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Romantic Friendship: Male  
page: 1  2  3  

In William Makepeace Thackeray's Henry Esmond (1852), Lord Castlewood virtually thrusts his wife Rachel onto the rakish Lord Mohun, with whom he has cultivated a passionate friendship. But after playing pander, Castlewood must also play the enraged rival: He loses his life dueling against Mohun over Rachel's honor.

Nineteenth-century poets also introduced complicated strategies to dissociate male friendships from suspicions of homosexuality. Although Lord Byron sometimes presented his attachments to boys and youths as the recovery of a noble classical past, his contemporaries characterized it in less exalted terms as aristocratic decadence.

In "A Discourse on the Manners of the Ancient Greeks Relative to the Subject of Love" (1818), Percy Bysshe Shelley nervously explains the intensity of Greek same-sex affection as a consequence of the debased status of Greek women: Since friendship depended on the full parity of moral excellence, Greek men could not experience it with uneducated women.

At first, Alfred Lord Tennyson's In Memoriam: A.H.H. (1850), a elegiac sequence lamenting the death of his friend Arthur Hallam, appears to be the nineteenth-century's least paranoid expression of male romantic friendship. But by elegiac definition, Hallam is dead: Although Tennyson imagines him in one poem as his own bridegroom, his death prevents that quasi-conjugal passion from ever achieving a physical consummation.

Romantic Friendship in Nineteenth-Century American Literature

The triangulation that neutralized the threat of homosexuality in nineteenth-century British experience did not necessarily apply to American representations of same-sex friendship on the frontiers of white civilization. In the figure of Natty Bumppo, James Fenimore Cooper introduced a recurrent American character type, the white man who exchanges domestic stability with a wife and children for a friendship with another man who embodies the freedom of uncivilized nature.

While Natty Bumpo finds his most intense personal commitment in his friendship with the Indian Chingachgook, Herman Melville's Ishmael finds it with Queequeg, and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn with the runaway slave Jim. As Leslie Fiedler has argued, American literature repeatedly posits an Eden devoid of women, a Paradise in which same-sex friendships take the place of heterosexual marriage.

In Democratic Vistas (1871), Walt Whitman hails male romantic friendship as the basis for a revitalized American democracy. Adopting two terms from nineteenth-century phrenology, Whitman distinguishes between a spiritualized bonding between men, "adhesiveness," and a more crudely material attraction between men and women, "amativeness."

Classical phrenologists did not present the two categories as either antithetical or specifically gendered: For them, "amativeness" referred to sexual attraction and "adhesiveness" to intense, but not essentially erotic, friendship. As Michael Lynch argues, Whitman anticipates the modern distinction between heterosexuality and homosexuality by setting the terms in strictly gendered opposition. For Whitman, amativeness refers only to opposite-sex attraction and adhesiveness only to same-sex attraction.

Romantic Friendship Versus Homosexuality

Since the emergence of "homosexuality" as a specific psychological category, Western culture has posited even sharper divisions between divergent experiences of affection. In current discourse, "male friendship" suggests an "innocent," "normal," fundamentally nonerotic bond between members of the same sex. Friendship so conceived opposes "homosexuality," a "deviant," "abnormal," and preeminently erotic bond between men.

Sex education manuals typically reassure adolescent boys that they can harbor intense affection for members of the same sex without being "homosexuals."


But clear distinctions between erotic and nonerotic affections rarely hold up in practice. Wherever the dream of an all-male Eden persists--in westerns, science fiction, sports stories, detective movies, or prison narratives--romantic friendship retains its unmistakably erotic dimensions.

In Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (1944), all-male Oxford colleges foster a passionate devotion between Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder. The mountains and trout streams of Spain form the backdrop for Jake and Bill's friendship in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926).

