“First known U.S. novel with an avowedly homosexual heroine”
254. [LESBIAN FICTION]. CARHART, J[ohn] W[esley]. Norma Trist; or, Pure Carbon: A Story of the Inversion of the Sexes. By J.W. Carhart, M.D. Author of “Sunny Hours,” “Poets and Poetry of the Hebrews,” “Four Years on Wheels,” Etc. Austin: Eugene Von Boeckmann, 1895. [1-3] 4-25  pp. 12mo (17.2 x 12.4 cm), original clay-coated white paper wrappers, upper cover with photographic illustration (supposedly of Gertrude Haynes), lettering and decoration in red. Wraps moderately stained and lightly worn, interior fine, overall very good. Very rare.
First edition of the “first known U.S. novel with an avowedly homosexual heroine” (Kim Emery, The Lesbian Index: Pragmatism and Lesbian Subjectivity in the Twentieth-Century United States, Albany: SUNY Press, 2002). Agatha, p. 134: “A psychopathic novel…a wretched attempt to write a medicated novel.” Wright III:906. This is very unusual nineteenth-century Texana with varying significance for different readers. Carhart’s novel written in the style of Poe’s Gold Bug is set in Fayette County and at the State Asylum in Austin and involves buried treasure near La Grange. The main character, Norma Trist, falls in love with the widow Marie LaMoreaux, whom Norma stabs in a fit of jealousy. After two trials, Norma is acquitted and “cured” by hypnosis, whereupon she marries Frank Artman. The novel is based on the true story of Alice Mitchell (1873?-1896), who slashed her female lover to death because she had become involved with a man.
This famous novel, written by a man who by various turns was a minister and medical doctor, was extremely controversial at the time of its publication and has remained the object of academic curiosity ever since. Replete with suggestions but never any real answers about whether lesbianism is a product of nature or nurture, the plot unfolds in a complex manner involving numerous side plots, such as a hunt for lost treasure. In many ways, except for the subject, the work resembles any number of dime novels published at the time. Despite its plot defects, the novel does seek to explore and offer explanations for lesbianism; in the trials particularly, various witnesses all give their theories about why Norma behaved as she did and why she is as she is. Somewhat predictably, the jury at her first trial becomes hung, she is acquitted, and sentenced to the state asylum. In some respects, the modern reader is left as confused as the fictional jury as to the causes of and “cures” for lesbian love. As the author says: “Should you choose to pursue your investigations further in the direction suggested in the preceding pages, we doubt not but you will find the subject, as we have done, one of scientific and social interest, involving far more in its scope than you would at first be led to suppose” (p. 254).
For more discussion of this work see: Kim Emery, “Steers, Queers, and Manifest Destiny: Representing the Lesbian Subject in Turn-of-the-Century Texas,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 5:1 (July 1994): 26-57. Also, Kim Emery, The Lesbian Index: Pragmatism and Lesbian Subjectivity in the Twentieth-Century United States, Albany: SUNY Press, 2002, p. 32: “Carhart’s novel points to a pivotal place and moment in the transformation of the female inverts inherited from European sexology into the U.S. lesbians we know today. Turn-of-the-century Texas provides a prime location for the dramatization of the American discourse most influential in contemporary understandings of sexual deviance: the popularized versions of evolutionary theory invoked to explain and excuse U.S. expansion and Anglo dominance.”
The author, who is credited with inventing the automobile, moved from New York to Wisconsin and finally to Clarendon, Texas, in 1885. He practiced medicine there and later at Lampasas, Austin, and San Antonio. For more on Carhart, see Mary Balousek, Famous Wisconsin Inventors (Oregon, Wisconsin: Badger
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