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literature

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American Literature: Nineteenth Century  
 
page: 1  2  3  

The misuse of power in the name of freedom is the subject also of James's novel of women's rights, The Bostonians (1886). Olive Chancellor arranges to "buy" the attractive and talented Verena Tarrant away from her father, and then replaces Tarrant as a mesmeric force seeking to make Verena into a spokeswoman for Olive's ideology and preserving her from marriage.

Challenged by her cousin Basil Ransome for control of Verena, Olive, who believes in the power of free choice and is portrayed as a latter-day Transcendentalist, abandons her principles to fight for the young woman. Verena eventually chooses romantic love and domesticity as offered by Basil, leaving Olive alone to face the crowd of activists.

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Although the novel ends in marriage, James ironically undercuts the ending by commenting that Verena's tears "were not the last she was destined to shed." Some of the impetus for the book came from James's observation of his sister Alice and her friend Katharine Loring, who shared a life from 1879 until Alice's death from cancer in 1892.

James's circle included more open homosexuals, such as Howard Overing Sturgis, American expatriate, who wrote Tim (1891), a school novel about the love of a frail boy for an unfeeling older boy. The two are united only at the moment of death, when the extent of Tim's love can be acknowledged. Sturgis's cousin was George Santayana, poet and philosopher, who wrote a series of sonnets celebrating his love for Warwick Potter, a friend who died young. Like his contemporary in England, A. E. Housman, Santayana celebrated the purity of the dead, who are preserved from time and loss.

Male Romantic Friendsip

Male friendships of the period were nurtured in schools and universities. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, later Emily Dickinson's mentor, remembered his love for William Henry Hurlbut whom he had known as a student at Harvard in the 1840s. As Higginson put it, "for him my love had no bounds."

Hurlbut was apparently also the model for Theodore Winthrop's Cecil Dreeme (1862), in which the eponymous hero is revealed at the end to be a woman dressed as a man. Although this sudden revelation enables a "happy ending" in heterosexual terms, it is hardly greeted with enthusiasm in the text. Byng's love for Dreeme is clearly located in a homosexual tradition by his comment that "him I love with a love passing the love of women."

In another novel, John Brent (1862), Winthrop uses a Western setting for a text that celebrates the joining of nature and culture, the softness of youth with the hardness of masculinity. As in Cecil Dreeme, male friendship is the privileged site of affection: "I have known no more perfect union than that one friendship."

Female Romantic Friendship

As women's lives were largely confined to the home, so their affections developed in a domestic setting. Emily Dickinson's intense romantic friendships for Kate Anthon and Sue Gilbert existed alongside her heterosexual desires, with no apparent sense of conflict. In 1852, Dickinson wrote to Sue Gilbert, "will you be my own again and kiss me as you used to? . . . I feel that now I must have you----that the expectation once more to see your face again, makes me feel hot and feverish, and my heart beats so fast."

Recent studies of Dickinson have stressed the role of the poems as tokens of love and desire, and have called attention to the concern with detail and small objects as a sign of clitoral imagery. Even a well-known poem such as "I taste a liquor never brewed" yields a very different meaning, and a very different poet, if read in terms of sexuality.

In public, at least, American women did not express sexual desires directly but through passionate long-lasting friendships, often called . Since such friendships were imagined to be lacking in sexuality, emotional expression knew no limits. Many women shared lives over many years and were widely accepted in the community. One of the most striking of such relationships was that between Annie Fields and Sarah Orne Jewett. Fields's husband died in 1881, after which Fields and Jewett lived together most of the year except for a few months when Jewett retired to Maine to write.

Jewett's work, although probably written without any awareness of a category such as "lesbian," celebrates female community and women's friendships. Her story, "Martha's Lady" (1895) concerns a brief but intense friendship between a young woman and a young maidservant. The woman marries and leaves Martha behind, waiting faithfully for her return. When that return takes place, both the women are old, but their affection is restored, as Helena realizes what her friendship has meant to Martha. The need to accept the marriage of one of the partners was a repeated theme of Jewett's stories of female friendship, but she constantly sought ways to preserve that friendship, so much more powerful for her than the marriage tie.

Jewett's great admirer and literary follower was Willa Cather, although Cather did not feel free to be as open in her treatment of same-sex relations as Jewett had been. In fact, Jewett wrote to Cather in 1908 gently chastising Cather for writing in "masquerade," when, according to Jewett, "a woman could love her in the same way." Jewett's response is now usually attributed to her innocence of later models of homosexuality that made Cather so cagey; whatever the validity of that, it testifies also to her commitment to love between women, regardless of what it is called.

Robert K. Martin

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    Bibliography
   

Austen, Roger. Genteel Pagan. The Double Life of Charles Warren Stoddard. John W. Crowley, ed. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.

Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men. Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: Morrow, 1981.

Martin, Robert K. The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979.

_____. "Bayard Taylor's Valley of Bliss: Pastoral and the Search for Form." Markham Review (Fall 1979): 13-17.

_____. "Knights-Errant and Gothic Seducers: The Representation of Male Friendship in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America." Hidden from History. Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, Jr., eds. New York: New American Library, 1989.

Savoy, Eric. "Reading Gay America: Walt Whitman, Henry James, and the Politics of Reception." The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman. Robert K. Martin, ed. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992. 3-15.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Martin, Robert K.  
    Entry Title: American Literature: Nineteenth Century  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated August 25, 2004  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/am_lit6_19c.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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