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In a book deeply impressive in its reach while also deeply embedded in its storied setting, bestselling historian Douglass Shand-Tucci explores the nature and expression of sexual identity at America’s oldest university during the years of its greatest influence. The Crimson Letter follows the gay experience at Harvard in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, focusing upon students, faculty, alumni, and hangers-on who struggled to find their place within the confines of ...
In a book deeply impressive in its reach while also deeply embedded in its storied setting, bestselling historian Douglass Shand-Tucci explores the nature and expression of sexual identity at America’s oldest university during the years of its greatest influence. The Crimson Letter follows the gay experience at Harvard in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, focusing upon students, faculty, alumni, and hangers-on who struggled to find their place within the confines of Harvard Yard and in the society outside.
Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde were the two dominant archetypes for gay undergraduates of the later nineteenth century. One was the robust praise-singer of American democracy, embraced at the start of his career by Ralph Waldo Emerson; the other was the Oxbridge aesthete whose visit to Harvard in 1882 became part of the university’s legend and lore, and whose eventual martyrdom was a cautionary tale. Shand-Tucci explores the dramatic and creative oppositions and tensions between the Whitmanic and the Wildean, the warrior poet and the salon dazzler, and demonstrates how they framed the gay experience at Harvard and in the country as a whole.
The core of this book, however, is a portrait of a great university and its community struggling with the full implications of free inquiry. Harvard took very seriously its mission to shape the minds and bodies of its charges, who came from and were expected to perpetuate the nation’s elite, yet struggled with the open expression of their sexual identities, which it alternately accepted and anathematized. Harvard believed it could live up to the Oxbridge model, offering a sanctuary worthy of the classical Greek ideals of male association, yet somehow remain true to its legacy of respectable austerity and Puritan self-denial.
The Crimson Letter therefore tells stories of great unhappiness and manacled minds, as well as stories of triumphant activism and fulfilled promise. Shand-Tucci brilliantly exposes the secrecy and codes that attended the gay experience, showing how their effects could simultaneously thwart and spark creativity. He explores in particular the question of gay sensibility and its effect upon everything from symphonic music to football, set design to statecraft, poetic theory to skyscrapers.
The Crimson Letter combines the learned and the lurid, tragedy and farce, scandal and vindication, and figures of world renown as well as those whose influence extended little farther than Harvard Square. Here is an engrossing account of a university transforming and transformed by those passing through its gates, and of their enduring impact upon American culture.
Crimson Letter, The
[ I ]
WARRIOR AND AESTHETE
Charting the Continuum
The Warrior Archetype: Walt Whitman's Harvard
You want to be brothers-in-arms, to have him to yourself ... to be shipwrecked together, [to] perform valiant deeds to earn his admiration, to save him from certain death, to die for him—to die in his arms, like a Spartan, kissed once on the lips.
—Tom Stoppard, THE INVENTION OF LOVE
ARTS AND SCIENCES, the age-old academic way of seeing the world. Compare and contrast, the examiner's perennial question. The artistic personality and the scientific? It is a good typology for the cast of characters in any play about Harvard, and thus for Harvard's gay experience I propose somewhat of a variant: the archetype, on the one hand, of the warrior (this chapter) and, on the other, of the aesthete (next chapter)—each an actual, indeed personal, presence in Harvard Yard in historical time, each a key vector, as scholars of Proust might put it, in psychological time ever since (and even in the very different Yard of today). Behold, then, Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde, the second of whom, of course, it would be easy enough to cast as representing the artistic personality. But the leading homosexual examples of the scientific personality that have been most tellingly advanced—Austro-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and British mathematician and coinventor of the computer Alan Turing—disclose at once why it would be more than a little forced to cast Whitman in like profile. He was a poet, after all. Like Homer, however, Whitman sang of epic days; lived them, too. And perhaps because Harvard, whatever lens you look at it through, is above all an American story, its gay experience, historically, is not chiefly of Wilde's influence—though (like the Beatles later) Wilde certainly took America by storm. But it was Whitman whose influence took deepest root in Harvard Yard, decades before Wilde was seen cruising Harvard's fine new gymnasium: Whitman, as Homer might have said, of the fierce days, or, as Emerson did say, of the bold words.
Never bolder than on Boston Common, where on a sharp late-winter's day early in 1860 America's Plato, Ralph Waldo Emerson, perhaps Harvard'smost illustrious graduate still, walked the Beacon Street path the better part of several hours with the poet most would agree is America's greatest. Back and forth, up and down, Whitman confronted Emerson's misgivings and foreboding about the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass with deep feeling that day: the end of it all, what Whitman called "a bully dinner"1—and the publication of perhaps the most famous homosexual poetry ever written.
Of their dialogue that afternoon Robert K. Martin, a literary critic and professor of English at the University of Montreal, has declared that its great import lay in the fact that it was the keystone in Whitman's overarching, lifelong vocation: to name same-sex love in the modern era. He called it "adhesive," as opposed to "amative," borrowing from the language of phrenology a term Whitman applied to a love that, in Martin's words, had "been recognized for thousands of years ... [and been] implied in the Bible"—David and Jonathan's "love passing that of woman"—but was otherwise nameless. There was, Martin reiterates, "no word for this love ...Whitman was indeed Emerson's 'poet as namer.'" Martin concludes: "He gave that love the first name it had of its own, albeit a poor and borrowed one."2
Now the greatest Bostonian came in from Concord to see the visiting poet (so recounts Whitman's most recent biographer, Jerome Loving), calling at Whitman's humble boardinghouse (rooms two dollars a week), off run-down Bowdoin Street behind the domed State House on the crowded north slope of old Beacon Hill. Emerson, too, was the host at dinner, at the American House, a posh hotel nearby. Boston did not disdain Brooklyn. Harvard's philosopher king took the rough, uneducated poet very seriously. And although what we know of their discussion suggests they focused on the "Children of Adam" section about heterosexual love, it was Whitman's overall attitude to sexuality in Leaves of Grass, of which the "Calamus" section on homosexual love (new to this 1860 edition) was the most radical expression, that drove the debate so vigorously.3
They had argued long and hard, and it was a conversation Whitman cherished—"more precious than gold to me," he later wrote of their afternoon walk. Emerson, Whitman wrote later, was "in his prime, keen physically and morally magnetic, arm'd at every point, and when he chose, wielding the emotional just as well as the intellectual ... . It was an argument-statement, reconnoitering, review, attack, and pressing home (like an army corps in order, artillery, cavalry, infantry) ... ."4 After all, Emerson was keen: in his biographer Justin Kaplan's words, Leaves of Grass was a book he had "stood grandfather to."5 Altered, would there be as good a book left? Whitman asked. Emerson, considering, said he thought not. Even in aid of his own view he would not bend his truth: "I did not say as good a book, I said a good book." Whitman, confirmed in his opinion, changed nothing. "The dirtiest book in all the world is the expurgated book," he said later. "Expurgation is apology," Whitman declared, "an admission that something or other was wrong." Though he would also write that "I have not livedto regret my Emerson no," he also affirmed, "Read all the Emerson you can." He was "not conclusive on all points, but no man more helps to a conclusion."6
MASCULINE. SOCRATIC. WHITMANIC. But, however enduring the poetry, Whitman's name for this nameless love hardly stuck. Nor his style. Both were virtually dead a century later when, in the 1950s and '60s, the dramatic change in "gay," as it was beginning to be called, from the androgyny and effeminacy that in the intervening century had become fashionable to the "new clone" look of the 1970s and '80s was explained by Felice Picano. Picano, among the foremost members of the seminal early 1980s New York literary coterie, the Violet Quill, whose other members included Edmund White and Andrew Holleran, pointed out that by the 1950s the most visible homosexuals had come to accept the medical and legal establishments' view that homosexuals constituted a "third sex." As such, for example, they "dressed not recognizably as men, not as women, but midway in between," in a style Picano called "fluffy sweater queens." Similarly, "their walk could be characterized as mincing."
Protesting that he did "not mean to belittle or demean these people," whom he called "courageous and defiant" in the face of a "conformist, xenophobic, lockstep society," Picano, though he admitted they were the "only homosexual role models extant," pointed out that "for most gay men they were inappropriate either as models or as sex objects." Indeed, Picano concluded, the masculine clone style "had nothing at all to do with 'not being female.' Rather, it had to do with taking back from The Man a masculine gay identity [emphasis added]. Gay men came to see they were not some third sex ...but instead male-sexed men who had sex with other such men."7
To this history lesson out of his own life, Picano made a point of adding his own memory of why so many—particularly "macho" heterosexual men and ardently feminist women—found what was really a revival of Whitmanic style in the 1970s so threatening: "Gay clones were men without women or children ... . Possessing no weak links that could be used against them as blackmail or held against them as hostages, clones could not be controlled or corralled. They could only be gotten at by direct, physical force, and in a one-on-one fight, they had a pretty good chance of winning."
Now Picano's purpose remains contemporary and controversial, intended then as now to protest the 1990s fashion of reinventing "lesbigay history to suit current politically correct attitudes," particularly about the historic 1969 Stonewall Riots; "not ... achieved," he wrote, "by those super heroes: dykes and drag queens. The truth is quite different ... . Of those actually there, and thus those responsible for early gay politics having taken off, it was not in the racially balanced, ethnic-and-gender-correct proportions that the lesbigay media paraded in 1994, but was instead comprised of about 95 percent middle-class whites, mostly college-educated males."
In a larger sense, however, Picano was also recapitulating in our own time what I see as the two chief polarities of gay history, a reflection of the two great homosexual archetypes: that of the warrior, and that of the aesthete; in other words, in the modern period, Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde.
Leonard Bernstein, who will figure importantly in this study, is a good example of the tensions between the Whitmanic and the Wildean. Himself a powerful man in every sense—a giant of a conductor in a profession few gays had then mastered—Bernstein was yet a child of his era and at a party in San Francisco where he met Tom Waddell, he showed it clearly enough. Waddell, a hero of the traditional Olympics (in fact, an Olympic decathlete in 1968), sought to create a gay equivalent to the Olympic Games he had so excelled in.8 Before he was forbidden to use the term (for what are now called the Gay Games), he had planned to call them the Gay Olympics. Bernstein's response? "My god—who needs Gay Olympics?" But as Waddell turned on his heels and walked away, seething, Bernstein, himself provoked, gave his own game away; his voice pursued Waddell: "Who's that fucking queen?" "If he hadn't been drunk, I think I'd have punched him," Waddell told Paul Moor. Added Moor: "One dares hardly even to think of the resultant headlines."9 As we will see, there was more than a little Wilde in Whitman, and no little Whitman in Wilde. But the archetypes they exemplify are nonetheless profoundly different.
Whitman first, or—because this book is about Harvard—Ralph Waldo Emerson.
THE SAGE OF Concord showed his hand clearly enough with respect to homosexuality when in Representative Men (1850) he declared: "Let none presume to measure the irregularities of Michel Angelo and Socrates by village scales."10 Ouch: it can still be a salutary prick to our conscience in our own time. I am reminded of George Washington's judgment against slavery. Both pricks—both judgments—are decisive answers to the so-called presentism defense, which "can be useful for almost any era and almost any misdeed," in the words of historian and author Henry Wiencek. He recently responded to an attempt to defend Yale University from its entanglement with slavery by a University of California linguist intent on presentism's key assertion that "it's downright inappropriate to render a moral judgment ... based on moral standards which didn't exist at the time." Noting that even Jefferson, himself racist, nonetheless saw slavery in its true colors, Wieneck returned fire briskly:
George Washington was an enthusiastic slaveholder in his early decades; ... but by the end of his life he found slavery repugnant. In his will Washington freed his slaves and specified that the children be educated ... . Ifwe accept the statement "it's downright inappropriate to render a moral judgment" on slavery, we are more willing to accept slavery than George Washington was.
If the founders had such misgivings over slavery, how is it that they allowed slavery to continue? The answer is not that they didn't know any better, but that they kept slavery so the Southern states would join the union ... . 11
And just as Wieneck concludes we "compound" the sin by "draping a veil of innocence over the transaction" (he sees, of course, that "the true beneficiary of the presentism defense is not the past but the present"), so we note the implied criticism of Emerson's dismissive "village scales."
It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that Robert K. Martin has written:
The Transcendentalists were the first group in America to explore the relations between persons of the same sex, and they did so through their understanding of Platonic philosophy and German Romanticism. Ralph Waldo Emerson ...had been infatuated with a classmate, Martin Gay, at Harvard ... .His concept of friendship was gendered male and seen as superior to heterosexual love ... .Thoreau also had difficulty reconciling an abstract commitment to friendship with an aversion to the physical ... .
Margaret Fuller also participated in the discourses of friendship ... [and she insisted on] a fundamental androgyny: "There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman."12
Indeed, Emerson's infatuation with Gay (later a respected Boston doctor) is a much overlooked but key aspect of his life.
It was in the fall of 1819 at Harvard that young Waldo, in the words of his latest biographer, Robert D. Richardson, "found himself strangely and powerfully attracted by a new freshman named Martin Gay," at whom he found himself looking and looking, and Gay, it would seem, looking back. "The disturbing power of the glances"13 troubled Emerson, wrote Richardson, while Justin Kaplan reported that forthwith Emerson "wrote ardent poetry about [Gay] as well as a fantasy laced with sexual symbolism."14 Nor did it end there. According to Richardson, Emerson "remain[ed] susceptible to such crushes, expressed at first through glances, all his life," and though Richardson is careful to observe that "most of them would involve women [emphasis added]," leaving it at that and dropping the subject, he added that Emerson, at least in the case of Martin Gay, took pains to cover his tracks. Though the original journal entries were in Latin in the first place, at some later point Richardson agrees with Kaplan that Emerson deliberately defaced them, "heavily cross [ing] out the Martin Gay journal notes."15 Other scholars attribute the deed to Emerson's son Edward.
Biographer Graham Robb has put both sides of the issue very well:
According to one view, it is crudely anachronistic to see friendships of two centuries ago as evidence of homosexuality. Michel Foucault suggested in 1976 that the homosexual ...was invented by doctors in the mid-19th-century ... .The effect has been to cordon off all gay experience that predates the advent of psychology ... .
