The Library Company of Philadelphia


Silencing Transgressive Voices

In writing about people who seem gay by today's standards, many biographers have felt compelled to state that their subjects' relationships were not explicitly homosexual. Likewise, they have often explained away hints of gayness. For example, according to Frances Willard's biographer, the fact that Willard's friends called her "Frank" was not significant because "Frank" was a common nickname for Frances.


The exact nature of specific relationships before the widespread use of the words "homosexual" and "lesbian" – with their present meanings – may remain forever ambiguous. However, the historical record does include many instances of gay-seeming material being revised or deleted to accommodate "hetero-normative" assumptions and sensibilities.



"Sonnet 20," in The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare. London: Rivington et al., 1821.


Many editors have wrestled with the fact that some of Shakespeare's sonnets appear to be addressed to males. For example, Sonnet 20 begins with the lines:


A woman's face, with nature's own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion ….


Edmond Malone (1741-1812) suggests in a footnote in this edition that "master-mistress" may mean "sovereign mistress," thus explaining away the apparent transgendering of the subject. He bolsters this reading with a reference to a Mr. Tyrwhitt's note on a verse in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Olaudah Equiano. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. New York: W. Durell, 1791. Gift of Albanus C. Logan.


Equiano's account of having been kidnapped and sold into slavery by European slave traders is often cited as one of the earliest works in English by an African, going through numerous editions after it first appeared in London in 1789. In this passage, from the first American edition, Equiano (b. 1745) describes a relationship with a young white "lad" named Richard Baker. The two become "inseparable" and sleep together: "We have many nights lain in each other's bosoms when we were in great distress."


Olaudah Equiano. The Life and Adventures of Olaudah Equiano; or Gustavus Vassa, the African. New York: Samuel Wood & Sons, 1829.


When Abigail Mott (1766-1851) abridged Equiano's text, making it into a story for children, she changed the relationship between Equiano and Baker, omitting the reference to the two boys sleeping together. In Mott's version, Baker merely teaches Equiano English.

Horatio Alger, Jr. The Telegraph Boy. Philadelphia: Henry T. Coates & Co., [between 1896 and 1904?]. Gift of Renée Betts.


Horatio Alger Jr (1832-1899) was forced to resign as a Unitarian minister due to allegations that he had had sexual relations with boys in his congregation in Brewster, Massachusetts – charges he did not deny. He went on to become a prolific author, selling seventeen million copies of his one hundred books for boys. The most successful was Ragged Dick, or, Street Life in New York with the Boot-Blacks, which first appeared in 1868 and was still in print at the turn of the century. Alger's typical boy hero triumphs over adversity thanks to his own initiative and the help of a benevolent male mentor. The Telegraph Boy, shown here, is the last of four titles in Alger's Tattered Tom series. In the first one, Tattered Tom, or, The Story of a Street Arab, "Tom" is a homeless girl who lives on the streets until she is discovered to be the heir to a fortune. She is depicted on the covers, wearing a hat that helps conceal her gender.


Following Alger's death in 1899, his sister destroyed his personal papers in accordance with his wishes. His 1928 biographer, Herbert R. Mayes, fabricated sources. Mayes's book became the basis for subsequent biographical sketches. Fifty years later, in 1978, Mayes admitted that the work was a hoax, and today few people realize that the stories about street urchins who make their way in the world were written by a man who had "a natural liking for boys," as Alger himself described it. In popular culture, his name has become synonymous with financial achievement of the "rags to riches" sort.

Charles W. Stoddard. Summer Cruising in the South Seas. London: Chatto and Windus, 1874. Bequest of Anne Hampton Brewster.


When this book appeared, the gay content was partly hidden by the packaging. Artist Wallis Mackay "heterosexualized" the illustrations by depicting naked women instead of young men on the cover of this fictionalized account of Charles W. Stoddard's Tahitian travels. Stoddard (1843-1909) was appalled when he saw Mackay's work, calling it "vulgar and repulsive." The homoerotic aspect of Stoddard's text is not particularly oblique, and there are few references to women, exotic or otherwise. The illustration shown here depicts a young Tahitian rushing after the narrator as he leaves the island, with the caption: "I knew if he overtook us, I should never be able to escape again." The cover illustration obscures the text's and Stoddard's own unwavering devotion to young men.


Stoddard, an American, worked briefly as Mark Twain's secretary when they were both living in London. When he was preparing to return to the joys of the islands, he corresponded with Walt Whitman, who rebuked him for "extravagant sentimentalism" and suggested that he didn't need to go to Tahiti to find charming youths. With his characteristically droll wit, Twain reportedly referred to Stoddard as "such a nice girl." This copy from the English edition of the book (titled South-Sea Idyls in the American edition) has the author's signed inscription to Anne Hampton Brewster, who bequeathed her personal library to the Library Company.