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Editorial Censorship: The Twentieth Century

An especially painful example of a similar kind of censoring closer to the present is May Sarton's 1955 novel, Faithful Are the Wounds, a fictionalizing of the life and suicide of the critic F. O. Matthiessen. Here, in what could be called a case of "compound closeting," a closeted lesbian writer "re-closets" an already camouflaged gay man by making no reference to Matthiessen's homosexuality and to the role that the death of his lover Russell Cheney played in his suicide, proposing instead that Matthiessen's stresses were all professional and political (the accepted public explanation at the time of his death in 1950).


Most homosexual writing before the early twentieth century could be thought of as in part an exercise in self-censorship. Reflecting the danger of open homosexual expression, earlier authors who published about their homosexuality typically had to write indirectly, and some avoided writing about the subject altogether.

However, I limit my discussion here to more pointed forms of self-censorship in which homosexual authors withheld frank homosexual writing from publication, actually erased the homosexual content from their texts, or publicly denied their homosexuality. Concerted instances of this kind of censorship also appear from at least the Renaissance onward.

Self-Censorship: The Renaissance

For example, Michelangelo the Younger may have felt justified in his later bowdlerizing by the fact that Michelangelo himself "de-homosexualized" some of his poems in draft, changing the addressee from male to female (for example, poems 230 and 246) or from male to unspecified gender (for example, poem 259).

Self-Censorship: The Eighteenth Century

The most notable example of homosexual self-censorship in the eighteenth century is Jeremy Bentham's 1785 draft essay on "," which he withheld from publication out of fear that "I should expose my personal interest so much to hazard as it must be . . . by the free discussion of a subject of this nature"; the essay did not appear until 1978.

Bentham did the same with an even longer and unfinished set of writings defending same-sex sexuality that he composed between 1814 and 1818, the chief of which is a 309-page manuscript entitled "Not Paul but Jesus"; only a brief excerpt from these documents has ever been published.

Self-Censorship: The Nineteenth Century

As scholars have uncovered, Byron's 1811-1812 "Thyrza" poems, addressed to a woman, are camouflaged memorials to the chorister John Edlestone, with whom Byron had fallen in love while at Cambridge and who had recently died from consumption.

The best-known example of homosexual self-censorship in nineteenth-century American literature is Whitman's heterosexualizing of the text of "Once I Pass'd through a Populous City," from his 1860 Children of Adam collection--the "woman" who "passionately clung" to him in the poem's published version is a "man" in Whitman's manuscript.

An even more blatant example of the same impulse in Whitman was his denial of his homosexuality in an 1890 letter to John Addington Symonds, who had been prodding him about the matter in correspondence since 1871, soon after first reading the transparently homosexual Calamus poems (1860). Whitman asserts that the "morbid inferences" Symonds was drawing from Calamus "are disavow'd by me & seem damnable. . . . That the calamus part has even allow'd the possibility of such construction as mention'd is terrible," and he ends by proclaiming his incontestable heterosexuality: "Tho' always unmarried, I have had six children."

Though uniquely courageous in broaching the subject of homosexuality in several of his published works, Symonds himself kept his most extended, frank discussions of homosexuality private, either by limiting them to private circulation or by withholding them from publication in his lifetime.

For example, A Problem in Greek Ethics, Symonds's first extended defense of homosexuality, was first drafted in 1873, but only appeared in public print after his death, as "Appendix A" in the first edition of Sexual Inversion.

Even more tellingly, Symonds left unpublished at the time of his death the pathbreaking Memoirs he wrote between 1889 and 1893, the first self-conscious homosexual autobiography known to us now; he left instructions for preservation of the manuscript, however, and it was finally published in 1984.

After the critical dispute about his 1873 Studies in the History of the Renaissance, when he published a second edition in 1877 Walter Pater omitted the especially controversial "Conclusion," where he had listed "the face of one's friend" as one possible source of "exquisite passion"; Pater restored the "Conclusion" in the third edition of 1888, however.

A. E. Housman's two books of poems, his famous A Shropshire Lad (1896) and Last Poems (1922), contain some coded homosexual statements; at the same time, Housman left unpublished a number of frank manuscript poems about his unrequited love for Moses Jackson, his relationship with Jackson's brother Adalbert, and the Oscar Wilde trials, chiefly written between 1885 and 1895. Housman left these to his executor, his brother Laurence, who was also homosexual, and they were published posthumously in the late 1930s.

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