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American Literature: Nineteenth Century  
 
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Although it would appear that a male homosexual subculture was well established and visible in London by the eighteenth century, there does not seem to have been a comparable development in America. Whether this is due to the relatively small size of urban centers in America, to the persistence of Puritan theology, or to the availability of free land in the West for men interested in other men, there is little evidence of a gay or lesbian subculture in America until the second half of the nineteenth century.

Leslie Fiedler famously argued for the universality of male homosexuality in American literature, but he confused the categories of friendship, male bonding, and misogyny. As he himself suggested, the male couples he describes have a mythic rather than a real existence.

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The Transcendentalists

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, the best known of the group, had been infatuated with a classmate, Martin Gay, at Harvard. In his mature life, however, "his craving for friendship and love seldom found adequate satisfaction," as his biographer Stephen Whicher put it.

Emerson's 1839 essay on friendship is troubled by the impossibility of realizing the ideal in flesh and blood. His concept of friendship was gendered male and seen as superior to heterosexual love. For Emerson, friendship is a "select and sacred relation which is a kind of absolute [that] leaves the language of love suspicious and common."

Emerson's friend Henry David Thoreau also had difficulty reconciling an abstract commitment to friendship with an aversion to the physical. In the same year that Emerson wrote his essay, Thoreau wrote his poem "Sympathy," apparently prompted by his love for the eleven-year-old Edmund Sewell. The poem draws on Shakespeare's sonnets, as well as on Milton's "Lycidas," while finding its consolation in the thought that the spirit of the love will survive even the disappearance of the object of love.

Thoreau's diary for this period is filled with thoughts on friendship and the sense of a "secret." His reflections are deeply moving: "My friend is the apology for my life. In him are the spaces which my orbit traverses."

The most significant woman in the Concord circle, Margaret Fuller, also participated in the discourses of friendship although her approach was both more personal and more political. Emerson described Fuller's female friendships as "not unmingled with passion, . . . romantic sacrifice and ecstatic fusion." Fuller sought to locate her own friendships in a literary and cultural tradition, evoking for instance the relationship between Mme de Staël and Mme Récamier.

Fuller's major work, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), is quite discreet on the subject of female friendship although she does insist on a fundamental : "There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman." Fuller is clearly anxious in her response to the cross-dressing, cigar-smoking George Sand. The Frenchwoman is "rich in genius" but "would trample on every graceful decorum." Still, she was the person Fuller insisted on seeing first when she traveled to Europe.

Fuller's greatest tribute to her commitment to female friendship is her translation of the letters between Bettina von Arnim and Karoline von Günderode, German romantic friends who were separated by the suicide of Günderode. Such a friendship offered to Fuller the possibility of a relation of equals and the expression of a deep desire to escape from the limitations of the "feminine."

Dana, Melville, Stoddard, Taylor, and Exotic Locales

For many writers of the mid-nineteenth century, it seemed necessary to locate the desired partner of the same sex in a distant, exotic setting. Reports of the sensuality of the South Seas had been frequent since their "discovery" by Europeans. Richard Henry Dana recorded his experiences in Hawaii in his popular Two Years Before the Mast (1840), which was to influence Herman Melville (and later Charles Warren Stoddard) significantly.

Dana's friendships with the English sailors fit quite well into a tradition of the handsome noble sailor (as in the works of Frederick Marryat). His friendship with Hope, his Hawaiian special friend (aikane), introduces the text's cross-cultural theme of self-exploration. Despite the abuse he receives, and the fact that he is dying of syphilis presumably contracted from a Western sailor, Hope remains civil, and Dana attempts to counteract the captain's racism by procuring medicine for him. Dana's journey to such a world is a kind of delayed adulthood, represented by the America to which he returns "in a state of indifference."

Melville carried the theme further in his exploration of the South Seas in Typee (1846). Abandoning ship meant fleeing paternal and patriarchal authority. Melville brought to his experiences a taste trained by Western classicism, and so he can see Marnoo as a "Polynesian Apollo" even though he is put off by the Polynesians' tattooed bodies. Some of Melville's contemporaries, such as Bayard Taylor, sought out even more remote locales for the exploration of male eroticism.

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Both gay male and lesbian attractions are reflected in nineteenth-century American poetry and fiction including works by such major figures as Walt Whitman (top) and Emily Dickinson.
  
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