Only the most literal-minded poststructuralist would claim, however, that there was no such thing as homosexual passion until the word "homosexual" was coined in the second half of the 19th century. The apparent lack of references to what we now call homosexuality is misleading. It was "the crime not to be named among Christians," which, of course, was a convenient way of referring to it.16
This was, naturally, decades before Whitman. In addition to his infatuation with Gay, there are many other wonders in Emerson's life and work to account for, as well as a good deal of literary and philosophical material. Perhaps because of his own unhappy experience of heterosexual marriage, in his essay "Love" Emerson very deliberately allowed a safe refuge for all in opposite-sex or same-sex harbors.17 Never mind that he filled a 250-page notebook with translations from the Persian, mostly of the work of the fourteenth-century poet Hafez, famously homoerotic—"almost all ... poems of love, wine, fire and desire" in Richardson's words—or that some of Emerson's own best poetry ("Bacchus," for instance) was written under what his biographer calls "the intoxicating spell of Hafez," it is significant that Emerson made no attempt in his translations to change the gender of poems addressed by Hafez to a youth he liked: "Take my heart in thy hand, O beautiful boy of Shiraz! / I would give for the mole on thy cheek Samarcand and Buchara."18
Then there is what has been called a "sensuous daydream about intimacy with a man" from Emerson's journal entry of 7 June 1838: He imagines being "shut up in a little schooner bound on a voyage of three or four weeks with a man—an entire stranger—of a great and regular mind of vast resources of his nature." Nothing would be forced: "I would not speak to him, I would not look at him; [ ... ] so sure should I be of him, so luxuriously should I husband my joys that I should steadily hold back all the time, make no advances, leaving altogether to Fortune for hours, for days, for weeks even, the manner and degrees of intercourse." Emerson went on to describe the man as one with whom he could "bathe and dilute ... my greater self; he is me, and I am him."19 How similar all this sounds to Emerson's diary entries about his and Gay's everyday life in Harvard Yard: "I, observing him, just before we met turned another corner and most strangely avoided him. This morning I went out to meet him in a different direction and stopped to speak with a lounger in order to be directly in [Gay's] way, but [he] turned into the first gate and went towards Stoughton [Hall]."20
The deliberate avoidances piqued rather than quashed Emerson's interest. Similarly, Emerson, hearing of a report that Gay was "dissolute," wasdisappointed he could still not shake free of his feelings. In April 1821, after a year of what today we'd call "cruising," the two had yet to exchange "above a dozen words."21 As Emerson would bluntly write in later years, "Men cease to interest us when we find their limitations."22 But not Gay. Not with Emerson. And this despite the fact—if "dissolute" has some relation with "vileness"—that Emerson may more and more have sensed what was at issue; in the years following his crush on Gay several entries on friendship in Emerson's journal degenerate almost to rants, rants on the dangers of "vileness." 23
Views differ on the various meanings of all this fugitive data. Richardson feels Emerson's candor about his feelings for Gay is evidence that Emerson was "rather innocent and essentially unembarrassed."24 Caleb Crain, on the other hand, in his superb study, American Sympathy: Men, Friendship, and Literature in the New Nation, suggests Emerson's attitudes, so contradictory to posterity's impression of him, are explained by nothing more complicated than the fact that "homosexuality was taboo in Victorian America": "This simple explanation has no high theoretical glamour to recommend it," writes Crain, "but it clears up a number of long-standing paradoxes about Emerson's heart."25
He does not argue Emerson was gay. He knows, and says clearly, that "gay love as we know it is modern," and as Thoreau wrote, "the past cannot be presented." But Crain also knows how misleading it has proved to be to dismiss the history of romantic same-sex love. He writes:
[T]hough the terms and words and social categories have changed, I suspect that because such people exist now, they existed then. As Emerson put it, "One nature wrote and the same reads." ... I am afraid that poststructuralist gay critics have outwitted themselves ... . "There is no event but sprung somewhere from the soul of man," [Emerson] wrote in "Literary Ethics," "and therefore there is none but the soul of man can interpret."26
Crain, as a matter of fact, is distinctly in a position to know, for when he notes that the words and the social categories may have changed, but not the facts of the matter, he does so from the perspective of the time of his own study, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, so many words and terms and categories of which are unrecognizable to us today. Of that era, moreover, Crain has this to say of what he calls the reign of "sympathy," also called sentiment or sensibility, which he notes for a century and a half "had the force of a biological fact ... . Well into the nineteenth century, undergraduates at Harvard and Princeton studied it ... . Not until Darwin observed that competition, not cooperation, was the law of nature did its scientific prestige falter." And, according to Crain, two of his case studies in American Sympathy—the relationship of John André (the British officer inthe American War of Independence hanged as a spy after negotiating the surrender of West Point) with a Philadelphia youth, John Cope, and that of a late-eighteenth-century Princeton undergraduate, James Gibson, with a Philadelphia businessman, John F. Mifflin—were just such intense examples of "sympathy," so much so he feels compelled to ask: "Did it mean they had sex?" He answers, "In antebellum America, men said little about sex between men. About their romantic feelings for one another, on the other hand, men were garrulous and subtle." Moreover, of the relationships between Gibson and Mifflin, Crain says more: not only that his study of the diaries of both offers "ample evidence that at the height of sympathy's reign, American men could express emotions to each other with a fervor and openness that could not have been detached from religious enthusiasm a generation earlier and would have to be consigned to sexual perversion a few generations later," but that whether or not they actually had sex, "they held each other in a regard that we would call sexual." Indeed, Crain seems to anticipate somewhat the provocative subtitle of Jonathan Ned Katz's Love Stories of 2001: Sex Between Men Before Homosexuality.27
It is in the context of this historical evolution of categories and terms (indeed, "the shape of sympathy had changed" between André's era and Emerson's later) that Emerson's crush at Harvard needs to be considered. This Crain does, pointing out that though it has been many years since Katz first collected some of Emerson's more provocative themes in his Gay American History (1976), scholars generally have yet to face the fact that "the feelings that came to Emerson during his crush on Gay provoked metaphors, ideas, and psychological compromises that became crucial to [Emerson's] mature philosophy and writing." Again, Crain does not say Emerson was homosexual but offers a far more important analysis:
Homosexual eros is the motive and structuring metaphor of his work, and at times it is his explicit type. To most ears, this assertion may sound likely for Whitman but novel as a claim for Emerson. The expression of love for men was not Emerson's exclusive literary motive, and he probably never realized a love affair with a man. But this brand of eros was a crucial force in Emerson's life and writing.28
Crain instances two moments in Emerson's career when this was the case, neither of which, interestingly, is his friendship with Thoreau.
Emerson is not generally an entry in gay and lesbian literary anthologies. Thoreau, however, who never married (he did propose to a woman friend but was rejected) and wrote a famously homoerotic poem, "Sympathy"—always included in the gay canon—is often accorded a substantial entry in such books. In the end, though, the data amounts to as much or as little as one wants to make of it. Wrote Marylynne Diggs in The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage: "Biographers remain undecided about Thoreau'ssexuality ... . Some believe he was a 'repressed' homosexual and others that he was asexual ... . But his Journals, his essay 'Chastity and Sensuality,' and the long discourse on 'Friendship' in A Week are prolific expressions of the beauty, and the agony, of love between men."29 Some of his passions may indeed refer to Emerson, and there are certainly distinguished Thoreau scholars, such as Walter Harding, who argue for a gay reading of Thoreau's work, but the whole subject remains highly speculative; no authoritative consensus has yet emerged.
Interestingly, however, Crain, though he does not ignore Thoreau, focuses his discussion of Emerson's sexuality instead on just two matters: the Gay crush of 1819-1821, which he explicates through a poem by Emerson, "Dedication," and his essay "Friendship," which Crain links as intimately to Emerson's relationship with Samuel Ward. In each case, Crain argues, Emerson transformed first Gay, then Ward, from flesh, as it were, to literature, "channel [ing] his feelings into a work of literature, imbuing that work with a special energy and asking it to justify his renunciation." Crain calls this "a technique of separating one's feelings for a man from the man himself, in order to free them for literary use":
From [Plato's] Phaedrus, Emerson had learned that he could preserve the sense of energy and purpose that love for a man gave him if, rather than simply kill this love as forbidden and sinful, he cut the love from the man, like a flower from its roots. If he kept Martin Gay or Samuel Gray Ward at a fond distance, Emerson could enjoy the feelings they inspired and transform the feelings into a literary ecstasy, which was presented in his prose as if it were abstract.
It was a technique of Emerson's that Herman Melville noticed in The Confidence Man, where, as was often the case, hierotomy, as Crain calls it, protected Emerson only too well. Concludes Crain: "It protected him from the men he thought he loved." Thus, "resolv[ing] his erotic attractions by Platonic abnegation" served very well the purposes of Emerson, "who instead of firing it," Crain perceives in a brilliant insight, "made it a principle to live his lie as a loaded gun."30
Yet Emerson, in fact, compromised to this extent: "Dedication" he never sent to Gay; "Friendship" he did send to Ward. What a present!
There is a sense in which Emerson, whom Oscar Wilde called "New England's Plato" (and, by extension, Richardson uses the term "American Plato"31), certainly equals and for moderns may surpass Plato in this matter. Observes Richardson: "In the end Emerson would prove more than the American Plato, since he would reject Plato's politics and struggle to reconcile Platonism with democratic idealism." Meanwhile, "there is nothing like Emerson's essay in the literature of friendship," Crain asserts. "Its closest relative is the work of Plato," who deals with "the question of eros in friendship."In fact, in Plato "the audience is never certain of the nature of the relationship discussed," Crain continues. "The same drama exists in Emerson's text." One wonders if it was as clear to Ward then as to Crain now that it was of Ward that Emerson wrote in "Friendship" when he reproduced in that essay a letter from his journals, which ends: "Thou art to me a delicious torment. Thine ever, or never." Certainly Ward can hardly have misunderstood Thoreau's "Sympathy," which Emerson is known to have sent him, nor Leaves of Grass, which, even before he found time to write back to Walt Whitman, Emerson forwarded to Samuel Ward.32
Walt Whitman's Story
IN LATER YEARS, surrounded by haters of Whitman among both family and friends, Emerson grew quiet about him, excluding the poet from his widely read poetic anthology, Parnassus, and solacing thereby those who were dismayed to ever have found Harvard's great luminary and America's most notorious poet on the same page. Similarly, Whitman, feeling himself ill used by Emerson's friends and family (though never by Emerson himself), grew restive, like Thoreau, with the burdens of discipleship ("Who wants to be any man's mere follower?" Whitman scoffed). It was "Emerson-on-the-brain" that explained his saluting the great man as "Master" in the second edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman protested.33 But Emerson hardly minded any of it, not just because as he grew old he lost his memory, but because if the master did remember, he remembered surely that his philosophy of Man Thinking (Thinking, not Learning) had not much use for the idea of disciples in the first place.
Nor has any of this led posterity to misread either man's view of the other. "Nearly all scholars now agree," wrote Allen in The New Walt Whitman Handbook, "that Emerson himself was the one single greatest influence on Whitman during the years when he was planning and writing the first two or three editions of Leaves of Grass."34 Indeed, the Brooklyn poet had said too much over the years to ever unsay his debt. "I never get tired of talking to him," Whitman wrote once of Emerson. "I think everyone was fascinated by his personality." He wrote, too, of the "wonderful heart and soul of the man." Nor did he leave it at that. "Never a face more gifted with power to express, fascinate, maintain," Whitman wrote of his mentor, hero almost, whose mind he liked best of all, thinking it at one and the same time "penetrating and sweet." Not only Emerson got crushes. "They never could hold him; no province, no clique, no church," avowed Whitman. "I always go back to Emerson. He was the one man to do a particular job wholly on his own account." Even that was not enough. "Emerson never fails; he can't be rejected; even when he falls on strong ground he somehow eventuates a harvest." Finally, the accolade: "My ideas were simmering and simmering," Whitman told a friend, "and Emerson brought them to a boil."35
Nor was Emerson shy, either, of singing Whitman's praises, though in more literary guise, famously describing Leaves of Grass as "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed." Nor of bluntly telling Whitman, as Richardson says, "You have a great pack howling at your heels always, Mr. Whitman; I hope you show them all a proper contempt; they deserve no more than your heels."36 A passage well worth parsing. After their 1860 dialogue on Boston Common, Emerson had wanted to introduce Whitman to the Saturday Club (as he did, in fact, to the Boston Athenaeum)37 but no less a triumvirate than Longfellow, Holmes Senior, and Lowell disparaged the idea, according to G. W. Allen, and disparaged it so intently Emerson desisted. Nor was that the worst of it. Thomas Bailey Aldrich, another Boston literary light then, now obscure, would call Whitman "a charlatan"; his poetry, Aldrich felt, belonged in a "quart of spirits in an anatomical museum!" And Lowell, not content with excluding Whitman from Boston's leading intellectual dining club, made a point of keeping all his students at Harvard from reading the poet. As Justin Kaplan writes, it was Lowell who was probably responsible for the fact that "Leaves of Grass was removed from the open shelves of [Harvard's] college library and kept under lock and key with other tabooed books."38
It cannot be overemphasized how far Emerson went way out on a limb for Whitman. Indeed, in a sense he stayed there—as Richardson attests: though Emerson said something once to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's brother about "Whitman's rudeness in printing the [personal, not public] letter of praise Emerson had sent in later editions of Leaves of Grass], Whitman's impulsiveness had no effect on Emerson's enthusiasm for his work." And this despite the fact that almost everyone in Boston and elsewhere "recoiled" from the strong sexuality in Whitman's work. "For years," adds Richardson, "Emerson was nearly alone in his admiration for Whitman."39 Indeed, Emerson surely sought to convince Whitman to pull back on the sexuality because he so admired the poet's work and worried Whitman would be destroyed in an era when—such was the virulence Whitman's treatment of sexuality aroused—even Emerson's most jubilant imprimaturs could not ensure his poetry the hearing it deserved. Polite society would just have none of it.
Of Boston generally, Whitman had mostly only good to say, and though it is unclear what neighborhoods he lingered longest in—he was sighted downtown, on Beacon Hill, along the waterfront, and in both Cambridge and Somerville—his own notations and diary entries make it clear Harvard Yard was well known to him. In August 1881 he noted, "The horse-cars form one of the great institutions and puzzles of Boston. I ride in them every day—of course get in the open ones—go out to Harvard Square often." He even notes his route—"through Cambridge Street across the Back Bay"—and although the locales of his socializing were mostly downtown Bostonhotels and clubs and taverns, he specifically mentions "the fine old mansions of Cambridge" and also, specifically, "the College buildings,"40 in which, I do not doubt, the maverick poet on each of his sojourns in Boston came into contact with less grand but perhaps more welcoming circles than Emerson's persnickety Olympians. Among Boston's demimonde generally, and particularly the denizens of Harvard Yard where, despite Lowell's efforts, several students stood out as ardent supporters of the radical poet, quite a number of the poet's strongest supporters were to be found over the years. These included the novelist John Trowbridge, with whom Whitman is known to have spent a day at his house on Prospect Hill in Somerville, just beyond Cambridge, and, most notably, William D. O'Connor, who was to become the leader nationally of a "Whitman movement."41 At the time, in 1860, O'Connor was himself at work on a book for the Boston publishing house of Thayer and Eldridge, Whitman's own publishers for the 1860 Leaves of Grass and the reason Whitman was himself in town that year, composing and reading proof. ("We are young men," Thayer and Eldridge challenged Whitman; "try us.")
