Mar 7, 2017

Western Wind: How We Learned that Literature Was About Heterosexuals

August 28th, 1978, the first day of my freshman year at Augustana College.  I was 17 years old, newly out.   I didn't know any gay people, but I hoped that would change.  Surely at a big, modern college, there would be a mention of gay people somewhere, in class, on the quad, in a student group.

My first class was Introduction to Literature, at 9:00 am: 30 students, almost all freshmen.  The professor, an elderly white-haired woman, passed out the syllabus and told us about the textbook: Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry, by John Frederick Nims.   It was first published in 1974, and had become the go-to book for college English instructors.

Then she read the first poem, "Western Wind," anonymous, from the Middle Ages:

Western wind, where wilt thou blow?
The small rain down can rain.
Christ!  If my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again.

"The first two lines are easy to understand -- it's raining and windy.  The western wind always brings rain.  What about the last two?"

"The guy wants to get laid!"  a jock exclaimed.

The class erupted into laughter, but the professor said "That's exactly right.  This is a poem about a man missing his lady, and all of the pleasures she offers."

The first moment of my first class of my first day in college was about heterosexual sex!

And it didn't end there.  Poems about heterosexual sex, heterosexual romance, boys gazing at girls, girls gazing at boys.

The sole purpose of literature was to express heterosexual longing, with not a single moment of same-sex intimacy, or a single acknowledgement of the possibility of same-sex desire.

It's been nearly 40 years since that long-ago class.  John Frederick Nims died in 1999.  But Western Wind, now in the fifth edition, is still the go-to book for the ubiquitous Introduction to Literature class.

But surely in modern editions there's an acknowledgement of same-sex desire, some masculine beauty, some references to gay people?

I checked.  A lot of William Carlos Williams, E.E. Cummings, Robert Frost, and Ezra Pound. The horrifyingly incomprehensible "Emperor of Ice Cream" and "Our Bog is Dood."

A few poems by gay authors, but none that mention same-sex desire or relationships.  Sappho's is entitled "There's a Man":

There's a man I really believe is in heaven ---over there, that man. 
To be sitting near you,
knee to knee so close to you, hear your voice, your cozy low laughter,
close to you - enough in the very thought to put my heart at once in palpitation.

They found the one Sappho poem that wasn't about lesbian desire.

A sample of titles:
"Loose Women"
"Blue Girls"
"Upon Julia's Clothes"
"To Helen"
"To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train"
"A Poem for Emily"
"A Woman"

Heterosexual desire abounding.

John Frederick Nims, by the way, wrote about:

Woman mostly, as winter moonlight sees,
Impetuous midnight, and the dune’s dark trees.

The cover photo, with a half-naked man (the titular wind), might provide a bit of beefcake.  But he's carrying a bare-breasted woman in his arms.

And it's actually part of Boticelli's Birth of Venus (1484-86), the famous painting of the emblem of hetero-romance rising from a clamshell:

Introduction to Literature classes are still entirely heterosexist.

Maybe I'd have better luck with the Eastern Wind.

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