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Male-Male Intimacy in Early America: Beyond Romantic Friendships

By William Benemann

New York: Harrington Park Press, 2006. 322 pp. ISBN: 1-56023-345-1

Reviewed by Edward J. Tejirian, Ph.D.

In Male-Male Intimacy in Early America William Benemann has woven  a complex tapestry of male-male bonding in colonial America and the early days of the republic. The result is a book that is comprehensive without being pedantic. In fact, it  ranges beyond the strict boundaries of its title to consider male to male sexuality in Enlightenment Europe, especially England, Prussia under Frederick the Great, and post-revolutionary France. Meanwhile, back on American soil, it encompasses such home-grown sexual eccentrics as the Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida community. 

In his preface, Benemann cites several factors that have impeded understanding of the place of sexuality in American history. Among these are the reluctance to abandon restrictive labels such as “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” and an inability to move beyond negative preconceptions about the “gay lifestyle.” Even while accepting that men formed passionate attachments (the “romantic friendships” of the sub-title of the book) he says that there has been a resistance among historians to drawing the not unreasonable conclusion that these might have included an erotic component, sometimes latent but not infrequently manifest.

Perhaps a contributing factor to this confusion are a number of paradoxes evident in colonial and Enlightenment America with regard to sex between men. So-called “sodomy,” which appeared to apply to anal intercourse was never referred to except in the most sanctimonious terms of horror—“detestable” almost invariably turns up, while the more genteel reference to “the Grecian vice” also occasionally makes an appearance.  Nevertheless, while sodomy was illegal and thoroughly condemned, it seems that punishment for it was relatively rare. Not only was punishment for it rare, even naming it was so offensive to the delicate sensibilities of the general public that it seems the authorities much preferred to turn a blind eye to it.

 This reader was interested to learn that Philadelphia was not only the premier American city of the 18th century but also a pretty wide-open town , with plenty of brothels and street walkers as well as one tavern per 140 residents.  However,  prosecution for sexual offenses of any kind was also rare. Meanwhile, among sailors whose tours aboard ship were usually three years in length, sex aboard ship was tacitly understood to be routinely prevalent.  However, the form it usually seems to have taken was mutual masturbation, which was not considered sodomy. Furthermore, if anyone should have the poor judgment to complain about it, he would be far more likely to incur the wrath of the captain than would the person or persons he was complaining about. It seems the motto was, “We won’t ask, and you’d better not tell.”

But in contrast to present day conventions—and this fact has been well known—men in early America could express their feelings of affection for each other in the most explicit terms of love and even longing. Here is an excerpt of a letter by Alexander Hamilton to John Laurens—both had been aides-de-camp to Washington and at one point on the staff of Baron Friedrich von Steuben, a Prussian officer with the rank of general in the Continental Army. Hamilton wrote: “Cold in my professions, warm in [my] friendships, I wish, Dear Laurens, it [might] be in my power, by action, rather than words, [to] convince you that I love you” (p. 99). Two young officers, William North and Benjamin Walker, also on the staff of Von Steuben formed with him a tightly bonded group in which each felt deep ties of affection to the other two. The younger men married—as all men were expected to do (though the older Von Steuben was without a wife.) It was after they married but still young, when  North wrote to Walker, “...I have known you, Ben for twelve years-—When I began to love you, I know not…but ‘tis no matter—I love you.”(p.116).

In contemporary America,  such declarations of love between men would imply an overtly sexual relationship. But it appears that such an inference was not drawn in early America. Rather, there was a space between  two men in a committed friendship that seemed to remain private and out of bounds for public speculation. Declaring one’s love for another man was not necessarily seen as a declaration of sexual intent and certainly not of sexual identity.

Consider the following excerpt from what  Benneman describes as a “fictionalized” encounter with Indians of the West on the part of writer Theodore Winthrop, a descendent of Puritan governor  John Winthrop: “The Adonis of the copper-skins!” I said to myself. “This is the ‘Young Eagle,’ or the ‘Sucking Dove,’ or the ‘Maiden’s Bane,’ or some other great chief of the cleanest Indian tribe on the continent. O Fenimore, why are you dead? ….What a poem the fellow is! I wish I was an Indian myself for such a companion; or better a squaw, to be made love to by him.” (pp.174-175).

