Undead texts are works that help to found fields only to find themselves eventually rejected by specialists and embraced by novices. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex is an exemplary Undead text: hailed as a classic when it was first published in 1949, dismissed by many scholars of gender and sexuality studies by the 1980s, yet still in print and still inspiring to undergraduates today. This article explores the work’s other Undead characteristics, including its combination of erudition and generalism, its memorable turns of phrase, and its invention of the very criteria by which it would later be found wanting (e.g., anti-essentialism). The article then turns to the original reception of the first English-language translation (published in 1953) to understand why the text initially had such a strong impact, and ends by speculating about why it continues to inspire today’s undergraduates.
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949; trans. 1953)
Sharon Marcus is Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She is a founder and editor in chief of Public Books and the author of Apartment Stories (1999). Her work on gender and sexuality includes the articles “Fighting Bodies, Fighting Words: A Theory and Politics of Rape Prevention” (1992) and “Queer Theory for Everyone” (2005) and the book Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (2007). Her most recent book is The Drama of Celebrity (2019).
Sharon Marcus; Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949; trans. 1953). Public Culture 1 May 2020; 32 (2 (91)): 375–383. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-8090131
Download citation file: