NYPL scholars’ research room before the pandemic, I had had a shelf full of young adult sex education manuals, lined up and ready for analysis. I had barely had a chance to open them when the library’s doors shuttered. So as an alternative, I began searching online and ordering. I soon realized that I couldn’t just have a pizza delivered but I could have the young adult sex education history of the twentieth century brought to my apartment door. The booksellers online had many an old tattered-to-“like new” copy of the 1897 What a Young Boy Ought to Know (Sylvanus Stall), or the 1930’s companion volumes of Attaining Manhood (1938) and Attaining Womanhood (1939), or the 1948 The Stork Didn’t Bring You or the 1970 Sex: Telling It Straight; a search and click could find many of the subsequent publications by authors who warned of masturbation, espoused the joys of (same-sex) matrimony, and described men bread-winning and their wives house-cleaning. Having the last century’s heteronormativity brought to your door really was as easy as pizza delivery and, generally, it was as readily available and cheap.
Before I knew it, I had a shelf of texts full of twentieth-century homophobia and heteronormativity which had been published for young adults at my literal fingertips; I gathered over fifty, century-spanning sex ed guides distributed to American youth, sometimes imported from the UK. Less prolifically distributed to the public, I also had Queer authors who, starting in the 1970s began countermanding the disparaging remarks that young Queer literates read about themselves. Their books, like Hanckel and Cunningham’s A Way of Love, a Way of Life : a Young Person's Introduction to What it Means to be Gay attempted to reshape the heteronormative discourses reproduced and fostered in YA sex educational manuals circulated earlier in the century. More on that later in my conference talk!
As a human being, this pandemic has compelled me how to survive a tiny terror that travels indiscernibly yet so impact-fully across the globe. As a researcher, it has instructed me to discover other means to accumulate an archive and more resourcefulness in getting my hands on those sources. It has made me pause to consider the value of completing this work, to really contemplate the how’s and why’s of intellectual labor. (Tangential question: Would the academic researcher even survive let alone thrive in a zombie attack? How has this apocalyptic dress rehearsal reformed the academic scholar and the labors of scholarly labor?) I thought I’d get a lot more reading, research, and writing work done in isolation, yet with the tick tock of daily living at home, time has passed quickly and, meanwhile, an imposing current history barged forward sometimes elbowing all of my good research intentions aside. Yet, as so many suffer, does it matter when and if I get one more publication completed?
This pandemic has been making me think about history and how we accrue it, how we accumulate the evidence of past lives, and how the tiniest yet brazen interruptions can reframe and revalue our academic toils. Initially for this blog, I thought that I would foreshadow my research on 20th-century young adult sex education guides, offering a taste-test of what I would present for the conference, yet the processes of doing that research felt more present and took precedence. Instead of an “expert voice” on a topic about YA sex, I really seek a collective conscientious of how and why we do and have done these intellectual enterprises during times of contagion and duress. If we can figure out why we continue to read, research, and write while an insane, death-defying world spins around us, we may have even more reason and resilience to forge ahead in our intellectual endeavors once jabbed and unmasked. Once this difficult chapter has set, I look forward to meeting with you some day, face to face, breath to relieved, sighing breath so that we can admire and celebrate each other’s intellectual industries. ’Til then …
Mark McBeth (Ph.D., Professor, English) lives and teaches in New York City at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. His recently published Queer Literacies: Discourses & Discontents (Lexington, 2019) explores the homophobic discourses of the twentieth century and honors the Queer literates who read, researched, and wrote to upend them.