The Crimson Letter: Harvard, Homosexuality, and the Shaping of American Culture


"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 students of the later nineteenth century. Shand-Tucci explores ...
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The Crimson Letter: Harvard, Homosexuality, and the Shaping of American Culture

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"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 students of the later nineteenth century. 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 intellect and fulfilled promise. Shand-Tucci 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.
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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Shand-Tucci presents homosexuality as Harvard's hidden history, and he moves from the personal and precise -- almost confessional -- tone of his introduction to an account of the institution itself. But this institution is not only the university in Cambridge, for ''Harvard, whatever lens you look at it through, is above all an American story.'' Gay Harvard, for Shand-Tucci, is the story of modern America. — Daniel Swift
Publishers Weekly
What Shand-Tucci (The Art of Scandal) attempts here is nothing less than a re-evaluation of American culture by looking at how it was shaped by Harvard-connected gay men. From Ralph Waldo Emerson (in love with fellow student Martin Gay) and Henry James (who apparently first had sex with Oliver Wendell Holmes) to poet Frank O'Hara and artist Edward Gory, who were student roommates, Shand-Tucci weaves together history, criticism and gossip to show how many of the sons of Harvard were not only gay but major culture machers. The material is often fascinating-the discussion of philosopher Lucian Price is a deft examination of American culture and politics, and it is clear that Shand-Tucci has read widely. Unfortunately most of the information here is from secondary sources, and as a result the book feels slightly shopworn, a problem compounded by the author's off-hand, often sloppy style. But a greater problem is that Shand-Tucci, try as he does in the final chapter, "Hunting the Sensibility," fails to make the case that there is something about Harvard that generates a specific sexuality and culture. In the end the book feels like a collection of minutiae and anecdotes, not a cultural history. (Apr.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Fair Harvard occupies a hallowed position in America as an epicenter of intellectual achievement and liberal thought, but in his chronicle of the gay men who have passed through Harvard Yard, Shand-Tucci (The Art of Scandal) reveals that it is also a gay mecca. After establishing two archetypes-the warrior, exemplified by Walt Whitman, and the artist, exemplified by Oscar Wilde-the author seldom refers to them again as he catalogs a formidable list of names. Everyone is here, from obscure academics to familiar 19th-century sacred cows (e.g., Emerson, Thoreau, and James) to more modern totems (Aaron Copeland, T.S. Eliot, and Lincoln Kerstein). The famous are presented here without individuality or reality, existing in a rarified, insular world largely populated with other Harvard alumni; gay Bostonian life is barely sketched. Impressively researched, as if striving to live up to the author's own Cantabrigian credentials, the book lacks the universality of other regional chronicles, such as Charles Kaiser's The Gay Metropolis. This elitist, self-congratulatory work will be of limited appeal to libraries outside of Boston.-Richard J. Violette, Special Libs., Victoria, B.C. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312330903
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 5/15/2004
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 403
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.21 (h) x 0.87 (d)

Meet the Author

Douglass Shand-Tucci’s previous books include The Art of Scandal, the bestselling biography of Isabella Steward Gardner; Boston Bohemia, and, most recently, Harvard University, with photographs by Richard Cheek and a foreword by Neil Rudenstine. The origin of The Crimson Letter is a speech Shand-Tucci, a 1972 graduate of Harvard College, gave to the Gay and Lesbian Caucus in 1997. He lives in Boston’s Back Bay.

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Read an Excerpt


Harvard, Homosexuality, and the Shaping of American Culture


Copyright © 2003 Douglass Shand-Tucci
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0312198965

Chapter One

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.

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 rector, 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's most 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"-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."

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 rundown 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.

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)...." After all, Emerson was keen: in his biographer Justin Kaplan's words, Leaves of Grass was a book he had "stood grandfather to." 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 lived to 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."

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."

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. 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." 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." 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.... If we 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....

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."

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" 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." 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." 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.

This was, naturally, decades before Whitman.


Excerpted from THE CRIMSON LETTER by DOUGLASS SHAND-TUCCI Copyright © 2003 by Douglass Shand-Tucci
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Prologue 1
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
Acknowledgments 349
Notes 357
Notes for the Illustrations 387
Acknowledgments for the Illustrations 389
Index 391
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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 31, 2003

    Library Journal Knows Nothing

    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?

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