The Library Company of Philadelphia


Gay Cultural Expressions

Bromances on the Page

Nineteenth-century novelists frequently presented male-male relationships as noble, significant, and potentially purer than male-female relationships.



Herman Melville. Moby-Dick, or, The Whale. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1851.


In Moby-Dick, the narrator Ishmael meets the South Pacific islander Queequeg right before they sign on to a whaling voyage. The two become close ("a cosy, loving pair"), despite having been raised in extremely different cultures. Melville used the unusual setting to depict their friendship as a valid alternative to male-female domestic relations.



Fortunately, the Library Company acquired this copy from the first American edition soon after publication. In 1853 a fire at Harpers' destroyed the remaining copies as well as the stereotype plates.

Frederic W. Loring. Two College Friends. Boston: Loring, 1871.


The school setting is common for male-male relationships in literature. In this Frederic Loring novel, two students named Tom and Ned meet in their professor's office. Tom is strikingly beautiful, with "soft, curling brown hair, deep blue eyes, and a dazzling complexion," while Ned has an olive complexion, brown eyes, "lips strongly cut," and a mercurial personality. The professor characterizes Tom as a sunbeam and Ned as a volcano. The two become close friends but have a falling out after Ned (the "volcano") learns that Tom has become involved with a woman.


Shown here is the passage in which Ned speaks to Tom, who is lying unconscious in a Civil War hospital, presumably nearing death. Ned tells Tom that he is the only person he has ever loved, even though Tom cannot respond. In a twist of plot, it is Ned who dies. Tom survives and names his first-born child Ned. This poignant story of same-sex love appeared after the author himself had died – killed by Apaches while a correspondent for Appletons' Journal. Unknown today, Loring was a much better-known writer than Melville in 1871.

Henry James. Roderick Hudson. Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1876.


In James's novel, the character Roderick Hudson is a beautiful young man who is learning to sculpt. After he meets the wealthy Rowland Mallet, an art connoisseur who becomes his patron, the two set sail for Italy. On board ship, Hudson reveals that he has just proposed marriage to a young woman whom Mallet also fancies. He explains to Mallet that he proposed because "you came and put me into such ridiculous good-humor that I felt an extraordinary desire to tell some woman that I adored her."


In Europe, Hudson racks up gambling debts he cannot pay and eventually dies after becoming captivated by a beautiful European woman. In the novel, which was first published serially in the Atlantic Monthly, the beautiful young man behaves in an unprincipled fashion. This is very different from other early novels featuring male-male relationships, in which male beauty is a sign of innate goodness.


Mark Twain. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Charles L. Webster and Company, 1885.


In Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn the two friends are both on the margins of society unlike the other fictional male-male friendships shown here. Huckleberry Finn is a white boy who is running away from his father, an abusive alcoholic. Jim is an enslaved man who is running away from his master.


Although the book has been controversial since its first publication, and its depiction of African Americans is highly problematic, Twain's famous characters manage to escape bourgeois domesticity – and forge a friendship that is remarkably unsentimental for literature of the period.


Oscar Wilde

Perhaps the first person to be famous for being famous, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) promoted aestheticism as the possible basis for a new civilization.



Three trade cards showing the influence of Oscar Wilde's 1882 tour of North America. Gifts of William H. Helfand.


Wilde's lecture tour of the United States and Canada in 1882 was not without its critics. Newspapers reported the shocking fact that the box-office gross for the first New York lecture/performance had been an astronomical $1,000. Americans enjoyed making fun of Wilde's intentionally provocative get-up (velvet coat, frilly shirt, patent leather shoes, and the sunflower or lily he always carried or wore). When he left in December, Wilde himself told the New York Tribune that the trip had been a failure. But almost immediately images of sunflowers abounded in decorative arts, and American aesthetes soon adopted Wilde's slogan "art for art's sake."


William S. Gilbert. Patience. New York: J.M. Stoddart, 1881.


The English theatrical agent Richard D'Oyly Carte scheduled Oscar Wilde's 1882 lecture tour to promote Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta Patience. But contrary to plans, Patience became a publicity vehicle for Wilde. Its "aesthetic" character Bunthorne, who used Wilde's famous phrase "utterly too-too" to describe aesthetically pleasing things, became an advertisement for the real Oscar Wilde.


Thanks to his friendship with D'Oyly Carte, publisher Joseph M. Stoddart obtained exclusive rights to publish Gilbert and Sullivan plays in America. Stoddart also arranged for Wilde to visit Walt Whitman at his home in Camden, New Jersey, while Wilde was lecturing in Philadelphia.


Walter H. Pater. Studies in the History of the Renaissance. London: Macmillan and Co., 1873.


Walter Pater defines a prevailing style among 16th-century artists and writers that was based on artistic expressions of Classical Greece. His book first appeared in 1873, the year before Wilde started his studies at Oxford. In the second edition of 1877, Pater omitted passages that "might mislead some young men" in response to critics who objected to the book's emphasis on homoeroticism in Greek culture.


Pater, who started teaching at Oxford in 1864, did indeed have a significant influence on many English writers, artists, and cultural commentators, including Wilde. According to one of Wilde's biographers, Wilde knew much of Renaissance by heart. Ultimately, Pater was probably the inspiration for the character of Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray. And the choice of the name "Dorian" for the central character is telling, since the word means "Greek."