Others in other years who would draw Whitman back to Boston included two Harvard students, Charles Sempers and William Sloane Kennedy. Sempers, an undergraduate, actually once wrote quite a fine essay for the Harvard Monthly on Whitman, an essay Whitman biographer Jerome Loving calls "one of the earliest attempts by someone outside Whitman's various circles of support to identify what is most admirable about Leaves of Grass."42 We also know, because Sempers once tried to get the poet to come and give a talk at Harvard by invoking the already famous philosopher and psychologist as host, that William James was not averse to Whitman. No surprise, really; James would quote one of Whitman's "fine and moving" poems, "To You," in the last chapter of his book Pragmatism. Kennedy, the other Harvard student, a friend of Sempers's at the Divinity School and later a Boston Herald reporter, would write a popular book, Reminiscences of Walt Whitman ,43 and help raise funds in 1886 to buy Whitman a summer cottage, the project of yet another small group of Whitmanic Bostonians led by the Irish-American poet John Boyle O'Reilly. By then Whitman had again made another visit to the New England capital, and O'Reilly, a leader of Boston's bohemia and a founder of several of its (once!) bohemian clubs, arranged with George Parsons Lathrop, Hawthorne's son-in-law, for Whitman to give a talk in 1881 at the St. Botolph Club. As the Botolph was not so stuffy in its brilliant early decades of bohemianism as the Saturday Club was, Whitman's appearance was a great success. Moreover, those attending included such literati as publisher James R. Osgood, who as a result of the evening shocked everyone in 1881 by proposing to issue yet another—the definitive—edition of Leaves of Grass.44
For Whitman, for everyone, Osgood's decision was full of Harvard resonances. Osgood himself was a Bowdoin man. But James R. Osgood & Co.was the "in-house" successor (Houghton, Mifflin the outsider successor) to Ticknor & Fields, perhaps the greatest nineteenth-century American publisher, and one of Osgood's two partners when he approached Whitman was Thomas F. Ticknor, scion of the leading Boston family whose patriarch was Professor George Ticknor, one of Harvard's star professors, a founder of the Boston Public Library, the man sometimes called the father of American graduate education. There was no Harvard University Press then, and this was as close to Harvard's imprimatur as the era offered. It was also true, however, that in 1881 Osgood had just withdrawn from the first firm that succeeded Ticknor & Fields and was trying to reestablish himself. Thus the lure of Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass in its final, definitive edition (appendices aside) he published despite Whitman's refusal to expurgate anything.
That spring all hell broke loose ...[and]—in the words of Edwin Haviland Miller—the censorship and the ensuing debate in the newspapers immortalized Boston's "dubious morality by making it a national joke." The label, "Banned in Boston," was dramatically bestowed [by the district attorney at the behest of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, predecessor to the infamous Watch and Ward Society] on one of America's national literary treasures, Leaves of Grass.45
Osgood withdrew the book from sale; in 1882 it was reissued in Philadelphia. What had changed? Twenty years earlier it had been a Boston publisher that first dared to put out the "sex poems"! But it was always a tense business, Whitman's poetry, and Whitman himself was no stranger to equivocation. His own public attitude to the subject of homosexuality vacillated widely according to the position he found himself in—or, rather, was put in; witness, when pressed by John Addington Symonds, how boldly Whitman famously, and surely falsely, declared himself the father of six children! Andrew Delbanco, in a penetrating review in The New York Times of Loving's biography of Whitman, gives two little-known examples of Whitman's ways in this or that circumstance. On the one hand, in assembling reviews for advertisement in his books, he had, in Delbanco's words, "the prescience to grasp the first axiom of modern celebrity culture—that there is no such thing as bad publicity." Indeed, Whitman mixed in "just enough negative criticism" to titillate, "including one shocked review that alluded, discreetly in Latin, to his homosexuality: Peccatum illud horribile, inter Christianos non nominandum [that horrible sin not to be named among Christians]." On the other hand, in 1883, with the poet's close cooperation, Richard Maurice Bucke published a second laudatory biography in which Whitman himself made revisions, added passages of his own, and let stand Bucke's patently prudish description of the homoerotic "Calamus" poems, though, of course, these were named for a flower that resembles the shape of an erect penis.46
How did Harvard Yard view such things? Kennedy, a lifelong and devoted admirer of Whitman, in his 1896 book about the poet argued vigorously against any suggestion Whitman was homosexual.47 Which, of course, may have been to protest too much. Especially interesting, however, somewhat on the other side, is the reaction from the Jameses—soon to move from Beacon Hill's Ashburton Place to their more famous abode on Quincy Street, overlooking Harvard Yard—and particularly from young Henry, to Whitman's Civil War poetry, Drum-Taps.48 Sheldon Novick notes the book was "making a stir in Boston" and that it was "much admired" by James's father and by Emerson. But young Henry "dismissed [it] almost with anger." Whitman, Novick adds, "was on a course that diverged widely from his own." In more than one way. The effect on him of Whitman's verses, wrote Henry, was of "the effort of an essentially prosaic mind to lift itself by a prolonged muscular strain, into poetry."49 All James's biographers have to address his initial reaction because in later years Whitman became virtually James's favorite American poet. And all react as one might expect. Kaplan suggests James for a long time tried "to pretend that this early review never existed."50 Leon Edel, James's preeminent biographer, wondered if it was "Whitman's homo-eroticism" that led James to make his peace with Whitman.51 Sheldon Novick gets it just right, telling very well the tale of how Edith Wharton recalled James reading Leaves of Grass by her fireplace in Lennox; "his voice filled the hushed room like an organ adagio." Adds Novick: "Wharton was delighted to discover that he thought Whitman, as she did, 'the greatest of American poets.' She was unaware of Henry James's hostile review of Drum-Taps years before and of the long process of sexual self-acceptance that had allowed yet another Harvard man to become a lover of Whitman."52
Henry James's Story
HENRY JAMES FIRST appeared in Harvard Yard, in 1862, seventeen years old, part New Yorker, part New Englander, soon to be in the same equal parts an American (expatriate) Britisher. James enrolled as a law student at Harvard somewhat out of the blue, with no prior college level work at all to his credit. It was, however, "purely a pretext," journalist Ariel Swartley has written, because "what [James] wanted was the freedom to pursue the literary life," and after a period in a university dormitory young Henry settled into his own rooms in a picturesque old eighteenth-century house facing Winthrop Square, a small parklike enclave just off of Harvard Square and the adjoining college yard.53 This last was a place of some romance to James, a place he would describe as "brooding on sublime and exquisite heresies to come." The plainspoken Yankee elegance of its boxy brick precincts, the design by Charles Bulfinch (like Beacon Hill, which James also liked; "Oh, the wide benignity of brick," he wrote once of the hill, "the goodly, friendly, ruddy fronts, the felicity of scale, the solid seat of everything"),moved James. So did Winthrop Square. James reveled in its "dignified decay," and in the view from his sitting room. There was "a windowed alcove, large enough for a desk, that overlooked the Brighton hills," wrote Swartley, "and in this satisfyingly artistic setting, between languid strolls along the river, evening excursions to the brightly lit Boston theaters and the occasional class, James began to write." His first published work of criticism duly appeared: a theater review in The Boston Traveler. However, "a little more than a year after James entered Harvard," Swartley observed, "his parents moved [from Rhode Island] to Beacon Hill and James would never find Boston ... so mysterious or romantic again."
It was an insightful remark. Though in later years James would set several novels and short stories in and around Boston and at the end of his life decide to be buried in Cambridge Cemetery with pretty much the same river view as his old rooms in Winthrop Square, during his lifetime he more and more resisted any identification with Boston generally and Harvard specifically, even as he increasingly obsessed (even at the height of his fame in London) about "superstitious terror" lest the Puritan capital stretch out "strange inevitable tentacles to draw me back and destroy me." It was the scrutiny of his family, of course—finally, of his brother William, whom Henry so greatly loved—that the "perpetual non-Bostonian," as Swartley calls Henry, so studiously tried to distance himself from. Indeed, Henry's much-dwelt-on negative reaction to most of late nineteenth-century Back Bay Boston, which he disliked as much as he liked eighteenth-century Beacon Hill and Harvard Yard, resonates with images not just of scrutiny, but of outright spying. Why was it that Back Bay's Marlborough Street, James wrote, "for imperturbable reasons of its own, used particularly to break my heart"? Perhaps it was because, being the area's most intimate and narrowest street, it was more true there than anywhere what James observed of Back Bay windows generally, that they seemed "almost terrible"; they were to James "like candid inevitable eyes"; their function, he wrote, to "watch each other, all hopelessly, for revelations, indiscretions ... or explosive breakages of the pane from within."54
Actually, Isabella Gardner, also Julia Ward Howe (as we will observe later, in her invitation to Oscar Wilde especially), would oblige, so to speak. But James himself, in fact, might also have raised a few window shades—if, that is, any knew or suspected what Sheldon Novick, his most recent biographer, has surmised: that in the spring of 1865 young Henry performed his "first acts of love" within sight of, if not actually in, the Back Bay and not with a woman, but with a man, a fellow Harvard student, no less than young Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.55
The liaison would seem improbable. All his life Holmes Jr. had the repute of a formidable flirt and notorious womanizer, and Novick admits his is only "a guess." But of James's homosexuality itself there remains little doubt. Without getting mired in the subject—or in the ruminations of variousscholars on James's suppressed anality56—perhaps the range of possibilities can be indicated by noting the work of one scholar, Wendy Graham. I think particularly of Graham's Henry James: Thwarted Love, in which she makes a specific claim. She aims, in The Gay and Lesbian Review's words, to "bridge our two perspectives of James as either coyly evasive or sexually tormented"57 by arguing that "for James fantasy really was the medium of excitement. Thwarting passion, he spun out pleasure in his fiction and letters, using narrative for flirtation and intellect for a strangely disembodied form of seduction. Sublimation, Graham suggests, gave James a productive career with erotic compensation for missed experience ... . The critic A. J. L. Busst has called this attitude 'cerebral lechery ...'"58 Well, then again if anyone is entitled to a secret life, of soul and/or body, it is surely James, whose subject is famously what can't be seen.59
WAR, HISTORICALLY, ALL too easy to see, is the most masculine of themes, very much at the heart of the poems by Whitman that so viscerally disturbed James at first and that he condemned so strongly; not surprising—although some still argue about Whitman's homosexuality, no one has ever argued about his masculinity.60
Not that the poet was warlike. Even more than Emerson, Whitman believed in the full equality of the sexes. But whether in war or peacetime, it was men, not women, that Whitman was interested in. And the result, as the poet's sexuality came more and more to the fore, was, in Robert K. Martin's words, the "identification of the gay man with the masculine," in a distinctively American way. Whitman, declares Martin, "creat[ed] a figure of masculinity that could free him [the American] from association with the European aesthete [such as Wilde]."61
To say this is, however, not altogether fair. Walter Pater, for instance, in his Plato and Platonism (1893), when he imagines (more as a British Victorian than an ancient Greek, but never mind) an Athenian visiting Lacedaemon and approving of the youths' cold baths, is extolling a more manly European tradition than the word aesthete usually connotes. And he does so quite tellingly when he writes: "The beauty of these most beautiful of all people was a male beauty, far remote from feminine tenderness; it had the expression of a certain ascêis in it, like unsweetened wine. In comparison with it, beauty of another type might seem to be wanting in edge or accent." 62 (I am reminded of Gore Vidal's observation in our own era that "a homosexualist like [Christopher] Isherwood cannot with any ease enjoy a satisfactory sexual relationship with a woman because he himself is so entirely masculine that the woman presents no challenge, no masculine hardness, no exciting agon ... . Isherwood is a good deal less 'feminine' (in thepre-women's lib sense of the word) than ... our own paralyzingly butch Ernest Hemingway."63)
An emphasis on the masculine with homoerotic resonance is also by no means wanting in American literature before Whitman. As Martin observes, Herman Melville was in this respect quite like Whitman.
Melville clearly disliked effeminate men; like Whitman his literary sexual ideal involves a love between two men, and not ... a man and a pseudo-woman. The effeminate man was the over-civilized man, who had adopted the values of civilization (i.e., woman) over the primitive (i.e., man). The ideal therefore becomes an androgyny that represents the integration of the values of civilization and the primitive, or of female and male. This androgyny should not be confused with effeminacy; for Melville, androgyny indicates self-sufficiency and wholeness, whereas effeminacy indicates weakness, indulgence and partialness.
Whitman and Melville both, Martin declares, were interested in "dynamic masculinity, expressed and fulfilled in physical action." In Billy Budd: "Billy's graceful physique is endowed with enormous strength, active strength. While his beauty is a homosexual trap, his strength is a potential murder weapon."64
But Whitman was in every sense a whole new world. Not only was he unequivocal in response to Emerson's call for a national, for a truly American poet—Whitman was a rebel "against a European heritage that was still strong seventy years after the [American R]evolution," but even so small a thing as his flowing not very closely trimmed beard signals his rugged masculinity. Confident and aggressive, Whitman's determination in the "Calamus" poems "To tell the secret of my nights and days / To celebrate the need of comrades" similarly expresses a clear homosexual identity. Though, as Martin points out, "the 'Calamus' poems lack much of the frank sexuality of 'Song of Myself,'" what is remarkable about them is that "they insist, not on homosexual acts, but on homosexual being." Which points to why Whitman took up the task of naming what had been unnamed and thus, in a sense, incomplete.65 Wrote Martin: "He was an American flaneur, sauntering around 'mast-hemm'd Manhattan' at about the same time that Baudelaire—who, not long after the first publication of Leaves of Grass, defined modernity as 'the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent'—was prowling Paris."66
It is a view (we now tend to forget) relatively recent. Writes Gregory Bredbeck, "Whitman's democratic visions of 'calamitic love' inspired the work in large part of Edward Carpenter, the British sexual theorist, whose "concept of democratic male bonding derived from Whitman's writings." Although it may be enthusiastic to a degree to link homosexuality inevitably with the abolition of class and sexual hierarchies, some affinity does suggest itself.67 Thus today in The Social Organization of Gay Males, Joseph Harryand William B. DeVall conclude that among upper- and upper-middle-class (not working-class) American gays "rather than utilizing the conventional heterosexual marriage as a model for relationships, it seems that [gay] relationships are patterned after the nonexclusive conventional best friends model." In the bedroom, too: "Gay couples tended to exchange in reciprocal manner the various erotic positions," they report.68
We have again got somewhat ahead of ourselves; but if we turn around, so to speak, and backtrack again to "manly attachment," our base in this chapter, Whitman's own hypermasculine image can easily be seen as an important historical foundation for the particularly American gay image Whitman "named." This can be seen, for instance, as a key vector in the Whitman "movement," if one can call it that. In a short biographical sketch intended as a rejoinder to a highly bigoted Secretary of the Interior who fired Whitman from his government clerkship over his authorship of Leaves of Grass, William D. O'Connor introduces Whitman as familiar to "thousands of people in New York, in Brooklyn, in Boston, in New Orleans, and latterly in Washington." He is, says O'Connor, "a man of striking masculine beauty—a poet—powerful and venerable in appearance; large, calm, superbly formed; oftenest clad in the careless, rough and always picturesque costume of the common people ... [his] head, majestic, large, Homeric, and set upon his strong shoulders with the grandeur of ancient sculpture." O'Connor's hero worship—there is nothing else to call it—spills over in every word. Even Whitman's clothes come into it, O'Connor extolling "the simplicity and purity of his dress, cheap and plain, but spotless, from snowy falling collar to burnished boot, and exhaling faint fragrance; the whole form surrounded with manliness, as with a nimbus, and breathing, in its perfect health and vigor, the august charm of the strong."69 Every other word in this description—"powerful," "large," "calm," "majestic," "strong"—tells readers that, in physique as in dress, this is no sissy, no dandy. Manly attachment is expressed by manly dress and deportment. Indeed, as G. W. Allen points out, "Almost everyone who knew Walt Whitman intimately was conquered by his magnetic presence, and there is no reason whatever to doubt the sincerity of O'Connor's enthusiastic description; nevertheless, we have here the first of the superman legends,"70 legends that lost nothing and, in fact, gained much in power: During and after the Civil War Whitman was linked more and more closely to Abraham Lincoln himself.
