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literature

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American Literature: Nineteenth Century  
 
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Taylor, like so many Americans of the mid-nineteenth century, was deeply influenced by Goethe, and imitated Goethe's "Orientalizing" poems of the Westöstlicher Divan (1819). The adoption of a Persian model permitted the exploration of erotic poems addressed to a boy, such as Taylor's "To a Persian Boy" (1851), with its celebration of "the rich, voluptuous soul of Eastern land" in "the wonder of thy beauty."

The journey east was a voyage of self-discovery in a world where gender and desire were regulated differently. It could lead to self-recognition, or coming out, as Taylor intimates in "L'Envoi" (1855):

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I found among those Children of the Sun,
The cipher of my nature,--the release
Of baffled powers, which else had never won
That free fulfillment, whose reward is peace.

Taylor's 1870 novel Joseph and His Friend marks his attempt to shift from the Oriental lyric to American prose. It is quite explicit in its adoption of a political stance toward homosexuality. The young Joseph Aster has grown up sensitive and isolated, taught to reject his body. On the train returning from his engagement, he meets Philip Held, with whom he falls in love and who explains to him "the needs" that are often unfulfilled in conventional society. Philip argues for the "rights" of those "who cannot shape themselves according to the common-place pattern of society." The two young men go off to California in search of the Happy Valley, the place where they can realize their love.

Whitman and His Influence

Like so many homosexuals of this period, Taylor felt a considerable debt to Walt Whitman. Although Whitman's first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 included scenes of apparently homosexual desire and sexuality, the publication of the "Calamus" poems in the 1860 edition made Whitman into a beacon for many gay men who felt touched by his exploration of the consequences of his homosexuality. Taylor wrote to Whitman in 1866, praising Whitman's treatment of "that tender and noble love of man for man" and his "unwearied, affectionate practical fraternity."

Charles Warren Stoddard was another of Whitman's admirers, like Taylor sending the older poet a copy of one of his books and seeking confirmation of the sexual themes. Although Whitman did not answer Stoddard's first letter and book, he did reply in 1869, sending a photograph, asserting that "those tender & primitive personal relations away off there in the Pacific Islands . . . touched me deeply." Although Stoddard clearly wanted Whitman's approval, there were many obstacles to any connection between them. Stoddard's search for the exotic would lead him finally to the Roman Catholic Church, haven for so many homosexual aesthetes in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Henry James and His Circle

If Taylor and Stoddard could feel affirmed in their sexual identities by Whitman's example, the young Henry James reacted very differently. James's 1865 review of Drum-Taps is extraordinarily, over-determinedly hostile. Whitman's work is called by James "monstrous because it pretends to persuade the soul while it slights the intellect; because it pretends to gratify the feelings while it outrages the taste."

Thirty-three years later, James, no longer quite so fastidious, had little but praise for Whitman's letters to Peter Doyle, which he termed "positively delightful." Whitman's "queerness" was, James now sees, perfectly American, and this record of his love for the working-class Doyle is "the beauty of the natural . . . the beauty of the particular nature . . . the personal passion."

By the 1890s, James found himself often in the throes of homosexual passion (whether requited or not), notably with Jonathan Sturges and Morton Fullerton. He was close to important homosexual circles in England through his friendship with Edmund Gosse. At the same time, the Oscar Wilde trial in 1895 served as a warning of the possible consequences of exposure.

James kept a safe distance from the disgraced Wilde. In an early work, Roderick Hudson (1875), James had portrayed passionate male friendship, celebrating the love of Rowland Mallet for his protégé Roderick. Their affectionate companionship offers a "high felicity" experienced in the sexually charged atmosphere of Venice.

In his later novels, until the 1890s, James played down homosexual imagery. When he returned to the subject, he once again wrote of the dangers of the guardian or tutor. In "The Pupil" (1891), the tutor refuses his pupil's offer of a life together and thus causes his death, whereas in "The Turn of the Screw" (1898), little Miles is tormented by the vigilance of the governess and the ghost of the dead tutor.

A complex treatment of the matter is offered in "The Author of 'Beltraffio'" (1884), based on John Addington Symonds, a text that is anxious about the possession of a child's soul and at the same time critical of a moralistic wife who, like the governess in "The Turn of the Screw," does more harm out of a desire to keep the child "pure" than anyone else.

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