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literature

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Santayana, George (1863-1952)  

Remembered now chiefly as an American philosopher from the age of William James and Josiah Royce, George Santayana was a poet, novelist, and literary critic, as well as a speculative thinker. Although late in fully understanding his sexual preference, he wrote a series of sonnets celebrating his love for a friend who died young and described his male friendships in rhapsodic terms in his autobiography.

Born in Spain, Santayana moved to the United States at age nine with his mother, settling in Boston, where, as student and later instructor at Harvard, he began his career as poet and philosopher. (His students there included T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens; and sometime in 1895 or 1896, he met Gertrude Stein).

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Santayana spent the last four decades of his life traveling throughout Europe, living by his pen. It was during this period as belles lettrist that he wrote his novel The Last Puritan (1935), as well as such major philosophical works as Skepticism and Animal Faith (1923) and the four-volume Realms of Being (1927-1940).

Santayana's place in the gay literary tradition derives perhaps less directly from his writings (though the subtle of The Last Puritan is a significant contribution) than from the impact of antigay bigotry on his professional life at Harvard. Although regarded as brilliant by his peers (including William James), Santayana's status as a bachelor met with the university administration's clear disapproval.

Harvard president Charles Eliot remarked that Santayana's literary activities might prove "something futile, or even harmful, because unnatural and untimely"--darkly hinting at additional irregularities beyond his aestheticism. From 1889 through 1907, Santayana remained an instructor, and was only promoted to professor in 1907, following publication of The Life of Reason (1905-1906), a quasi-Hegelian work in five volumes.

Almost immediately after his mother's death in 1912, Santayana resigned his professorship and spent the rest of his life as writer and wandering scholar.

By his own account, Santayana did not really understand his own sexual preference until fairly late in life. During a 1929 conversation about A. E. Housman, a favorite poet, Santayana told his secretary Daniel Cory that Housman "was really what people nowadays call 'homosexual'; the sentiment of his poems is unmistakable." Santayana then added: "I think I must have been that way in my Harvard days, though I was unconscious of it at the time."

One finds Santayana's clearest expression in a set of four elegiac sonnets for Warwick Potter, a young man Santayana called his "last real friend," who died of cholera following a boating accident in 1893. The sequence, "To W.P." (1894) inevitably recalls Milton's "Lycidas," though Santayana's poem is much less an exercise in literary and mythological allusion than Milton's.

More than "Lycidas," it seems a genuine outpouring of grief--though the sense of loss is transformed by the poet into resignation and even acceptance: "For time a sadder mask may spread / Over the face that ever should be young."

The sequence ends on a note of transcendence, with his grieving friends vowing to Potter to "Keep you in whatsoe'er things are good, and rear / In our weak virtues monuments to you." Even so, Santayana's most powerful lines convey the wounding permanence of loss: "And I scarce know which part may greater be-- / What I keep of you, or you rob from me."

The audience for Santayana's work declined precipitously following his death. His literary talent as a prose artist has only made him suspect among philosophers. During recent years, however, there has been a revival of interest in his life and work, and 1986 saw publication of the first of twenty volumes in a critical edition of The Works of George Santayana.

Scott McLemee

     

 
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George Santayana in 1952.
  
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literature >> Overview:  American Literature: Nineteenth Century

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literature >> Overview:  Modernism

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literature >> Overview:  Poetry: Gay Male

The gay tradition in literature from ancient times to the present is primarily a tradition not of prose but of verse.

literature >> Eliot, T[homas] S[tearns]

Although Eliot tried to suppress the fact, The Waste Land is an elegy for a young Frenchman whom he met and loved in Paris and who died in the Great War in 1915.

literature >> Housman, A. E.

A. E. Housman's poetry is inextricably rooted in homosexual experience and consciousness and is also a significant reflector of gay history.

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 >> Stein, Gertrude

In addition to becoming--with Alice B. Toklas--half of an iconic lesbian couple, Gertrude Stein was an important innovator and transformer of the English language.


    Bibliography
   

Conner, Frederick W. "'To Dream With One Eye Open': The Wit, Wisdom, and Present Standing of George Santayana." Soundings 74.1-2 (1991): 159-178.

Cory, Daniel. Santayana: The Later Years: A Portrait with Letters. New York: Braziller, 1963.

Martin, Robert K. The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979. 108-114.

McCormick, John. George Santayana: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1987.

Posnock, Ross. "Genteel Androgyny: Santayana, Henry James, Howard Sturgis." Raritan 10.3 (1991): 58-84.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: McLemee, Scott  
    Entry Title: Santayana, George  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 16, 2002  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/santayana_g.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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