One sees this already in O'Connor's affecting—though entirely undocumented and, indeed, highly unlikely—vignette of Lincoln's spying Whitman from a White House window, and remarking, "Well, he looks like a man."71 This almost surely apocryphal story gains weight, however, because it is known that for his part Lincoln appreciated Leaves of Grass, while in Whitman's case his hero worship of the president was hardly less fulsome than O'Connor's of Whitman. Writes G. W. Allen of Whitman in the year of his historic Boston Common dialogue:
The 1860 edition [of Leaves of Grass] contains not only the record of the great spiritual crisis of Whitman's life—in which he seems to have contemplated suicide—but it also reveals the means by which he saved him-self ... . Though torn and racked by conflicts within, he was struggling for both a personal and a literary unity. Conflicts within himself would be conquered ... . For Whitman the great democratic fiasco of those years came to correspond to the fateful character of his love in the "Calamus" poems.
What saved him, above all else, was the unifying effect of the Civil War—not only through his own patriotic and devoted services in the army hospitals but also because the war gave Whitman and the nation Abraham Lincoln.72
Written after Lincoln's death, Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is the most affecting of all the elegies of Western literature in the modern period. Whether the brow was Homeric or not, the words certainly were.
MASCULINITY—THE AESTHETIC of manliness, its style, so to speak—was in some sense what Harvard Yard in this era was all about. The College was a boys' school in many respects (though let us not be condescending; those boys would fight and win the Civil War). Many tales of the Yard then are extant, and one is of particular importance to us: the first in a series of Harvard novels that open windows onto the landscape of our inquiry.
Entitled Two College Friends, this Civil War novel is also the earliest of a significant genre, the Harvard gay novel, and is in fact one of the earliest gay-themed novels in American literary history. First brought to my attention years ago by a bookdealer who wishes to remain anonymous—a reader of my book Boston Bohemia, which seems to have sparked his memory of the obscure novel that had always puzzled him—Two College Friends is the work of Fred W. Loring, and while hardly Whitmanic in literary quality it is overwhelmingly Whitmanic in content. Published in 1871, only one year after another book usually described as the first American "gay novel"—Bayard Taylor's Joseph and His Friend 73—the novel recounts a stormy but steadfast relationship between Ned and Tom, two undergraduates who fall in love at Harvard and enlist in the Union Army.74 The two young men and their unnamed older mentor, a professor, are first encountered in Harvard Yard before the war. And the tale is immediately unusual in the frankly homoerotic quality of the author's descriptions of the two younger men, and in the way they meet. Tom is described as having "soft, curly brown hair, deep blue eyes and dazzling complexion"; with Ned "the complexion is of olive, the eyes brown, the lips strangely cut [and he has] a curious grace andfascination of manner." They meet in their mentor's professorial study in Harvard Yard in a scene that is surely the closest thing to a classic gay pickup that 1871 could handle.
Tom has sought out the professor's counsel, in the course of which both are rather taken aback by the unexpected arrival of Ned, who, having invited himself, belies rather a dull reputation by exhibiting a newfound wit and charm. Its stimulant, clearly, is Tom, who is soon "radiant with enjoyment." As for the professor, it is not long before he is uncorking his best Madeira.
It is only at the conclusion of this jolly session that the older man, detaining Ned at the head of the stairs as Tom exits below, asks earnestly: "Why have you never shown me what you really are?" This rather coded query is understood at once by Ned: "It wasn't for you, sir," said Ned, with a certain frankness that was not discourteous. "It was for Tom, sir, though I like you and hope we shall be friends. But the moment I saw him come up here I felt that here was a chance to get acquainted."
No persiflage there. This is very much a young man's book. Its author wrote it at the age of twenty-one.
Though frank, Loring was not foolhardy. He disarmingly deflects any objection that Ned was "morbid on the subject of Tom" by making the former an orphan. Equally adroitly, and in more treacherous waters, the author has it, so to speak, both ways with the professor, a bachelor with whom Ned and Tom remain close throughout the book. On the one hand, the professor is affirmed as a man of "tender sympathy, ... exquisite delicacy of thought and life and [of] wit and scholarship." On the other hand, one of the young men allows that for all his affection for the older man, the professor's "liking for us boys is very queer to me."
"What you really are," "morbid" young men, "very queer"—this is not a tough code to break. But modern readers should be wary of being lulled into reading our own values and attitudes into those of a century ago. Both Tom and Ned, for instance, plan to marry women and have children and take their place in the conventional society of their day.
Though both Tom and Ned show a due appreciation of the possibilities offered by the opposite sex, any such interest expressed by one invariably provokes the other man to a furious jealousy, suggesting that much more is at issue. Ned, for instance, fancies one young lady sufficiently to produce some verses for her and send them to Harvard's magazine. But when they meet up and she inquires about the initials on a locket of Ned's, asking coyly, "Is she pretty?" Ned's reply is devastating to her amour propre: "'She!' he answered; "it isn't any girl; it's my chum Tom, you know."
Nor do advancing maturity and the rigors of the battlefield—both men, who are depicted as ardent patriots, leave Harvard to enlist—alter this attitude. Two College Friends depicts no schoolboy crush. At one point during their time together in the army, Ned writes in his battlefield journal: "When this war is over, I suppose Tom will marry and forget me. I never will gonear his wife—I shall hate her. Now, that is a very silly thing for a lieutenant-colonel to write. I don't care; it is true."
One possible reason for his outburst is that, just as the attitude toward heterosexual marriage of the author and his protagonists is distinctly at odds with that of most gays today, who would find such a union problematic for the homosexual, so too is what seems (at first glance, at least) their approach toward same-sex relationships, which somewhat mimic heterosexual ones of the era. Certainly Tom is depicted as noticeably more like a woman than Ned. Shown a photograph of Tom in drag for a student theatrical production while still at Harvard, the professor opines: "'What a mistake nature made about your sex, Tom.'" Later, in the army, a grizzled old soldier says to Ned of Tom—all but abandoning the code of the closet—"You care for him as you would for a gal, don't you?" He goes on to describe Tom as "'pootier than any gal I ever see anywhar.'"
While it is Ned who courts Tom, making the first approach, and Ned who enlists first, expecting Tom to follow, the fact is that through the book both are always fighting for dominance, Tom declaring at one point that he "will not accept dictation" from his friend despite liking him more than anyone else. In fact, their relationship in this respect hardly accords with the Mediterranean same-sex model, in which one man invariably plays the aggressive and penetrating role, which is not seen as homosexual, while the other man, who is seen as such, plays the receptive and passive role.
The extent of their belligerence is clear in this account from Ned's journal:
Quarreled with Tom! How we have fought, to be sure! I don't know what this quarrel was about, but I know how it ended. We didn't speak for two days, and then came another attack from that restless creature, Stonewall Jackson ... . I didn't see Tom, but I knew he was near,—we always kept close together at such times;—still, if I had seen him, I wouldn't have spoken to him. My horse had been shot from under me, and I had cut open the head of the man who did it; it seems strange, now that it is all over, that I could do such a thing. Suddenly I saw the barrel of a rifle pointed at me. The face of the man who was pointing it peered from behind a tree with a malicious grin. I felt that death was near, and the feeling was not pleasant. However, the situation had an element of absurdity in it, and that made me laugh a little. The man who was going to kill me laughed too. I heard a little click, a report, and his gun went up, and he went down. Tom had shot him.
"Tom," said I, with some feeling, "you have saved my life."
"There!" said he, triumphantly, "you spoke first."
I saw that I had, and I was dreadfully provoked. However, he admitted that he was wrong; and so, under the circumstances, I decided that a reconciliation was advisable.
Such stubborn masculinity on each side surely implies a rough equality and, upon closer consideration, it would seem that the comparisons of Tom to a woman are not meant to imply Tom is less masculine than Ned, but rather that he is more beautiful. Certainly Ned is pronounced "not as handsome" as Tom, and much is made throughout the book of "Tom's beauty." But nowhere is it suggested that either is effeminate.
Two College Friends is rooted firmly in what is often called "muscular Christianity," to see the homosexual aspect of which one must recall that many if not most men then of whatever sexuality (clearly including Fred Loring) took the view—certainly the prevailing one today—that men who behaved in an unmanly way were problematic, and that it was gender-inappropriate behavior, not homosexuality as such, that affronted masculine values, heterosexual and homosexual. One can hardly avoid noticing that neither Tom nor Ned—despite a relationship open enough that the grizzled old soldier recognizes it at once as comparable to one between a man and a woman—seems, in today's terms, to have troubled unit cohesion at all. One is reminded instead of the battalions of lovers in the Theban army of ancient Greece.
Nor should any of this in the American Civil War come as a surprise, for Ned's journal is striking literary corroboration of the historical findings of Yale professor Peter Gay, whose study of the real-life nineteenth-century diary of a Yale student disclosed
a capacious gift for erotic investment [in] men and women indiscriminately without undue self-laceration, without visible guilt or degrading shame ... inclinations [that] seemed innocent to [him] and apparently to others, because his bearing and behavior, including his emotional attachments to others of his own sex, did not affront current codes of conduct. He preserved the appearances; it never occurred to him, in fact, to do anything else.75
We have entered here, of course, what has been called by Brian Pronger in his book of that title, "the arena of masculinity": Two College Friends deals finally and most importantly with men at war, and in this connection gays always, I believe, do well to consider the brilliant observation of A. L. Rowse, the legendary Oxford historian, who noted that both the Japanese samurai warrior tradition and the Greek homosexual warrior tradition "do not see manliness as instinctive, but, rather, as something to be gained by moral effort."76 The mustering of that effort, on several levels, is really Fred Loring's fundamental theme in this book.
Later in the novel, when Ned is a prisoner of war, he is confronted by Stonewall Jackson's assertion—"I love war for itself, I glory in it"—and he stalwartly responds, "I hate war." Here he is making—and exemplifying—a moral effort not all men would be capable of. He will only fight, Ned insists,"when there is a cause at stake." Similarly, when he finds himself at odds with a much larger man, a civilian troublemaker whose antics are distracting his men during drill, Ned finally concludes:
[R]emonstrance would be in vain; so I knocked him down, seeing my opportunity to do so effectively. My men laughed. The giant raised himself in astonishment.
"You can't do that again," said he. Another laugh from the chorus.
"I know it," said I. Still another laugh.
"I could just walk through you in two minutes," he growled with an oath.
"I believe you," said I; "and I shall give you a chance to, if you don't keep quiet."
After this sterling exchange it is hardly surprising that Ned shows yet more pluck by quickly seeing the man's underlying ability and convincing him to enlist; whereupon Ned makes him his first lieutenant.
The climax of Loring's book may seem curious to the modern reader. Not that it is not passionate enough. Ned, Loring recounts, visiting his wounded friend in a field hospital, directed his orderly to "let no one enter [the room] under any pretext whatever," and then "threw himself down [on the bed] beside Tom—kissed his hot face" and, still lying in bed next to his chum, who is described as "sleeping restlessly under the influence of some opiate," delivered rather a scorcher for 1871. For all its cloying tone it is still oddly moving:
O Tom, my darling! Don't forget it. If you know how I love you, how I have loved you in all my jealous, morbid moods ... . Don't you remember when we were examined for college together? ... I saw you there; and I wanted to go over and help you. And your picture, Tom ... it was the night when I determined to go to war that you gave me that picture; it was just before we enlisted ... . You won't forget Ned, darling; he was something to you.
There is an age-old and honorable romantic heterosexual tradition of finding passionate love and even erotic fulfillment in relationships that, because of religious prejudice, age asymmetry, social custom, or whatever, are nonphysical in nature. Of an affair of Henry Adams's, for instance, a biographer writes: "Some lovers found it nobler—and perhaps even erotic—not to act on their physical impulses."77 But though homosexual love, with its ancient heritage of Platonic self-mastery, has historically evinced an even greater affinity for such relationships (as in Maurice, for instance, where E. M. Forster writes about Clive and Maurice, "It had been understood between them that their love, though including the body, should not gratifyit"78), for the modern reader the idea founders on the fact that even if men are no longer seen as necessarily lust-crazed sexual outlaws, gay men are still seen today as sexual predators, if only because genital sex now seems for us a necessary validator of passionate homosexual romantic love. Heterosexuals, after all, are married even if they never have sex; gays often still cannot envision a same-sex union without sex. It has been argued that Bayard Taylor's 1870 novel Joseph and His Friend is not a gay novel (even though the deepest and most fulfilling relationship is between the male protagonists) because one of the protagonists finally marries a woman, and the same can be argued of Two College Friends, where, of course, the same thing happens. But how could it not? It has ever been the classic solution whenever a permanent union is not possible between two lovers: one has to die and the survivor, happily wed, can almost be depended upon to name the first child after the lost love; in this case, Ned dies, shot for violating his parole to save the life of Tom, who is depicted at book's end as looking lovingly and tearfully into Ned's—his son's—face.
Is Two College Friends a gay novel? Is a same-sex union a union when sex ceases or if it never started? Are failed gay relationships (for whatever reasons) any the less homosexual? If gay people enter opposite-sex marriages, do they cease to be gay when they do? How many homosexual "acts" make a homosexual anyway (assuming one accepts that definition)? One? Two? Three dozen? Three thousand? What is a homosexual act? Will desire alone suffice? How about masturbation? Better yet, consider Robert K. Martin's sage remark of what a tip-off it is when someone is prepared to "assume that anyone is heterosexual until there is proof, not of homosexual feelings, but of homosexual (i.e., genital) acts."79 Is Maurice a gay novel? If so, then so is Joseph and His Friend, as well as Two College Friends, whose author, like his protagonist, died young (he was killed in an Indian attack on a stagecoach out west, in the very year he wrote the book, 1871, at age twenty-one), thus foreclosing further inquiry. Who was it who said most gay history lies buried in bachelor graves?
