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“Special Book Review Section: Reviewing Mother Camp (Fifty Years Late)” (American Anthropologist)

By David Valentine, Gayle Rubin, Martin F. Manalansan IV, Marcia Ochoa, Shaka McGlotten, Elisabeth L. Engebretsen, Varun Chaundry, and María José Belbel, 2018

“Why review a book—why have an introduction to seven reviews of a book—that was published almost fifty years ago? While Esther Newton’s ethnography Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America is nowadays almost reflexively called a “classic,” that term should raise questions in light of the latest debates about the place of classics and canons in anthropology, the meanings of “ethnography,” and renewed attention to the corrosive consequences of elite, masculinist intellectual networks. Unlike most “classics,” Mother Camp has lived in anthropology’s margins; it was never reviewed in an anthropology journal. Its subsequent fame was, rather, established among different disciplinary kin networks even as its theoretical frame was overtaken by transformations in anthropological interests and styles. However, while there are good, festschrift-y reasons for this special book review section, our goal is neither simply to retrospectively celebrate Newton nor to correct a historical wrong. Collectively, the reviews gathered here argue that there are solid reasons to spend time on Mother Camp as anthropologists in 2018: first, for what it can offer to contemporary disciplinary debates and, second, for understanding the political moment some of us appear to be surprised to be in. The unexpected genre of book review for this task is appropriately performative and campy. First, though, we should consider its status as “classic” and can do so through the kin figure in its title. When I began planning dissertation fieldwork in 1992, I was pointed to Mother Camp as essential reading. Indeed, twenty years after its publication, Newton’s monograph was not only essential but still stood almost alone as an anthropological analysis of what subsequently became the flourishing social, political, and intellectual field nominated by “transgender.” By historical accident, Mother Camp is a documentary snapshot of a particular moment, a cusp of gay, lesbian—and, nowadays, we would say transgender, bisexual, queer—history in the US.”

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