A particular subset of male romantic friendships that dates at least to Virgil's Nisus and Euryalus, the attachment between a boy or youth and an older man, dominates Hollywood westerns like Red River (1948) and Shane (1953). By emphasizing the older man's role as mentor and surrogate father, such films only partially dispel anxieties about .

Given the intensity of post-World War II homophobia, it is not surprising that the entertainment industry has increasingly restricted its representation of romantic male friendships to those between prepubescent boys safely destined for heterosexual marriage.

John Watkins

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literature >> Overview:  Elegy

A poetic response to the death of a greatly loved person, the elegy has had since classical times a homoerotic component.

social sciences >> Overview:  United Kingdom I: The Middle Ages through the Nineteenth Century

The United Kingdom has a rich and vibrant legacy of queer cultural expression despite a long history of severe legal sanctions against male-male sexual acts and other manifestations of sexual and gender deviance.

literature >> Overview:  The Western

A distinctive American narrative genre that has developed over more than two centuries, the Western is now consumed worldwide; characteristically depicting homosocial relationships, it is also frequently suffused with homoeroticism.

literature >> Byron, George Gordon, Lord

The bisexual Lord Byron treated many of his homosexual love affairs in his poetry, encoding them by the use of classical references or by purporting that they were affairs with women.

arts >> Dutch Friendship Glasses

Dutch friendship glasses, which were made on order to celebrate friendship in the eighteenth century, may also have covertly celebrated same-sex sexual desire; one surviving friendship glass celebrates sodomitical pleasure.

literature >> Hemingway, Ernest

Ernest Hemingway, himself sexually insecure, included negative, even abusive portrayals of gay men in his fiction.

literature >> Melville, Herman

The most important American novelist of the nineteenth century, Herman Melville reflects his homosexuality throughout his texts.

literature >> Milton, John

While Milton accepted the biblical condemnation of sodomy, some of his works suggest that his attitude toward same-sex relations was enlightened for his age.

literature >> Plato

Among Greek writers on homosexual themes, Plato is preeminent not only as a major philosopher but also as the greatest master of Greek prose.

literature >> Shakespeare, William

As one of the key figures that western civilization has used to define itself, William Shakespeare stands in a complicated, fiercely contested relationship to homosexuality.

literature >> Tennyson, Alfred Lord

Although he was sexually attracted to women, Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote poetry suffused with homoeroticism, including the most beautiful homoerotic elegy in the English language.

literature >> Virgil

Virgil wrote approvingly of male love in many works, and his second eclogue became the most famous poem on that subject in Latin literature.

literature >> Waugh, Evelyn

Evelyn Waugh, who had homosexual affairs while at Oxford but later led a heterosexual life, treated homosexuals both nostalgically and contemptuously in his novels.

literature >> Whitman, Walt

Celebrating an ideal of manly love in both its spiritual and physical aspects, Walt Whitman has exerted a profound and enduring influence on gay literature.


Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Bray, Alan. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. London: Gay Men's Press, 1982.

_____. "Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England." Queering the Renaissance. Jonathan Goldberg, ed. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994. 40-61.

Carpenter, Edward. Ioläus: An Anthology of Friendship. 1917. Rpt. New York: Pagan Press, 1982.

Dellamora, Richard. Masculine Desire: The Politics of Victorian Aestheticism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Fiedler, Leslie A. Love and Death in the American Novel. 1960. Rpt. New York: Stein and Day, 1975.

Goldberg, Jonathan. Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992.

Lynch, Michael. "'Here is Adhesiveness': From Friendship to Homosexuality." Victorian Studies 29 (1985): 67-96.

Martin, Robert K. Hero, Captain, and Stranger: Male Friendship, Social Critique, and Literary Form in the Sea Novels of Herman Melville. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Mills, Lauren Joseph. One Soul in Bodies Twain. Bloomington, Indiana: Principia Press, 1937.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Smith, Bruce R. Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.


    Citation Information
    Author: Watkins, John  
    Entry Title: Romantic Friendship: Male  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 26, 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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