If Fred Loring's early death defeats additional investigation, something further can still be ventured. His Harvard class notes do hint, for example, at a certain discomfort about Two College Friends—the not-inconsiderable achievement of a first book at age twenty-one is dismissed in a phrase without even noting the novel's title—and what little survives of Loring's remaining published work suggests he quickly turned to more conventional heterosexual subjects: a slim book of verses, for instance, which takes its title from the "Boston Dip," a popular dance of the period—"One way to dance it thoroughly / Is Much champagne to sip; / Or,—rub your boots with orange peel / Till they are sure to slip." Which Loring didn't do in The Boston Dip: one of his poems in the book, more in the nature of a "save" entitled "Tom to Ned," announces the former's forthcoming wedding in atone of somewhat defensive false heartiness.80 Taken in conjunction with Loring's departure, after graduation, for the western frontier, a dangerous enough place in the 1870s, this possibly hints at the sort of real-life situation that gay literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Forster's Maurice, for instance) depicted: the breakup of a same-sex relationship under the weight of society's pressure on a man to enter into an opposite-sex marriage, in aid not only of his social but also his professional or business success.
Some element of autobiography about Two College Friends is suggested by Loring's dedication of the book to a classmate, William Chamberlain.81 Certainly, the tone of Loring's dedication seems to echo more than a little of Tom and Ned's quarrelsome relationship when he writes, in the book's preface and dedication:
Indignation at my dedicating this book to you will be useless, since I am at present three thousand miles out of your reach. Moreover, this dedication is not intended as a public monument to our friendship;—I know too much for that. If that were the case we should manage to quarrel even at this distance ... . But I can dedicate it to you alone of all my college friends, because you and I were brought so especially into the atmosphere of [the professor] who inspired me to undertake it.82
Loring's reason for the dedication, however, rings as false—dedicating it to the professor was hardly an unexampled proceeding among teachers and students—as his address to his absent friend about his quarrelsomeness rings true. Indeed, its testy tone is that of all of us when we feel betrayed by someone we still care for, and is reminiscent of Maurice's tone with Clive in Forster's novel when Maurice comes out (as we would say today) and Clive does not, electing instead to contract a conventional heterosexual marriage. This is, of course, all very speculative, but the Harvard class notes on Chamberlain also support such possibilities. Loring and Chamberlain went very different ways upon graduation—Loring to his death out west, Chamberlain within a year back to his rural Massachusetts hometown to marriage and a son, who was not named after Loring, though he had been dead over a year. Yet later class reports hint that Chamberlain, who outlived Loring by forty years, had a much less conventional history than one might expect. He is noted as having "lived abroad a considerable portion of [his life]"—always suggestive in the coded discourse of the day—and seems also to have quickly abandoned the family business for journalism and—even more suggestive—the theater. In fact, at one point he formed a very successful partnership with a leading figure of Boston's bohemian gay circles of the 1880s and 1890s, the playwright Thomas Russell Sullivan, with whom Chamberlain wrote a comedy that in 1880 enjoyed wide popularity in Boston. Entitled A MidsummerMadness, it sounds a very different type of tale from Two College Friends, more the game of reveal-and-conceal that gays were forced to play then (and well enough to still amuse today: witness The Importance of Being Earnest).83
About one thing, however, there seems to have been no dissembling. Just as Tom and Ned were described as ardent patriots for the Union cause, so are both portrayed as, above all else, Harvard men. In one of his letters, Ned evokes the mood of his generation well enough:
I can see the Yard, with Holworthy and Stoughton and Hollis beaming away from their windows at each other ... . I can see fellows sitting around the tables in their rooms, studying and not studying; ... The bell for morning prayers, which I still hate, begins to clang upon my memory ... . If you ever want to think of me, and to feel I am near, walk through the Yard ... . I wonder how many visions of its elm-trees have swayed before dying eyes here in Virginia battlefields.
There is everything Whitmanic about this early gay novel; there is hardly anything Wildean about Two College Friends. The subject is manhood—American manhood and manliness—the Whitmanic archetype of the warrior, and the masculine aesthetic that expresses it.
WHEN AN ENRAGED Norman Mailer once head-butted Gore Vidal in an altercation the two antagonists always seemed to be angling for, Vidal returned fire by punching Mailer's stomach. Writing about it later, Mailer confessed: "To my surprise, he hit me back."84 Why on earth was he surprised? Hit a man and that's the likely response, certainly when the man is as aggressive as Vidal famously is. Perhaps Mailer's well-advertised macho disdain for homosexuality explains his reaction. Yet as Yale historian John Boswell—himself by most accounts somewhat effeminate in rather a boyish sort of way—pointed out, "an equation of homosexuality with effeminacy in men would hardly have occurred to people [like the ancient Greeks] whose history, art, popular literature, and religious myths were all filled with the homosexual exploits of such archetypically masculine figures as Zeus, Hercules, Achilles, et al.," adding that in the Symposium Plato has Aristophanes describe homosexuals as "naturally the most manly."85 In Boston Bohemia, I wrote that "what the gymnasium was to the ancient [Greek] classical expression of male ardor, the English school chapel ... became to the modern Anglo-American expression" and that in such schools generally only the fact that "the lavatories stood doorless" was more important than that the choir stalls face each other, in aid of what Sir John Betjeman called "ravenous glances." Most shocking of all, however, was the underlying design conceptof what I called in that book "Gay Gothic," which Bishop William Lawrence of Massachusetts dubbed "chaste, strong and uplifting."86
Chaste? Although it would be wrong to argue that actual chasteness in and of itself was ever or is now more characteristic of the Whitmanic archetype of the warrior than of the Wildean archetype of the aesthete, as we will see in the next chapter, Bishop Lawrence's phraseology, so very Phillips Brooks-like in its "muscular Christianity," is distinctly Whitmanic. And Hellenist. As Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy pointed out in The Old School Tie: "During the last quarter of the nineteenth-century there developed a form of aesthetic, chaste homosexuality—a product of manliness crossed with the classical curriculum,"87 the background, in fact, of the institution in that era of the modern Olympics and the Anglo-American sports culture of the twentieth century. It was the sort of culture that would produce Lawrence of Arabia, kin only once removed, culturally, from Tom and Ned of Two College Friends, and would lead their sort especially to join
schoolboy secret societies like the Order of Chaeronea, which took its name from the great battle won by Philip of Macedon, a battle famous for the valor of the "sacred band" of homosexual soldiers, and school heroes (Rupert Brooke is the classic case) forever reading classical authors in the original Greek on their way to practice, for it was expected that they would throw javelins as well as they would compose sonnets—in each case in no small measure for the edification of the beloved.88
Typically, all things homosexual were more muted in America. But in the realm of higher education such things could not be entirely ignored, even at Harvard. As "Alligator" (librarian) of the now-venerable but then-outrageous Hasty Pudding Club in 1857, for instance, it was part of the education of Henry Adams to compose club minutes that amused, scandalized, and in the event were highly priapic and open to all sorts of constructions: 89 "A giant oak," for example, is said by Adams to grow—don't they all?—in "love's garden." The narrator is a woman, to be sure, but given the time-honored fashion of switching genders in such doggerel, the thing hymned is perhaps what's most significant. Furthermore, Adams attributes the poem to Lord Byron, notorious then for his homosexual affairs, and—in case the point should be missed—introduces it by a long peroration on the recent adventures in Greece of Harvard Greek professor Cornelius Felton, who was traveling with various young men as enthusiastic about same-sex gymnastics as he was. Nor was it only in salacious jest and in club minutes that the issue arose. In a letter of 1877 Alice Stone Blackwell, a leading feminist, supported but nonetheless complained about professors who found it necessary to explain Greek pederasty to their classes: "Harvard, where there are no women to restrain them," seemed to her particularly worrisome.90 In fact, then as now, so much controversy surrounds the all-importantsubject of Things Greek, whether gay-positive or gay-negative, it will be useful here to consider authoritative sources not, on the one hand, issued by gay apologists but recent enough, on the other, to be free of antigay rhetoric: the Oxford Classical Dictionary (entries cited are by Andrew S. Brown, David M. Halperin, A. W. Price, and C. J. Tuplin); A Dictionary of the Ancient Greek World, by David Sacks; and Cambridge Illustrated History: Ancient Greece by Paul Cartledge, an array of varying schools of thought.
A good example of the confusion that bedevils this subject is the matter of Achilles and Patroclus, who are variously declared to be the most ardent of lovers or no lovers at all.91 What is important is that they were best friends, soul mates, very close comrades, each other's surest confidant and sounding board. They loved each other whether or not they were in love. David Sacks supplies the historical context, observing that the Mycenaean world (ca. 1200 B.C.) in which the Iliad is set, as well as Homer's era (ca. 750 B.C.), may or may not have sanctioned such male couplings, but by the fifth century B.C. they were definitely fostered. Thus Aeschylus, in Andrew S. Brown's words, "portray[ed] Achilles and Patroclus as lovers."92 Classical Athenians like Aeschylus, being considerably closer to their sources than we are more than two millennia later, may well have known something about the earlier period we don't. David M. Halperin sums up: "Homer did not portray Achilles and Patroclus as lovers (although some [later] Classical Athenians thought he implied as much ... . ) but he also did little to rule out such an interpretation." 93 Furthermore, Sacks declares, there were definite ground rules:
Love between males was seen as harmonious with other Greek social values, such as athletic skill, military courage, and the idealization of male youth and beauty ... . The Greeks tended to associate homosexuality with manliness and soldiering.
[For males] there was only one kind of publicly approved romance available for people of the citizen classes—namely, the romance that might arise between a mature man and a younger male.
Youths around ages 16 and 17 were considered particularly desirable ... . The older male ... might be in his 20's, 30's, or possibly 40's, anywhere from about five to 25 years older than his partner ... . Probably at around age 20 a young Athenian would feel social pressure to relinquish his junior sex role. He might maintain a close friendship with his former lover(s), but he would now be ready to take on the adult role, as the active pursuer of a younger male.94
There is inevitably the issue of power in male-to-male sex. In our own era, for instance, I am reminded of Gore Vidal's observation that a preference for lower-class sexual partners is often accounted for because a sexual commitment between "strongly willed males" of the same class could lead to "a psychic defeat for one of the partners."95 For the Greeks, it was not somuch class as the type of intercourse that determined power relations: in classic Mediterranean mode, power is seen as belonging to the penetrator. Thus the preferred (because more equal) sex act, especially in Athens, between male lovers, was what is today called intercrural intercourse—two men standing or lying face-to-face with the older man moving his penis between the younger's clamped thighs.
Moreover, close friendship with former lovers was not the only adult model, says Sacks: " ... where love relationships often continued after the younger male reached adulthood, it was customary to station lovers side-by-side in battle, on the theory that each would fight more fiercely if observed by his partner."96 Thus the so-called Sacred Band, referred to above.97 C. J. Tuplin calls it "an elite infantry unit formed by Gorgidas, after the liberation of Thebes from Spartan occupation (379 B.C.), perhaps as a symbolic counterpart to elite Spartan units, and consisting of 150 pairs of lovers maintained at state expense."98 More explicitly, Paul Cartledge calls it a "band of 300 specially picked Theban hoplite [heavy infantrymen] warriors—reputedly a unit of 150 homosexual couples, who made war as well as love together."99 Originally the idea was, in Tuplin's words, "to use them as a unit only in limited operations requiring rapid deployment while distributing them through the front infantry ranks in formal battle,"100 presumably to inspire the troops. But the unit's crucial role in the Battle of Leuctra changed all that. Tuplin calls the details controversial, but John F. Lazenby states that while it is not clear if the Sacred Band formed the front ranks of the Thebans, it was this unit that, at a crucial point in the battle, charged the Spartans and carried the day, "ending two centuries of Spartan domination." 101
Their undoing came at the Battle of Chaeronea where, in 338 B.C., Philip of Macedon, aided by his son, Alexander, who may have led the crucial charge, won a great victory over a Greek alliance led by Athens and Thebes, in the course of which the Sacred Band was all but annihilated. They so covered themselves with glory, however, that the ancient lion monument of Chaeronea, now restored from fragments and still presiding over this battlefield, "possibly marks," in Lazenby's words, "the resting place of the Theban elite Sacred Band." A moving story, however it is detailed. (Sacks writes of this battle that the disaster occurred because of Philip's brilliantly successful tactics: in the movement of battle he succeeded in isolating the Sacred Band from the rest of the Theban army, and so left it exposed to the full force of Alexander's cavalry, which "surrounded and overr[an]" them.)102
That the historical discussion has shifted two millennia forward is significant. For we are not just talking ancient history. Modern Hellenism is our subject here, the picture plane, so to speak, through which Victorians saw ancient history. It is best studied in Linda Dowling's Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford, where the issues are more literary though still philosophical. Dowling points out that "the Plato of Benjamin Jowettand the Oxford Reformers" was largely the Plato of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty: "the philosopher of a healthy and productive skepticism and a fearless determination" that, as a student, one must "follow one's intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead." Dowling continues: "Yet the same Plato could then at the same moment and by an identical logic be taken as the tutelary spirit of a movement never foreseen by Jowett, ... in which such writers as Walter Pater and John Addington Symonds would deduce from Plato's own writings an apology for male love as something not only noble but infinitely more ennobling than an exploded Christianity and those sexual taboos and legal proscriptions inspired by its dogmas."103
Symonds repeatedly proclaimed, in A Problem in Greek Ethics, that Greek love was "in its origin and essence, military ... nor had Malachia, effeminacy, a place in its vocabulary." Symonds's "manly" Greek lovers with their erotic "chivalry" and martial "comrade love" were to reappear constantly in the homosexual apologist writings of the years to come. Indeed, continues Dowling, Symonds dedicated himself to what she calls "the ideal of Dorian comradeship, the ideal that so powerfully contested the ancient slur of 'effeminacy' invariably raised in England and America against men who loved men." Which is to arrive here at the intersection of Whitmanic masculinity and Oxford Hellenism—Harvard Hellenism, too: by "Dorian comradeship" Dowling, a British scholar, means, an "ideal ... unconsciously but completely realized by Whitman in the 'Calamus' poems of Leaves of Grass."104
Many and various roads lead from this intersection. The Oxford tutorial tradition, for instance, which Harvard would revive in the early 1900s, is full of "the Socratic Eros," as Dowling calls it; not for nothing, after all, was Socrates called a "corrupter of youth." Symonds himself found tutorial a very brisk experience of masculinity, and Dowling describes the "racking silences, penetrating queries, [and] quenching utterances. Whatever were the pains inflicted by this experience, its pleasures seemed to the young men to be unexampled. Symonds, paralyzed by the conviction of his own complete inadequacy, nonetheless left the tutor's room feeling 'obscurely yet vividly' that 'my soul [had] grown by his contact, as it had never grown before.' ... [It was] a moral counsel so capacious in its scope that it became a 'pastoral supervision,' of an intellectual stimulus."105 A Harvard example, from the period before formal tutorial was revived but when its values were still very clearly understood by this as well as that side of the Anglo-American collegiate world, is told by a biographer of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. It seems Holmes (in his student days) asked Emerson once to read a paper on Plato that Holmes thought to submit for a prize, seeking Emerson in particular because he had the repute, even with mere undergraduates, of dealing "man to man." And in good tutorial fashion, Emerson pulled no punches—the Socratic Eros defined—handing it back to Holmes with what would become a famous judgment indeed: "I have read your piece. When you strike at a king, you must kill him." Holmes hadn't. Equally Socratic was Emerson'sadvice: in essence, respect Plato more, but say to him: you've impressed so many; now impress me.106
Symonds's first encounter with the Socratic Eros occurred at Oxford, where in his studies he first confronted Plato's teaching (in Symposium 209) that "the highest level of masculine love [was] procreating ideas—generating the creative arts, philosophy,"107 and so on. It was in that light that both Pater and he saw "the ideal education of the Platonic or Socratic doctrine of Eros," specifically in the "model of love ... by which an older man, moved to love by the visible beauty of the younger man, and desirous of winning immortality through that love, undertakes the younger man's education in virtue and wisdom."108 It was a model that would be recaptured at Harvard, just as it had been "recaptured within the existing structures of Oxford homosociality—the intense friendship, the tutorial." Utterly besotted by the lifestyle, Symonds at Oxford spoke for all: "I wept, as I remembered how often you and I / Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky."109
A parallel to all this was the growing athleticism of the Harvard experience in the mid-nineteenth century. As Charles P. Pierce has noted, Walt Whitman never stopped talking about "how baseball embodies the robust new national character that was brawny ... and full-blooded." And Ronald Story has pointed out in his fascinating study on Harvard and the Boston Upper Class:
The quest for "refinement and beauty always had boundaries conforming to the prevailing patterns of nineteenth-century sexual assertiveness and competitive fitness. Just as young men should not drink to excess, so they should not become "gloved and lisping dandies" or possess the "perfumed curls," the "slender waists," and the "tiny legs" of "D'Israeili" and the Young Englanders. If they could not be exactly "robust as a farmer's son," neither should they be "whey-faced and feeble, effeminate and fearful."
