The Library Company of Philadelphia


Was It Gay?

The adjectives "homosexual" and "heterosexual" – and the use of the words as labels that can define individuals – only became common in English in the 20th century. Consequently, the recovery of gay history is a complicated matter of finding the older ways people designated – and understood – same-sex relationships.



Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass. Brooklyn, 1855.


How did readers "read" the portrait of the poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892) when it appeared as the frontispiece to the first edition of his Leaves of Grass (1855)? The jaunty image of Whitman as a young man in work clothes, with his shirt unbuttoned at the neck, would have seemed extremely casual. The book, which Whitman issued in six editions during his lifetime, celebrated living life fully, and Whitman's use of language – in his famously difficult, but casual writing – continues to challenge readers today.

P.T. Barnum. The Life of P. T. Barnum. New York: Redfield, 1855.


For contrast, shown here is a more typical portrait frontispiece – depicting famous showman P. T. Barnum (1810-1891) in formal attire. In the mid-19th century, portraits in all media depicted people posed stiffly in their best clothing. Whitman's "come hither" pose and casual attire in the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass is totally without precedent.

Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass. Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, 1860.


In the third edition, the portrait frontispiece depicts a more mature Whitman. For the first time, he chose to divide the poems into sections and included the forty-five "Calamus" poems. In Greek mythology, Kalamos was a youth who chose to drown rather than outlive his friend Karpos, who drowned while the two boys were competing in a swimming contest. Kalamos was then transformed into a marsh reed that blooms with a phallic-shaped spike.


The "Calamus" poems celebrate the love of "comrades." Thousands of copies of this edition sold. Reviewers at the time considered the book risqué. Scholars have noted the element of mystery that Whitman cultivated, especially around his own sexuality. But regardless of what Whitman himself may have done behind closed doors (or along the "margins of pond-waters"), the "Calamus" poems express the value of same-sex love.

Robert Macnish. An Introduction to Phrenology. Boston: Marsh, Capen & Lyon, 1836. Gift of Charles E. Rosenberg.


Whitman's first (unnamed) publisher was Fowler & Wells, a New York firm that specialized in phrenology. Formulated in Germany, the widely-respected science of phrenology became known to English speakers through the works of several Scottish physicians, including George and Andrew Combe and Robert Macnish (1802-1837). Macnish's Introduction to Phrenology is shown here. The book's frontispiece presents the areas on the skull that correspond to various traits.


Attraction to the opposite sex ("amativeness") was located at the base of the skull. The capacity for attachment more generally ("adhesiveness") was located nearby. In a footnote to the passage defining adhesiveness, Macnish characterizes the early stage of a relationship between two gentlemen as "excessive" and a "disease." By contrast, Whitman uses the phrenological word "adhesive" to celebrate same-sex attraction.

"Phrenological Notes on W. Whitman." Detail from In re Walt Whitman. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1893.


Whitman repeatedly published his own phrenological chart, which his publisher Lorenzo Fowler may have created in 1849 to present an analysis of the size and shape of Whitman's skull. Some scholars have suggested that Whitman had at least three phrenological readings during his lifetime and published a compilation of the best features from each.

"Harriet G. Hosmer," in Evert A. Duyckinck. Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women of Europe and America. New York: Johnson & Miles, 1873.


In the decade immediately after the Civil War, Harriet Hosmer became a cultural icon. In this portrait, Hosmer – with her "short, thick, brown curls, which she tosses aside with her fingers, as lads do" – appears next to the first piece of sculpture she carved after arriving in Rome in 1852, Daphne (1853). Hosmer was known for having a mischievous streak, so it's fun to speculate exactly who chose to place Hosmer's hand so close to Daphne's chest in this portrait.


In Greek mythology, Daphne is a beautiful nymph who prays for help when Apollo is chasing her. Gaia answers her prayer by swallowing her up and then turning her into a laurel tree.

"Beatrici [sic] Cenci" engraved plate in the Art-Journal (April 1857).


The Art-Journal, which was published in London and New York, helped shape the reputations of artists on both sides of the Atlantic. By 1857 Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908) already had established herself as a sculptor living and working in the American community in Rome. But her reputation could only have been further enhanced by a review in the Art-Journal, although the anonymous writer did focus on her gender, saying that "sculpture from female hands is of rare occurrence."


In 1857 Hosmer's latest sculpture was Beatrice Cenci (1856). Cenci was a young 16th-century woman who killed her father after he had abused her sexually. In Hosmer's depiction, the young woman is asleep in jail, waiting to be put to death. The piece was displayed in London and various cities on the East Coast before it arrived at the St. Louis Mercantile Library, for which it was commissioned.

"Harriet G. Hosmer" in Eminent Women of the Age: Being Narratives of the Lives and Deeds of the Most Prominent Women of the Present Generation. Hartford: S.M. Betts & Company, 1868.


In this portrait, Hosmer wears a cravat tied in a loose bow.


"Harriet G. Hosmer," in Sarah K. Bolton. Lives of Girls Who Became Famous. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1886.


By the 1880s Hosmer's plucky nature becomes the fodder for this girls' book by Sarah K. Bolton (1841-1916). Bolton characterizes her as "happy, witty, self-dependent, and never succumbing to disappointments or difficulties." None of these accounts acknowledges the fact that, in her sculpture, Hosmer consistently chose to depict strong women who persevered despite difficult situations, particularly ones resulting from male aggression. Nor do they discuss the fact that the women in Hosmer's social circle in Rome called themselves "jolly bachelors" and often wore waistcoats and cravats.