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Matthiessen, F.O. (1902-1950)  

F. O. Matthiessen, one of the most prominent literary critics of the twentieth century, was instrumental in the inclusion of gay writers in American literary history; and the exchange of letters between him and his lover Russell Cheney are among the most revealing gay male documents of the 1920s.

Francis Otto Matthiessen was born to William Frederick and Lucy Orne Matthiessen on February 19, 1902, in Pasadena, California. After his parents' divorce in 1915, Matthiessen lived on his grandfather's farm in Illinois, later attended boarding school in Tarrytown, New York, and then, toward the end of World War I, joined the Canadian Air Force. He entered Yale in 1919, graduated in 1923 with many honors, and then became a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, receiving a B. Litt. in 1925.

While sailing for Oxford, he met the painter Russell Cheney; they would be lovers until Cheney's death in 1945. Cheney, though closeted in many ways, was a profoundly positive influence on Matthiessen, encouraging his interest in gay and lesbian literary figures like Walt Whitman and Sarah Orne Jewett. Indeed, their relationship was modeled on that of Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Fields.

Matthiessen entered Harvard Graduate School in 1925 and received his A.M. in 1926 and Ph.D. in 1927. He became an instructor in English at Yale in 1927, leaving in 1929 for Harvard, where he stayed until his death.

In a series of remembrances published just after his death, F.O. Matthiessen: A Collective Portrait, students at Harvard described him as quick-tempered but generous with his time. A committed socialist, he founded the Harvard Teachers' Union and worked in the Progressive Party for Henry Wallace's 1948 presidential campaign.

Increasingly depressed after Cheney's death and threatened by the witch-hunts of the cold war, Matthiessen committed suicide in 1950, jumping from a tenth-floor hotel room window.

Matthiessen's numerous critical works concentrate mostly on American literature. Most notable are Sarah Orne Jewett (1929), Translation: An Elizabethan Art (1931), The Achievement of T.S. Eliot: An Essay on the Nature of Poetry (1935, 1947), his masterpiece American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), and books on Henry James, the James family, and Theodore Dreiser.

Matthiessen's work bears little obvious mark of his homosexuality, but his interests carry a subtext of homosexuality: Most of his book-length works deal exclusively with or favor subjects who were lesbian or gay or whose sexuality was in question--Jewett, Henry James, T. S. Eliot, Melville, and Whitman. Though discussions of homosexuality seem absent from these writings, or--in the case of Whitman--, careful reading reveals a subversive and favorable approach to these writers' sexualities.

His devotion to Cheney led him to publish a catalogue of Cheney's work, Russell Cheney, 1881-1945: A Record of His Work in 1947. Rat and the Devil: Journal Letters of F.O. Matthiessen and Russell Cheney, edited and published by Matthiessen's friend Louis Hyde in 1978, provides selections from over twenty years of correspondence between Matthiessen and Cheney, chronicles their relationship, and demonstrates how these two men, without a sense of gay community, constructed their identities from reading and writing.

Matthiessen coined the phrase "American Renaissance" for the 1850s flowering of American literature. Though American Renaissance encouraged a view of American literature that excluded women and minority writers, Matthiessen's work continues to be a topic of critical study. He integrated his radical political and sexual outlook into his writings during repressive times in interesting and controversial ways.

David Bergman, in his 1991 book Gaiety Transfigured, argues that Matthiessen's American Renaissance was an expression of his love for Cheney, who kindled Matthiessen's interest in Whitman, and a covert celebration of the homosexual artist.

However, Michael Cadden, in the 1990 essay "Engendering F.O.M.: The Private Life of American Renaissance," expresses disappointment over the gap between the sexual Whitman presented in Matthiessen's correspondence with Cheney and the almost disembodied Whitman of American Renaissance.

Even though Matthiessen's critical works provoke both enthusiasm and disappointment, he was undeniably instrumental in including the subversive presence of gay writers in American literature.

Alan E. Kozlowski


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Barber, C. L. "A Preliminary Bibliography of F.O. Matthiessen." Monthly Review 2 (1950): 316-322.

_____. "A Supplementary Bibliography of F.O. Matthiessen." Monthly Review 4 (1952): 174-175.

Bergman, David. Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Self-Representation in American Literature. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Cadden, Michael. "Engendering F.O.M.: The Private Life of American Renaissance." Engendering Men: The Question of Male Feminist Criticism. Joseph A. Boone and Michael Cadden, eds. New York: Routledge, 1990. 26-35.

Cain, William E. F.O. Matthiessen and the Politics of Criticism. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.

Gunn, Giles B. F.O. Matthiessen: The Critical Achievement. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1975.

Hyde, Louis, ed. Rat and the Devil: Journal Letters of F.O. Matthiessen and Russell Cheney. Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1978.

Marx, Leo. "Double Consciousness and the Cultural Politics of F.O. Matthiessen." Monthly Review 34 (1983): 34-56.

Sweezy, Paul M., and Leo Huberman. F.O. Matthiessen (1902-1950): A Collective Portrait. New York: Schuman, 1950.


    Citation Information
    Author: Kozlowski, Alan E.  
    Entry Title: Matthiessen, F.O.  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated March 12, 2002  
    Web Address  
    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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