One attitude to these extremes lay, of course, in physical exercise and sporting events ... . By 1840 many students rode ... . By 1850 cricket, baseball, and a crude version of rugby were familiar Cambridge pastimes [and in] the 1850's [Harvard] built a new gymnasium and also welcomed the adoption of crew as a suitably vigorous and masculine student activity.110
Here the concern with gender-appropriate deportment is apparently not confused with homosexuality—Disraeli was never thought to be homosexual. And this may help to bring into focus here what one scholar has called "George Santayana's somewhat paradoxical promulgation of Whitman worship at Harvard during the [eighteen-nineties]."111 Often overlooked because less provocative stylistically than the Wilde worship of the same era, Whitmanworship is well charted by critic James Gifford, who cites Whitman worship as evidence that
at the end of the nineteenth century in America, what the homosexual might be(come) was very much in flux; there was no single workable paradigm of homosexuality. The medical establishment was creating a pathological portrait at the same time that the effeminized aesthete (à la Oscar Wilde) presented an obvious—and notorious—representation of homosexuality to late Victorian America. Recent studies have suggested that another sort of homosexual, Walt Whitman's blue-collar democratized man-loving man, coexisted with the willowy Bunthorne (the Wildean aesthete satirized in Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience).112
An example. The Whitmanic, rather than the later Wildean, archetype is the context of a leading Harvard figure of the mid- to late nineteenth century, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, most notable as the commanding officer in the Civil War of the First South Carolina volunteers, the first African-American regiment in the Union Army. Not only something of a war hero, throughout his life Higginson was an illustrious American reformer and a progressive, abolitionist above all, also keen for women's rights, and conspicuous not least for his zeal and devotion to American athleticism, which he argued for in a series of highly influential articles in The Atlantic in the late 1850s and 1860s, a literary landmark of the rise of sports in America in which Harvard played a major role.
This history, too, is often overlooked. Today's famous Head of the Charles regatta is a twentieth-century revival of a Fourth of July regatta sponsored first by Boston's aldermen in 1854 (it drew forty thousand viewers), two years after Harvard and Yale raced against each other in America's first intercollegiate sports event. By 1858 there was a Harvard University Boating Club, which rowed in the earliest racing shell built in America, and whose captain, when he bought six red handkerchiefs for headbands, inaugurated college colors generally and Harvard's own crimson in particular. Boston cheered all this mightily, supportive not only of newly minted professional civic baseball teams but also of Harvard's new amateur baseball, football, track-and-field, and tennis teams. When the Olympic Games were revived in Athens in 1896, "Boston athletes," according to journalist Stephen Hardy, "were the heart of the American team which dominated the games" and on their triumphant return were greeted with such enthusiasm that the Boston Herald compared the event to the way the ancient Greek city-states had welcomed home their heroes.113
It was, in fact, "the Greek ideal of the sound mind in the sound body," according to Harvard historian Bainbridge Bunting, that undergirded Harvard's magnificent new gymnasium of 1878, which Bunting calls "the most advanced building of its type and style in America." It was the domain ofDr. Dudley Sargent (he held a medical degree from Yale), who had been inspired to make physical education his career after reading Higginson's Atlantic articles. Athletics, Sargent believed, yielded "bodily health and beauty" and "the manly virtues of energy, strength, courage, alertness, persistence, stamina and endurance." And it was Sargent, Bunting writes, who was "responsible for achieving a scientific rationale, long-range curricular continuity, and eventual acceptance for college athletics in America." Indeed, Harvard's gym became "the cradle of physical education in America," in Bunting's words; one of Sargent's assistants, George Meylon, director of the Boston YMCA in the 1890s, would obtain the first academic appointment in physical education in America at Columbia in 1903.114
Higginson's Atlantic articles, in which he urged the office worker, "his head a mere furnace of red-hot brains and his body a pile of burnt-out cinders," to "come with me to the Gymnasium," also had a wider effect on the American public generally and in Boston in particular. Higginson was a spokesman for a point of view, writes Stephen Hardy, that
signaled the beginning of a new current of thought [about] ... social life in the city ... [including] sedentary and enfeebling work routines among clerks and shopkeepers. The call for public action laid the groundwork for the first major civic response to the problem ... a public park system ... [and] the development before the Civil War of organized sports clubs in rowing, cricket and baseball.115
Although Higginson's own lifestyle was as physically vigorous as one might have expected—he once helped batter down a courthouse door to free a slave—he was a man of brain as well as brawn. He was, for instance, the discoverer of Emily Dickinson, and people are too quick to seize on his stodginess and presumption in "correcting" Dickinson's grammar, and too slow to acknowledge that Dickinson's poetry only surfaced at all because she was cajoled into print by another Atlantic article by Higginson, this one urging women poets to send their work to him. Nor was Higginson always stodgy: when the enthusiasm for war with Spain was at its highest pitch at century's end, Higginson opposed Theodore Roosevelt, taking instead the side of the anti-imperialists, urging that taking the antiwar position "might often require more courage than the winning of battles; and [that] it was the glory of a great university to produce alike leaders in action and in thought."116
Roger Austen's Genteel Pagan, a study of the life and work of the gay novelist Charles Warren Stoddard, is in another vein altogether, but one ought not to be surprised that in that work, too, Thomas Wentworth Higginson comes up: as it turns out, he was a correspondent of Stoddard, the author of famously homoerotic travel stories set in the South Pacific, experiences with natives which were manly in another sense, a homoeroticsense.117 As were some of Higginson's own experiences in the Civil War; he wrote of the "splendid muscular development" of his "Young Sambos" and how they delighted him. "I always liked to observe them when bathing," he admitted. Indeed, one is not surprised either that Higginson was just as keen on his own physique. At seventeen, he had been a tall, thin six-footer until he determined to do something about it; in 1876, when he was in his mid-fifties (in an era when that was considered old), he was still regularly working out on the parallel bars and with ropes and weights. Higginson quite unself-consciously delighted in his physique, and it would be strange indeed if that did not include sexuality. Certainly, he confessed in his diary how susceptible he was to feminine charms. Married twice, he had two children by his second wife. Wives and children took second place, however, to masculine charms—in particular, those of his Harvard classmate William H. Hurlbut: "a young man so handsome in his dark beauty," wrote Higginson, "slender, keen-eyed, raven-haired" and so on. But he did not stop there, insisting on his passionate love for Hurlbut:
I never loved but one male friend with a passion—and for him my love had no bounds—all that my natural fastidiousness and cautious reserve kept from others I poured on him; to say that I would have died for him was nothing. I lived for him; it was easy to do it, for there never was but one such person ... . To me, moreover, he was always noble and sweet, he loved me truly and generously.118
In life as in novels many Victorian same-sex relationships were, however, rather ill-fated. Sufficient here to see Higginson in the context Gifford sets up between the "democratized man-loving" Whitmanic ideal and the "willowy Bunthorne" of the Wildean ideal. Indeed, connect "democratized" with "bourgeois" (leaving "willowy" to the declining aristocracy) and the analysis of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick seems to explain the matter fully: "Whitman—visiting Whitman, liking Whitman, giving gifts of 'Whitman'—was of course a Victorian homosexual shibboleth, and much more than that, a step in the consciousness and self-formation of many members of that new Victorian class, the bourgeois homosexual." It was a class, Sedgwick notes, which saw male-male love as "virilizing them more than ... feminizing them," a class which, as opposed to aristocratic and more effeminate (Catholic) gays, "looked to classical Sparta and Athens for models of virilizing male bonds."119
All this shades almost imperceptibly into a consideration of the Civil War era's new concern with masculinity, a subject ably studied by Kim Townsend (overwhelmingly, however, from a heterosexual perspective) in his recent book, Manhood at Harvard. "After the Civil War," he writes, "men felt pressure to be masculine. The word itself took on new meaning. By the end of the century 'masculine' ... had become useful to men looking for ways to describe and explain the authority they sought to establish. By 1890 the noun'masculinity' was in the Century Dictionary."120 Fascinating to find that masculinity, the noun, entered prominently into the language under entirely mainline heterosexual auspices in 1890, just one year before the word homosexual first appeared in English, in John Addington Symonds's A Problem in Modern Ethics of 1891, the same year fixed on by Sedgwick in Epistemology of the Closet as "a good moment to look for a cross-section of inaugural discourses of modern homosexuality."121 Moreover, when one recalls that Foucault's famous assertion of a new concept of homosexuals—of homosexual persons as opposed to acts, which begat "their antitwins, heterosexual persons"122—(necessarily) derives from this same period, it becomes startlingly clear that some of the basic categories of a study such as this—"masculinity" as an idea, "homosexual" as a person (and "heterosexual," too)—are hardly one hundred years old. Notice, just as it is the homosexual person, not homosexuality, that is new, so masculine dress or masculine occupations were not new, only masculine persons, with masculinity as some quality of manhood. Men have always done masculine things, indeed, homosexual things. But they have not always erected doing such things into a master identity or aspect of some sort.
At Harvard as well, all this changed during Santayana's lifetime: "The way Santayana responded to the pressure to be masculine is especially illuminating," Townsend writes, citing the many clubs and organizations to which he was elected by Santayana's peers (all male, of course). Indeed, especially when he returned as a professor, it was observed that Santayana "preferr[ed] to pass his leisure in the company of handsome athletes rather than with colleagues or Boston matrons," and this despite the fact he himself was more intellectual than sportsman.123 But Santayana was interested in sports; in 1894 he wrote a most interesting piece for the Harvard Monthly entitled "Philosophy on the Bleachers." He was especially insightful about football: "The whole soul," he wrote, "is stirred by a spectacle that represents the basis of its life." Masculine enough. Yet he later wrote: "I ... was sure of [William James's] good will and kindness, of which I had many proofs; but I was also sure that he never understood me, and that when he talked to me there was a mannequin in his head, called [George Santayana] and entirely fantastic ... . No doubt I profited materially by this illusion, because he would have liked me less if he had understood me better."124 Indeed, Santayana was never in any danger of being allowed William James's "masculine directness" at Harvard, where President Eliot deeply disliked Santayana and thought him "abnormal."125 Santayana would not only have been liked less, he would have been fired. And this despite the fact that Santayana was masculine enough—Whitmanic enough—that in his contending with James's philosophy in favor of his own, Santayana exemplifies a chief "masculine" vector of Whitman's: "He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher."126 Of course, Santayana did this in his own manner, not James's. But a man is his own man, no? Indeed, there is a sense in whichSantayana could be seen as more thoroughly Whitmanic than James, a distinction Townsend observes:
Both [Whitman and James] evoke a common figure, that of beautiful manhood ...but James put it to more modest use—as a metaphor for his ideal students, the ones with independent minds ... . But his ideal men were ...unambiguously masculine ... . Whereas Whitman challenged his readers to set out on their own journeys of self-discovery, and warned them that reading his poems could do them as much harm as good—perhaps involve actually touching another man, in fact—James carefully fashioned a particular image of manhood ... that stretched but did not burst the limits.127
For all his greatness, William James, adds Townsend, was in the view of one contemporary, "a Puritan." And Santayana was wise to be wary: in his Principles of Psychology James reacts with horror to homosexuality.128
Not surprisingly, Santayana was more in accord with James's brother's view of things. In Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady the two men who contend—the "managing man," Caspar Goodwood, he of a "strong push [and] a kind of hardness of presence," and Ralph Touchett, "inclined to adventure and irony"—are both Harvard men.129 Yet Henry James ultimately fell under suspicion, just as Santayana did. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, criticized the "man of letters who flees his country because he, with his delicate, effeminate sensitiveness, ... finds he cannot play a man's part among men." Townsend observes: "Like Santayana, [Henry] James clearly did not fit the image [of a Harvard man]. They were not manly presences."130
South Sea Idylls
IF WALT WHITMAN was the great herald, to repeat Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's words, of the "self-formation of many members of that new Victorian class, the bourgeois homosexual,"131 another was Charles Warren Stoddard, whose South Sea Idylls Higginson so admired. Stoddard, in turn, much admired Whitman, writing once, "It means everything that Walt Whitman has ever said or sung," affirming that the poet (who, like Higginson, responded positively to Stoddard in correspondence, though they never met) "breathed life into me."132
Stoddard was the master of the exotic travel tale, bestsellers in the late nineteenth century, particularly South-Sea Idylls (1873), which depicted his travels to Hawaii and Tahiti in the 1860s, when he was in his late twenties. South-Sea Idylls abounds with veiled references to Stoddard's sexual initiation by Polynesian young men and boys. This reflected an aspect of Stoddard's homosexuality that approached pedophilia but does not translate, any morethan does ancient Greek pederasty, into American mores today. It did much more so a century and more ago, however, and it is important to realize it was then seen as the reverse of problematic. In that premodern era, people like Stoddard, "pre-homosexuality 'homosexuals,'" entered the conventional family structure, if not married themselves, by being uncles, mentors, "daddies"—adoption was a common explication—and often at the behest of widows attempting to provide fatherless sons with male role models. Thus it was that Stoddard "fathered" one of Harvard's leading Whitmanic luminaries of the era, Santayana's faculty colleague William McMichael Woodworth.
