If you’re a follower of her work you probably already know this, but three days ago Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick died of breast cancer. She leaves behind a powerful bibliography of innovative and searingly witty and amusing writing on sex, love, and art.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick died in New York yesterday, at the age of fifty-eight, following a long battle with breast cancer. The literary critic, who taught most recently at the CUNY Graduate Center, is best known for her formative work in the field of queer theory (in the books “Between Men” and “Epistemology of the Closet”), including a number of provocative—and often scandalous—readings of classic literary texts. In the nineteen-eighties and nineties, her visibility as a member of Duke University’s English Department placed her at the forefront of the culture wars, but her largely symbolic role in those conflicts meant that criticism of her work seldom did justice to the subtlety and searing wit of her writing, nor to her sensitivity to the social and sexual bonds that tie us to each other and to the world.
Sedgwick herself often seemed to find her scandalousness amusing, as when she took on a critic for his condemnation of one of her essays:
Roger Kimball, in his treatise on educational “corruption,” Tenured Radicals, cites the title “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl” from an MLA convention program quite as if he were Perry Mason, the six words a smoking gun. The warm gun that, for the journalists who have adopted the phrase as an index of depravity in academe, is happiness—offering the squibby pop (fulmination? prurience? funniness?) that lets absolutely anyone, in the righteously exciting vicinity of the masturbating girl, feel a very pundit.
In recent years, Sedgwick’s writing became more personal and reflective. Her work had always had an oblique relationship to her personal life—Sedgwick and her husband were happily married for nearly forty years, in a relationship she described as “vanilla”—but it gained psychological and autobiographical depth as she turned her critical gaze toward friends’ experiences of the AIDS epidemic, and her own struggle with breast cancer. The book that resulted from her diagnosis, “A Dialogue on Love,” relates her conversations with her therapist as she is recovering from chemotherapy. “What I am proudest of,” she tells him in one session, “is having a life where work and love are impossible to tell apart.”