Oscar Wilde. "The Picture of Dorian Gray," in Lippincott's Magazine (July 1890). Gift of the publisher.


On his return to England in 1882, Wilde cut his hair and stopped wearing sunflowers; the tour during which he lectured in some 140 cities and towns likely prompted Wilde to mature both personally and as a writer. Eight years later, his novella "The Picture of Dorian Gray" first appeared in Lippincott's Magazine. Joseph M. Stoddart, who had assisted Wilde in 1882, was now an editor at Lippincott's. Stoddart deleted "things an innocent woman would take exception to" – including a reference to the sensation-seeking character Dorian Gray gazing at other men. Notwithstanding Stoddart's efforts, the issue was banned in railway stations in England. The expanded text that appeared in 1891 also prompted an outcry despite Wilde's further attempts to lead the plot to a clear moral conclusion. Thanks to the work of Nicholas Frankel, an uncensored edition appeared in 2011.


Thus, almost five years before Wilde was convicted of "gross indecency" and sentenced to two years' hard labor, his character Dorian Gray was castigated by moralists. Same-sex attraction already had lost its nobility. And Oscar Wilde became the most public casualty. Less publicly, the works of writers such as Fitz-Greene Halleck, called the "American Byron" in his time, simply got dropped from the canon of important literature.


Belles in Anglo-American Belles Lettres

Nineteenth-century novelists and poets frequently presented relationships between women as adventurous and intense, but difficult to sustain.



Maria Edgeworth. Belinda. Boston: Wells and Lilly, 1814. Purchased with the Davida T. Deutsch Women's History Fund.


In the novel Belinda, which first appeared in a London 1801 edition, the title character is a young woman making her way in English society. As an orphan, Belinda Portman must depend on the guidance of her wealthy relative Lady Delacour. Inadvertently, Belinda replaces another woman as Lady Delacour's closest female friend. The other woman, tellingly named "Mrs. Freke," is less conventional than Lady Delacour. She dresses in men's clothing and endorses the feminist ideas expressed in Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman.


In this chapter, Mrs. Freke arrives in her unicorn (a carriage drawn by three horses) and tries to take Belinda away with her. Belinda is astonished and firmly resists Mrs. Freke's advances. Later in the chapter, another character asks Belinda whether she's worried about alienating Mrs. Freke, to which she replies, "I think her friendship more to be dreaded than her enmity." In this moral tale it is the independent-minded feminist who is the dangerous friend.


Charlotte Bronte, writing under the pseudonym "Currer Bell." Villette. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1853.


Villette's narrator Lucy Snowe works as a teacher at a girls' school in the French city of Villette. The school is planning a fete, with a play followed by a ball for the whole community. To Lucy's chagrin, she is cast as a man in the play – opposite the "fascinatingly pretty" Ginevra Fanshawe. After the play, Lucy retires early rather than attending the evening festivities. Meanwhile, Ginevra becomes the belle of the ball.


The relationship between Lucy and Ginevra is fraught with details that hint that Lucy is attracted to Ginevra, but that her feelings are not reciprocated by the "shallow" girl.


E. D. E. N. Southworth. "The Hidden Hand, Chapt. XXII," in The New York Ledger (March 19, 1859).


Here the young girl Capitola deals with life on the streets of New York City by dressing as a boy. Later, in her native Virginia, she battles bandits, rescues maidens, and generally behaves contrary to the norms of behavior for 19th-century women. Capitola is the literary antecedent of other madcap heroines, particularly Jo March in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868-1869). Jo even tries to copy the melodramatic writing style of Mrs. Southworth (in the thin guise of Mrs. S. L. A. N. G. Northbury).


First published serially in The New York Ledger, the novel became the most popular of Mrs. Southworth's many novels.


Christina Rossetti. Goblin Market and Other Poems. Boston: Roberts Bros., 1866.


The narrative poem "Goblin Market" tells a sinister story about two sisters. Lizzie resists the goblins' offer of deadly fruit, but Laura gorges on it and then comes perilously close to death because, having eaten the fruit, she can no longer hear the goblins' offers. With sisterly devotion, Lizzie submits to a violent attack by the goblins, who pelt her with fruit. She then goes back to her sister Laura, who licks the pulp off her body and thereby recovers her health.


Today the English poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) is often compared to the American poet Emily Dickinson (most of whose poems first appeared in print in 1890, four years after her death). Like Dickinson's, Rossetti's poetry includes unusually sensual – even erotic – imagery, despite its simple structure. Also like Dickinson, Rossetti herself led a significantly reclusive life.


Sarah O. Jewett. Deephaven. Sixth edition. Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1878.


In Deephaven, the charming Kate Lancaster invites the story's narrator Helen Denis to spend the summer with her in the house of her recently deceased great-aunt – in the quiet town of Deephaven, Maine. The two twenty-four-year-old women from Boston spend an idyllic summer like "two children." During their days they meet a wide range of people in the community. In the evenings they lie together on a large sofa and tell each other "ghost-stories by the dozen."


At the end of the season, Kate laughingly proposes that they copy the Ladies of Llangollen and create their own life together in Deephaven instead of returning to Boston. But it's only talk. Kate and Helen do not become a couple like the two Irish women who famously lived together for over fifty years starting in 1778 in the Welsh town of Llangollen. However, the book's author Sarah Orne Jewett did form a close relationship with the author Annie Fields, whom she met in 1877. The two had a "Boston marriage" – the then-current term for two women who lived together.