"Both mentorial and erotic, Stoddard's relationship to Woodworth bears some resemblance to 'Greek love,' as it was (re)understood by John Addington Symonds." But as Roger Austen noted, Stoddard "never invoked the idea of 'Greek love' to describe his desire for youths"; the dominant narrative, thought Austen, "derived less from the Greeks than from American domesticity," and Woodworth, like other "kids" in Stoddard's life, was "a fatherless boy for whom Stoddard saw himself to be filling a personal need." For the wealthy San Francisco widow whose husband had just died, Stoddard fulfilled her son's need for "older male companionship and guidance." Stoddard, in Austen's words, began taking Willie, fourteen in the summer of 1878, "sailing off Monterey and botanizing in the Redwoods." Stoddard's account of these expeditions of "swimming and hunting and chasing dragonflies" was indeed idyllic:
One night, the kid set out for the stubble-field and lay in wait for wild rabbits; when he came in with his hands full of ears, the glow of moonlight was in his eye, the flush of sunset on his cheek, the riotous blood's best scarlet in his lips, and his laugh was triumphant; with a discarded hat recalled for camp-duty, a blue shirt open at the throat, hair very much tumbled, and no thoughts of self to detract from the absolute grace of his pose.133
One feels so strongly the truth of John Crowley's observation that Stoddard, whose recollection of all this was published posthumously in 1911, was writing of a life lived in the context of what we now see as "the crisis of gender and culture at the American fin-de-siècle." Remembered years later, Stoddard's feelings for the fourteen-year-old boy in 1878 continued when the same young man entered Harvard College six years later, in 1884, after schooling in Europe, and carried over to the grown man who stayed on at Harvard to get his doctorate in zoology under Louis Agassiz. Indeed, they were thriving still in the summer of 1903, when Austen reports:
By this time Dr. William McMichael Woodworth had become something of a minor legend at Harvard. His home on Brattle Street was famousfor its splendid array of exotic furnishings. As the keeper of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Woodworth had accompanied Louis Agassiz on collecting trips to Samoa, Australia, Africa and South America, bringing back curios for his house as well as for the museum. Woodworth also collected a wide variety of seemingly disparate people. In his library on Sunday afternoons, one might find the colonel of marines from the Charlestown Navy Yard and an English army captain rubbing elbows with Charles Macomb Flandrau, author of Harvard Episodes, and Pierre La Rose, author of Harvard Celebrities.134
Flandrau and LaRose, who, as we will see in the next chapter, were leading lights more of Oscar Wilde's Harvard than of Walt Whitman's, must have been bowled over by Woodworth and his domicile if a contemporary report in the Boston Evening Transcript is to be relied on:
It would take a Dickens or a Balzac really to picture the contents of that house—on its walls excellent paintings jostled by Fiji war shields, or photographs of elephants on which their owner had ridden, or portraits of Cingalese beauties, whose apparel caught the eye of the anthropologist as well as the artist. Samoan war clubs, spears and shields of Central African hunters, the garments and musical instruments of savage tribes in a dozen outlying quarters, were mingled with hammered silver bowls or boxes fashioned in India, with old sixteenth-century pewter shooting trophies from Germany. The book shelves groaned with ancient tomes bound by Elxivir and others equally famous, filled with Latin text about the Cosmos as savants of three hundred years ago understood it. The jeweled eyes of a Buddha stared weirdly from a corner. You picked your cigarette from a box lacquered by some Japanese wizard. Your matches lay in a great green cloisonné bowl on the desk.135
Woodworth himself exuded generally a great "personal fascination," according to Burton Kline, who added that he was also "perverse, exasperating, high tempered and over-whelmingly generous." Indeed, wrote Kline, Woodworth "offended his dearest friends whenever he pleased, safe in his infinite resource in winning them back, for there was no resisting his fascination when he chose to exert it." At the same time, Burton continued, while Woodworth lived a life "glittering with picturesque incident"—"liv[ed] books of travel and adventure"—there was what some would see as a problem: "There were two men in Woodworth, and a candid friend would have to say that they were enemies. Woodworth the scientist was always overshadowed by Woodworth, the man of the world ... . He was as favorably known in Uganda as he was in London and Honolulu ... . He was proud of the star before his name in American Men of Science," wrote Kline, "but equally proud of the gift of a hippopotamus tooth cane head from a native tribesmanof Africa. And one Woodworth always took it as a joke that the other Woodworth was a world's authority on flatworms." No wonder Stoddard spent so much time in Boston, where Woodworth, like Santayana, was a key figure in a very exotic Harvard circle Stoddard too was drawn into.136
The people Stoddard kept company with illustrate very well the truism that he who travels farthest often travels least. Take William Sturgis Bigelow, for instance. A doctor and scion of a famous medical family, Bigelow traveled widely and was as much at home in Japan as in Boston. Unhappy in his practice after Harvard Medical School, he went to Japan in 1881 and at once engaged that civilization intensely, becoming a Buddhist and a collector of art the Japanese themselves were discarding in their rush to modernization. He endowed Boston's Museum of Fine Arts with some twenty-six thousand works—paintings, sculpture, ceramics, and manuscripts—"the heart," in Curtis Prout's words, "of one of the world's greatest museum collections." And hardly less important, he gave the Japanese a renewed appreciation of their own culture, which earned him the Imperial Order of the Rising Sun with the rank of commander. About all this he lectured at Harvard. He was also a trustee of the Museum of Fine Arts. Probably he was the model for Dr. Alden in Santayana's The Last Puritan. In fact, he was so much a Buddhist that when he died his ashes were not only scattered at that Boston Brahmin Valhalla, Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge; some were sent to enrich the soil of a Buddhist temple in Japan. Yet Bigelow may never have traveled further than when he repaired every summer to Tuckernuck, his own more or less private island off Nantucket.137
A very gay blade who never married, Bigelow captured the attention of Thomas Russell Sullivan, himself a key player (and good friend of Isabella Stewart Gardner) in Boston's bohemia. Sullivan once reported to Gardner: "Sturgis Bigelow, MD, has come in with hypnotic influence and carries me off to dine with him tonight, seductively, with the resident literati and tutti fruiti."138 Bigelow entertained extensively and stylishly at his Beacon Street town house, but it was at Tuckernuck where he came into his own. "A scene of medieval splendor," in Henry Adams's words, Tuckernuck was a large country house in an island paradise off Nantucket "where men," in John Crowley's words, "took their ease, often naked, in an untamed natural setting." 139 The rule was no clothes at all until dinner, when, of course, one was expected to appear in formal dress. The guest list included not only Sullivan and, whenever he was visiting the East, Stoddard, but also vigorous young men like the Harvard poet George Cabot Lodge, son of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, and perhaps Stoddard's closest friend in Boston, Theodore Dwight.
Tuckernuck might not be quite the South Seas. But the South Seas were far from the only locale in the homoerotic travel novel. Xavier Mayne cited Boston in 1908 as the second of eight "homosexual capitals"140 in the U.S., and Harvard and Princeton as the leading colleges where such activities thrived.
Mayne was the author of Imre: A Memorandum, which recounts the adventures of a thirty-something Britisher who, in a café in Budapest, meets a handsome twenty-something lieutenant in the Hungarian army. To describe Imre goes a long way toward describing the book.
Imre is a hero: handsome, strong, athletic, a constant victor at military games and contests: He had been a singularly sensitive, warm-hearted boy, indeed too high-strung ... . [noted for] his engaging manners and his peculiarly striking boyish beauty.
Of middle height, he possessed a slender figure, faultless in proportions, a wonder of muscular development of strength, lightness and elegance. His athletic powers were renowned in his regiment. He was among the crack gymnasts, vaulters and swimmers ... . He could hold out a heavy garden-chair perfectly straight, with one hand ... . He could jump on and off a running horse, like a vaquero ... . Not until he was nude, and one could trace the ripple of muscle and sinew under the fine, hairless skin, did one realize the machinery of such strength.141
It is key to add that Mayne's hero "is not vain of his looks, detests jewelry and adornment, and always dresses plainly." Yet Imre, Gifford adds, though very "masculine" in these ways, is also "emotional and introspective as well as cultured." No aesthete, no effete poseur, he is not a boorish lout, either.142
It is perhaps not surprising that Xavier Mayne was a pseudonym, used by Edward Irenaeus Prime-Stevenson, a well-known writer of this period, when he wrote overtly homosexual books. Under his own name, Stevenson published "boys' lit," in the mode of Horatio Alger—himself a Harvard man who all but invented the genre—in magazines like Harper's and in his own books. His "boys' lit" was much less flagrantly homoerotic, directed toward mainstream society and thus more homosocial than homoerotic. But such work invited, perhaps even demanded, a homosexual reading even when newly published, as is made clear by the author's own opinion of it when he had occasion (elsewhere, under his gay pseudonym) to critique it. And scholars today would not disagree.
James Gifford, for example, in his chapter on the "Athletic Model," traces that model's development, with all due deference first to Whitman, through the work of a number of authors like Stevenson and on to Owen Wister. Wister is of particular importance to us because he was virtually Stoddard's peer in this more mainstream homosocial variant, as well as being one of the most influential Harvard men of his generation: a member of the Porcellian Club as an undergraduate, the author of a famous Harvard novel, Philosophy 4, and after he graduated a member of Harvard's Board of Overseers. Wister was, moreover, a lifelong friend and Harvard ally of Theodore Roosevelt; Stoddard's friend William Sturgis Bigelow was also a close friend of Roosevelt. In fact, "TR" made Bigelow's Beacon Street town house oppositeBoston Common his headquarters whenever he was in town. And Wister as a writer and Roosevelt as a public figure were very much at the center of what masculinity is, presumably, all about—the style of, the aesthetic of, manliness.143
Somewhat neurasthenic as a youngster, Wister, like Roosevelt, took up every sport, including big-game hunting, and, also like Roosevelt, he worked out strenuously in Harvard's Hemenway Gymnasium. Both were eager acolytes of Dr. Dudley Allen Sargent, whose key role in any discussion of manliness at Harvard has already been touched on here. Sargent's underlying philosophy, the Greek ideal of the sound mind in the sound body, is central to "manliness," a difficult subject even in the twenty-first century. On this topic, conservative Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield, in an article in The Times Literary Supplement, has defined manliness as the "individual quality that causes a human being to come forth, to stand up for something, and make an issue of it ... . Manly types defend their turf ... . Perhaps manliness is capable of being ... refashioned into something sexually neutral, such as strength of soul ... . Many women have admirable strength of soul. But ... do they have it in the same way as men? It seems that women have more steadiness and endurance, men more alacrity and ambition." Adds Mansfield, "There are other words, such as courage, frankness, confidence, that convey the good side of manliness, at least, without naming a sex. But to use them, to drop 'manliness,' begs the question whether moral or psychological qualities specific to sex exist." His opinion? He cites Aristotle to the effect that "men find it easier to be courageous—and, likewise, women find it easier to be moderate."144
As we will see, it was Oscar Wilde, not Walt Whitman, who made a point of visiting Harvard's gym, but in the country of Dr. Sargent we are also inevitably in the country of the Whitmanic, not the Wildean, archetype (at least in an American context), for just as it is the Wildean archetype of the aesthete that yields usually the artist, so it is the Whitmanic archetype of the warrior—such close kin to Things Greek and to the growing sports culture of the late nineteenth century—that yields the athlete.
Warrior Becomes Athlete
WHEN THE LONDON Steelers, a gay rugby team, were given full membership in the English Rugby Football Union in 1999 there was quite a stir.145 When starting linebacker and cocaptain Corey Johnson of the Masconomet High School football team in one of Boston's suburbs—a young man who also wrestles and plays lacrosse and baseball and has earned three varsity letters—announced in 2000 he was gay, there was another stir: it was front-page news in The Boston Globe.146 The captain of any football team is an American icon in the way an artist, dramatist, or painter hardly ever is. Indeed, unless Corey Johnson goes to Harvard or a similar school, he isunlikely to find himself in a milieu welcoming to both drama or music, on the one hand, and sports, on the other. I'm struck, though, with how similarly in both cases one underlying issue frames itself. "It's not like we're playing gay hockey," says a member of the Boston Lobsters, winners of the gold medal at the 1998 Gay Games in Amsterdam and members of the otherwise entirely heterosexual (so far as is known) New England Senior Hockey League. Gay hockey? "There's no such thing. It's just hockey."147 Well, substitute "music" for "hockey" and it's a point made about Aaron Copland's symphonies all the time. Schubert's, too. And as valid about Johnson's blocking. Or Greg Louganis's dives. Writes Robert Lipsyte (in "The Emasculation of Sports"):
So who's a sissy now? Certainly not Greg Louganis, a homosexual ("toughest sissy on the planet," quips Eric Marcus, the co-writer of Louganis' best-selling autobiography) whose 10th dive in the 1988 Seoul Olympics' springboard preliminaries was the nerviest act I ever covered in sports. On the previous dive, he had banged his head against the board; the wound needed several quick stitches, no time for anesthetic. A few minutes later, he came back to nail the dive, perhaps the best of the Games. It was a textbook example of traditional manly heroism. The recent debate over whether Louganis should have told Olympic officials that he was H.I.V.-positive at the time has obscured the pure courage of his act, to say nothing of the fact that he went on to win two gold medals in those Games.148
Louganis, in fact, could have been either of those fast friends of the Union Army, Ned or Tom; certainly Ned or Tom—or Whitman—would have been proud to be Louganis. I think of the New York Times review of Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire, in which James Kincaid writes: "With the fire pounding their backs, [the two young forest fire fighters] squeezed through a crevice, whereupon [one] fell exhausted into a juniper bush and would have stayed there and died had not [his friend] stopped and stared at him so coldly he was shamed into motion. The two, roommates at the jumpers' camp, then out-scrambled the fire."149 Now the two men's sexual orientation does not arise. But this anecdote, like the Louganis dive, discloses the masculine aesthetic of Whitmanic manliness: the effectiveness of stopping to stare coldly, a kindness that probably saved his friend's life, was perhaps all the kinder, all the more effective, for being the father's classic lesson: do it yourself and you'll be stronger for it. I think of the Socratic Eros or the Sacred Band; of Walter Pater's ascêis, or unsweetened wine; of Gore Vidal on Christopher Isherwood's agon, or masculine hardness; above all, I think of A. L. Rowse's point that neither the ancient Greeks nor the Japanese samurai "see manliness as instinctive, but, rather, as something to be gained by moral effort." It is a view very much in sympathy with theHarvard Puritan tradition. Certainly one of its greatest scholars, Perry Miller, wrote in Nature's Nation that "being American is not something to be inherited so much as something to be achieved,"150 a point of view by no means dissimilar. Masculine or American, a style or an aesthetic—a role it surely is. But a performance can be authentic, the action can be real; and the masculine aesthetic of manliness is, at its most authentic, the outward sign of inner effort—the moral effort Rowse speaks of.
