Project Name: The Philip C. Van Buskirk Archive
Grantee: Matthew Knip
Funding Cycle: 2016-2017
Last spring my project received a start-up grant to digitize and make freely and publicly available the first years of the unpublished diaries of Philip C. Van Buskirk, which historian B. R. Burg suggests represent the “the most extensive record of introspection ever kept by an American.” Housed today in the Special Collections of the University of Washington Libraries, the journals have been available only on microfilm via interlibrary loan. (Thanks to our project, that has already begun to change.) Van Buskirk’s writing provides a unique window into a world that has proven difficult for scholars to access because it was almost never written down. Born into the upper class, educated and literate—the son of a Maryland Secretary of State—Van Buskirk “fell” into the working-class, largely illiterate, maritime culture of the U.S. Marines and Navy after his father’s suicide. My interest in Van Buskirk is rooted in how his writing informs scholarly debates about sexuality, masculinity, and identity; the effect of upper-class medical/prescriptive literature on the working-class body; the gap between officially-sanctioned and actual modes of intimacy and behavior. Mapping the sexual fluidity of a time before the emergence of modern sexuality, the journals foreground the way modern sexuality interpellates subjects into identities that coalesce around object choice. Van Buskirk has the capability to powerfully reshape assumptions at the heart of criticism, for instance (and perhaps most radically) Robert K. Martin’s assertion that Herman Melville’s locating of human harmony in a group of men masturbating together reflects Melville’s “extraordinary imaginative and visionary power.” To read Van Buskirk is to encounter that historic fraternity, both social and erotic, which Melville would have known intimately, regardless of the degree to which he himself participated in it. This sexy project aims to make interventions beyond Melville criticism, however, into American nineteenth-century studies. The journals reveal a publicly-available sexual culture of homosocial desire that existed before sexual identities emerged, before sex became the captive property of subjectivity. In the working-class world that Van Buskirk details, romantic friendship and sexual intimacy—widely assumed in nineteenth century studies to be incompatible— commonly fold together. The life of the sailor—assumed to be a “demanding experience” that taught the “virtues” of “self-discipline” (sexual abstinence) needed for active participation in the market place—is revealed to be quite other than disciplined or chaste. The degree to which prescriptive literature influenced readers’ behaviors and how they understood their bodies— assumed to be unmeasurable—is charted in expansive detail. The journals possess an interest beyond these topics, however, for anyone interested in the history of the navy, the Perry expedition to Japan, service in the Civil War Confederate Army, middle and working-class sociality, or the nineteenth century in general. As ESQ: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture editor Karen L. Kilcup wrote to me, Van Buskirk’s diary “possesses inherent interest, it also generates a new interpretive model (and, I might add, not simply for Melville).” Begun in 1851, the journals grew, over the course of fifty years, to more than three dozen volumes.