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social sciences

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Paglia, Camille (b. 1947)  
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Social philosopher, literary critic, gadfly, and self-described "loud little woman," Camille Paglia is an unlikely media star. Her frequently outrageous cultural commentary and caustic criticism have made her both famous and controversial.

An openly lesbian university professor, who also identifies as a Democrat and a feminist, she not only skewers "political correctness" and the insularity of academe but also attacks "paleofeminists," gay activists, and many of the most cherished causes of the left with an enthusiastic incisiveness that frequently approaches vitriol.

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While many cheer her irreverent challenges as a refreshing call for open discourse, others accuse Paglia of egotism, divisiveness, and reactionary posturing.

Camille Paglia was born on April 2, 1947 in the south central New York city of Endicott, the daughter of an immigrant family. Her mother and all four of her grandparents had been born in Italy, and Paglia grew up immersed in middle-class Italian Catholic culture. Her mother worked at a bank and her father was a college language professor. They introduced her to art, literature, and music, including opera.

Young Camille was an excellent student and a tomboy, who developed crushes on women teachers and her counselors at Girl Scout camp. As a high school student, she discovered Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, which influenced her greatly and inspired her to identify as a feminist.

Paglia attended Harpur College of the State University of New York at Binghamton, where she became deeply involved in the enormous cultural, political, and artistic upheavals of the 1960s. She developed a fascination with the avant-garde work of Andy Warhol, and a love of such poets as John Milton, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. She wrote her senior thesis on the work of Emily Dickinson and became friends with a circle of gay men.

In 1968, she graduated from Harpur as valedictorian and entered graduate school at Yale University, where, even before the Stonewall riots launched the gay liberation movement, she came out publicly, and defiantly, as a lesbian. In response to an insult she received from a Yale professor of psychiatry, she decided as a matter of principle to be open about her sexuality.

While Paglia looked for a new job, she reworked her doctoral thesis into a manuscript, which she titled Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. In 1984, she was hired to teach humanities at the Philadelphia College of the Performing Arts (later the University of Arts).

She continued to seek a publisher for her book, which was rejected by eight publishing houses and five agents, before finding a positive reception at Yale University Press in 1990. Even then, the book received little notice beyond academic reviews until it was nominated for a National Book Award and released in paper by Vintage Press in 1991, when it became a surprise best-seller.

Sexual Personae launched Paglia into a new career as a social critic and pundit. The book is an ambitious survey of Western literature, art, and culture through the lens of Paglia's belief in biological determinism, the influence of paganism, and the value of popular culture.

While many readers found Sexual Personae stimulating and refreshing, many others were deeply angered at what they considered to be Paglia's dogmatically reactionary assertions, such as, "If civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts."

Despite its statements of deliberate provocation, the book also reveals Paglia as a formidable intellect and a literary critic of unusual insight. As is inevitable for a work of such scope, Sexual Personae is uneven, some chapters more convincing than others. But some of them, such as her discussions of Renaissance poet Edmund Spenser and nineteenth-century American literature, are stunning in their penetration.

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Camille Paglia. Photograph by Misa Martin.
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