If it is hard for the mainstream heterosexual culture to see the Whitmanic archetype of the warrior as a gay polarity, it is even harder to see this of the warrior's derivative, the athlete. Indeed, there is a long history, in part Harvard's own, that explains why the Wildean archetype of the aesthete and its derivative, the artist, has been so much more readily acknowledged as gay by the heterosexual majority. It is a history rooted in the majority's persistent need to be able to identify and recognize the homosexual, although such stereotypes are misleading, as has been shown over and over again, most recently, for instance, in journalist John Leland's portrayal of spousal abuse in The New York Times: "Stereotypes of meek, overpowered women and rampaging abusive men are of little help to officers responding to a battle between two men or two women. Often, the abuser is the smaller gay man, or the more feminine lesbian [emphasis added]."151 But stereotypes tempt us all. Gay men are artistic and effeminate for the same reason terrorists are dark-skinned and stony-faced. (There is a gay complicity in this stereotyping, too. One common response at least in the early stages of the American gay rights movement is reported by John D'Emilio: "We don't want people to know we [look like] everybody else. As long as they think everyone's a screaming queen with eyelashes, we're safe ... . We don't want publicity.")152
This family of attitudes has endured the century and finds still its strongest focus in sports, which is indeed where (absent warriors) the Whitmanic gay archetype appears in its purest form. Witness another recent front-page story from The New York Times:
[H]andsome, thoughtful and a celebrated "babe magnet," Billy Bean was the golden child ... . Yet he was nagged by the feeling that something was missing ... . Bean long suspected he was homosexual despite being heterosexually active since high school. He was married for three years ... .
"I've had good sex with women and good relationships, but something was missing, even with my wife. I wasn't fulfilled."
[He experienced success] but also midnight walks on road trips to get away from his tomcatting teammates, to work off the stress of being a spy in his own life ... .
"He was right to keep it a secret. The guys would have been brutal." [This remark from an old college teammate, Jim Bruske.] Billy could have been a great player, but he tried too hard ... he put too much pressure on himself.153
Characteristic of the Whitmanic gay, here is the problematic side of manliness's aesthetic—whose "design concept" was formulated in America's twentieth century, by the old Rough Rider himself, Theodore Roosevelt.
But in more than one way it was Roosevelt's sidekick, Owen Wister (Harvard class of 1882), who wrote the book. Long and strenuous expeditions out west, about which Wister wrote lovingly, yielded what is still manliness's textbook in twenty-first-century America: The Virginian, a huge bestseller ever since it was published in 1902, whose influence endured throughout the twentieth century in no less than three movies and a television show. In pointing out that "aside from the West the hypermasculine model of homosexuality owed a great deal to Walt Whitman," James Gifford takes note of perhaps the homoerotic locale for Americans: "The Virginian is not about cowboys so much as it is about a particular kind of manhood, the kind that Harvard had had in mind for years," and he concludes, "What is most significant about The Virginian [is] the stylishness with which an exemplary man faces violence and death, faces women, faces others, faces any threat to his manhood." Which is to say, of course, with "as few words as possible." 154 Clint Eastwood isn't new, either.
Wister, an anti-Semite who was not overfond either of women (he ridicules higher education for them), found his god in the Anglo-Saxon man. Like Dudley Sargent of Harvard's fabled gymnasium, Wister held little back. "The Virginian is, of course, glorious to behold," recounts Gifford: "He is 'a slim young giant, more beautiful than pictures, his thumb hooked in a cartridge belt that falls across his hips, his complexion glowing the way ripe peaches look upon their trees in a dry season.'" And there is more. The (male) narrator at one point imagines what it would be like to be married to his friend and later even fantasizes: "Had I been a woman, [his smile] would have made me his to do what he pleased with on the spot."
No wonder Gifford concludes that in The Virginian "several examples of male courtship [are] in evidence, and the book unites a hypermasculine dynamic with an underlying homoerotic." Which Henry James saw at once. So did Townsend, from a very different perspective. Townsend writes of how James found in it a "rejuvenating fantasy. How much better it would have been if the reader [James?] could have had the Virginian all to himself." Yet Wister "could no more do that than he could let Molly [the Virginian's fiancée] continue teaching."155 Women's roles were as clear to him as men's roles. And if Wister dealt in stereotypes, we must not let that blind us to the archetypes that William James, for example, was so swift to tend: James's continual effort, in Townsend's words, "to discover in the social realm ... 'the moral equivalent of war' [was the result of the fact] men would always love to fight."156 And now that women box, too, there turns out to be a womanly way as well as a manly way. Performance it may be, but performance again can be authentic. And need not be limiting. Tom Waddell, theAmerican Olympic decathlete who founded the Gay Games in 1982, did not seem to mind cheerleaders in drag.
IT MAY BE useful at this point to put a more personal and a more American face on all this literary and social history; its effect, for instance, on one boy—and future Harvard man—growing up in the 1900s, Alfred C. Kinsey, the celebrated scientist who would later revolutionize America's attitude to sex.
A sufferer in childhood from rheumatic fever, which doctors feared had damaged his heart, Kinsey, though a tall, strapping boy of athletic build and the usual competitive spirit, was forbidden rigorously to play all team sports. This made his boyhood difficult in an era Kinsey's biographer, James H. Jones, goes so far as to typify by reference to Kinsey's boyhood hero, Theodore Roosevelt, and to Wister's novel. Jones notes the importance of books like The Virginian in this context and that the South Orange Bulletin, Kinsey's boyhood home's newspaper, praised the play that evolved from the book, which enjoyed an eight-year run. Yet the American middle class had no need to read books to recognize they were, in Jones's words, "experiencing a crisis in masculinity ... . By the turn of the century, new epithets, such as 'sissy' ... gained currency ... ."157 Fascinating, the testimony of language: first homosexual, then masculinity, now sissy—all these words (and according to very different sources) are words of the 1890s—no older.
The last epithet is particularly interesting in this context. Both the homosexual and the heterosexual worlds produce sissies, and of more than one type: the (more Wildean) "fairy" or "pansy" of street lore, for example, and also the Whitmanic bully, the type I suspect Gore Vidal had in mind when, lamenting the seemingly unsporting overkill of Theodore Roosevelt's big-game hunting (which reputedly filled whole halls at Harvard with whole herds of stuffed heads), Vidal declared, "Give a sissy a gun and he will kill everything in sight."158 That there are different varieties of sissy is especially key to bear in mind when the idea of sissy meets the idea of gay. Heterosexuals don't register or easily understand this, in no small measure because they register only the Wildean classic gay stereotype, whereas all distortions and extremes—the hypermasculine male no less than the effeminate male—should arouse suspicion. Evelyn Waugh knew this well, even as a schoolboy, noting about his headmaster:
J. F. did not approve of Mr. Crease ... . He would not allow boys in his House to go to Mr. Crease's. Mr. Crease, as I have said, was effeminate in appearance and manner; J. F. was markedly virile, but it was he who was the homosexual [emphasis added] ... . Most good schoolmasters—and, I suppose, schoolmistresses also—are homosexual by inclination ... . J. F.'s passions ran deep. I do not think he ever gave them physical release with any of his pupils, but as distinct from the general, romantic pleasure of association with the young ... he certainly fell in love with individual boys ... . [He was] ardently attached to a golden-haired Hyacinthus. He gave this boy a motorcycle from which he was immediately thrown and much disfigured, but J. F.'s love remained constant until the friend's death in early middle age.159
Indeed, the heterosexual sissy (Bernard Berenson was another) is not unknown in literature. A hit play and movie that comes to mind is Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy (1953), in which "the sissy is heterosexual and the macho man is a latent homosexual. [His] wife confronts her husband," John M. Clum writes, "with his latent homosexuality and, at the final curtain, offers herself to the sensitive young man, who has been accused of being the unspeakable [i.e., gay], to affirm his heterosexuality."160 Similarly, these words and concepts—homosexual, masculine, sissy—pervade even standard reference works such as The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, in which contributor Earl Miner notes that although lesbian poetry "prefers tender committed relationships," it seems to him indisputably the case that "gay male poetry is about energy, adventure, quest, danger," certainly the reverse of the sissified.161 Indeed, to take one final pass at the young Kinsey example, it becomes clear the extent to which this crisis in manhood—with its new words: homosexual, masculinity, sissy—has pervaded twentieth-century discourse. As a boy, Kinsey found his answer in the Boy Scouts, with its goal of building "real men," and
attacked scouting with all the fervor of a boy determined to demonstrate his mettle ... . Scouting gave Kinsey the opportunity to succeed in the masculine world of athletics, since the Boy Scouts awarded merit badges in both hiking and mountain climbing ... . By the time he finished high school, Kinsey was the embodiment of the all-American boy.162
All-American, but not to himself. It is important to acknowledge here, because we now know Kinsey was sadomasochistic in his practices as well as homosexual, which is the highly problematic extreme risked by the warrior /athlete archetype, often expressed through gay bashing. (As we'll see in the next chapter, the extreme risked by the aesthete/artist archetype is that of the drag queen, a type of the gay basher's victim.)
It is equally important to observe that, in his youth in the 1900s and for some years thereafter, Kinsey probably did not think of himself as homosexual; that would have required, in the words of his biographer, James H. Jones, "a level of self-understanding he did not possess" at that time. "Two powerful defense mechanisms—denial and repression—may have shieldedhim from the truth." The question of how such a thing may dawn on one, however, goes past Owen Wister and back to Walt Whitman, an artist, of course, of much greater, indeed, transformative, power whose continuing force is well illustrated by a reminiscence of a gay writer of our own time, Bruce Bawer, who one summer night at age fifteen at a summer cottage took from the bookshelves "a volume that mesmerized me." It was Leaves of Grass. Wrote Bawer:
I sat there transfixed by Whitman's long, lusty lines, which washed over me as powerfully and sensuously as the high ocean waves had in the hot sun of the day.
I knew the moment I began reading Whitman's muscular, nature-ridden verses that something in them touched me deepdown ... . Not having identified myself yet as homosexual, I didn't yet realize what that something was.163
When he did, Bawer recalled that early messenger, rather as one might an Old Testament angel. The thinker and writer Bawer became was naturally more than a little affronted when he encountered those who deny Whitman's homosexuality:
There are those—and I'm one of them—who have cautioned about the danger of reducing writers to their race, gender or sexual orientation. Yet when it comes to sexual orientation there's another danger which is still far more commonly fallen into ... the danger of minimizing its importance. With Whitman ... the habit of soft-pedaling his homosexuality—or pretending that he was heterosexual or bisexual or that his sexual orientation cannot really be known or that, if gay, he never actually acted on his impulses or that, even if he did, he'd have preferred for us to keep quiet about such things—has been widespread ... . What is a nation to do, after all, when the National Poet—a man for whom high schools and shopping malls have been named—was gay? 164
The list of the critics and literary historians, some gay, who have perpetuated this denial is long, still current, and would include some very fine scholars: witness Van Wyck Brooks, Paul Zweig, Harold Bloom, and David Reynolds. Yet even here there is something to learn, as Gary Schmidgall points out in his Walt Whitman: A Gay Life, from scholarly denial of Whitman's homosexuality. Such homophobic responses "are precisely the sort that Whitman sought and expected from heterosexual readers in an age when total openness about such matters was impossible." At the same time, Schmidgall makes clear, Whitman sought to convey fuller truths, with a wink and a nod, to homosexual readers conversant in the elliptical language of the closet. Borrowing a term from Whitman, Schmidgall calls the poet'sstraight readers "civilians," and proposes that he, as a gay man who has lived many years in Whitman's "Manhatta," which for him as for Whitman has been a "city of eros," can read Whitman—or at least his gay references—better than they can.165
I object as strenuously as Bawer to the tendency, "all too familiar in queer cultural and political circles," Bawer writes, "to reduce gay life and identity to gay sex, and to equate openness about sexual orientation with explicitness about the details of sexual behavior." And I am also reluctant, as he is, to do anything that does "not primarily [deal with Whitman] as an artist who speaks to all readers, male and female, straight and gay." And I sympathize, too, with Bawer's concerns that Schmidgall's "exclusivity above universality" risks emphasizing "gay marginality and segregation." But whether or not gay people understand Whitman "better," they will understand him differently from heterosexuals. And the difference can mean a good deal, there being what Heidegger calls Vorverstandnis, or preunderstanding,166 the lack of which, for example, Richard Hall complains of when he notes that Henry James's principal biographer, Leon Edel, though he recognized the evidence for the novelist's sexuality, "was not empowered by his own life and experience to see an erotic component in the relationship between [Henry and William James]." By contrast, Bawer, at age fifteen, came to Whitman with a great deal of Vorverstandnis.
Ned and Tom, those Whitmanic warriors of Two College Friends, were teenagers, too, and came out of a culture in Harvard Yard that also understood that the warrior/athlete archetype is well defined (by a Victorian-era Harvard rowing coach) as standing for "strength without aggression, confidence without self-assertion, cheerfulness without ostentation, and endurance to the end."167 Yes, there were aberrations. But S/M is no more the essence of the warrior archetype than drag queens are the essence of the aesthete archetype; the gay basher is no more characteristic of the athlete than his victim of the artist.
Walt Whitman, wrote Symonds, was "more truly Greek than any other man of Modern times." Oscar Wilde did not disagree. When Robert Ross and Wilde first slept together, wrote Dowling, "Wilde understood their intercourse as proceeding along the Platonic ladder of love, passing from pandemic physical delight to Uranian intellectual friendship. With Ross, the Platonic ideal of an erotic procreancy of the spirit generating thought and art, as well as the frank Greek practice of 'embracing to wrestle and wrestling to embrace,' seemed to issue in a perfect fulfillment of Hellenism."168
Copyright © 2003 by Douglass Shand-Tucci.
|I||Warrior and Aesthete: Charting the Continuum|
|1||The Warrior Archetype: Walt Whitman's Harvard||11|
|2||The Aesthete Archetype: Oscar Wilde's Harvard||59|
|II||Home and Away: Rules of the Road|
|3||Home: Old Cambridge, Beacon Hill, Back Bay, North Shore||95|
|4||A Stoic's Perspective: Ohio Hellenist||156|
|5||Away: Left Bank, Red Square, Harlem, Greenwich Village||176|
|6||"Foxy Grandpa's" Perspective: Transcontinental Homophile||226|
|7||Finale: Boston, New York, Washington - A Rumor of Angels||258|
|III||Hound and Horn: Hunting the Sensibility|
|8||Yard and River: Between Pathetique and Brideshead||277|
|Notes for the Illustrations||387|
|Acknowledgments for the Illustrations||389|
Posted May 31, 2003
This book is a must read for libraries outside the Boston area and anyone interested in Culture. What is Library Journal thinkng with their myopic ignorant review?Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.