This excerpt is from a book published in 1862, somewhat beyond the boundaries of “early America” as loosely defined by author Benemann.  But it seems noteworthy that the  open envy of the woman to whom  the copper-skinned Adonis might make love appeared to carry with it no stigma of sodomy or, of course, no implication of “identity.”

Were early American men more comfortable with the erotic component in their feelings about each other than are contemporary men?  It would seem so. However,  my guess is that,  the awareness of such an erotic component  is nevertheless just as prevalent among contemporary American men. My own research (Tejirian, 2000) with men in their early twenties to early thirties has led me to infer that some degree of conscious erotic feeling toward their own sex probably characterizes a substantial percentage of American men (42% in my sample.) But the men who disclosed their feelings to me almost never discussed them openly with others because, as men who did not consider themselves  to be gay, they had powerful social incentives to present a “pure” heterosexual persona to the external world.  Nevertheless, when these feelings were directed towards a particular man, he was almost always a very good or best friend. This fact harks back to the romantic friendships or “passionate attachments” of which Bennemann speaks, while the continuity of these feelings across a span of two hundred years points to it as a fundamental aspect of male psychology.

Brokeback Mountain,” is a wonderful and accurate portrayal of a contemporary  “passionate attachment” between men . Its tragic denouement, however, reflects contemporary sensibilities. In contrast,  in early America as Benneman describes it, a romantic friendship between two young sheepherders that included an erotic component would have been neither the cause for personal anguish nor the object of social scrutiny.

Benneman says that he chose the phrase “male intimacy” for the title of his book because, not only can it imply both a psychological and physical closeness, but also an intense affectional bonding that includes sexual attraction, whether  acknowledged or not. I think, in fact, that his choice of title is a good one. Yet, one wonders if it is really possible for us today to grasp how the relation between the erotic and the affectionate was experienced by the men of early America.  Martin Duberman (1989) cites, in an essay on the youthful friendship between  James H. Hammond and Thomas J. Withers—described by him as two “great men” of the antebellum South—a letter dated 1826 attesting to a playful sexual intimacy between them.  The twenty year-old Withers wrote to Hammond, “I feel some inclination to learn whether you yet sleep in your Shirt-tail, and whether you yet have the extravagant delight of poking and punching  a writhing Bedfellow with your long fleshen pole—the exquisite touches of which I have often had the honor of feeling?” (p. 155).  I think the ease with which their nocturnal frolics are referred to and the apparent lack of conflict about them would be harder to come by in a contemporary setting.

Benneman points out that, although terminology such as “homosexual”—not to mention “gay”—were not in use in early America, there were unquestionably men whose erotic orientation was primarily or exclusively toward their own sex. But my reading of his excellent book indicates that in early America, as in Europe, Enlightenment attitudes toward sexuality had for a time shouldered aside the strictures of medieval and Puritan religious doctrines with respect to sexuality. In America, vestiges of those strictures remained in the law, but were rarely enforced. The late 18th century in Europe was a time that saw the publication of racy novels such as “Tom Jones” in England, and the rollicking infidelities in Mozart’s operas. The late 19th century, on the other hand, saw the persecution of Oscar Wilde in England and the early 20th century saw the official criminalization of homosexuality in a recently unified Germany. After two world wars that fell just short of destroying its civilization, a united Europe is trying to re-incorporate the Enlightement values that the “isms” of the 20th century had trampled on.  Contemporary America,  where religious zealots and cynical politicians have entered into an unholy pact,  might do well to look back to its own early past and find there a basis on which to build a more realistic and enlightened sexual future.

References

Duberman, Martin A. (1989) “Writhing Bedfellows in Antebellum South Carolina: Historical Interpretation and the Politics of Evidence. In: Duberman, M., Vicinus, Martha & Chauncey, G., Jr., Eds. Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. New York, Meridan,

Tejirian, Edward J. (2000) Male to Male: Sexual Feelings Across the Boundaries of Identity. New York: Harrington Park Press.