Considerable scholarship has been dedicated to homosexuality in history and culture. One of the main controversies in gay studies has centered on two schools of thought, essentialist and social constructionist. The essentialist position maintains that the characteristics of gay identity have remained constant, so that, for example, same-sex behavior in ancient Greece and in the United States in the 1990’s would have some fundamental similarities. The social constructionist view, on the other hand, argues that particular practices are historically specific; therefore, their meanings change according to the time and place in which they occur. Most of the scholarship exploring gay identity in American literature has emerged out of the constructionist school, and the standard position has been that homosexuality was repressed until at least the end of World War II, when it began to be more in the public consciousness, culminating in the Stonewall riots, an uprising of gay people against a police raid on a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, in New York in June, 1969.
Historian George Chauncey has expanded and complicated the constructionist reading of gay American history. In Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (1994), Chauncey argues that a sharp dichotomy between the homosexual and the heterosexual emerged in the twentieth century, suggesting that same-sex relationships in earlier times should not be thought of in a context that came later. Thus, “homoerotic” texts of the nineteenth century do not necessarily imply that their writers were expressing homosexual identity or that they themselves were what would come to be known as gay. Perhaps the most important implication of Chauncey’s work is that critics should not be making the claim that such “homoerotic” writers were heterosexual, since that identity, like its counterpart, is a twentieth century phenomenon, and since the meanings of both identities are interdependent.
The Nineteenth Century
What can be learned from representations of same-sex eroticism and desire in pre-twentieth century texts? Clearly, some prominent writers placed tremendous importance on same-sex love. Literary critics, beginning with Leslie Fiedler (Love and Death in the American Novel, 1960), have found a tradition of male homoerotic bonding in American literature. Fiedler located that tradition in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales (1823-1841) and especially in Queequeg’s “marriage” to Ishmael in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). This kind of study, because it tends to desexualize the homosexual into the homoerotic, cannot be considered affirmative of a gay tradition in American literature.
Other scholars have suggested that Henry James, Henry David Thoreau, and Horatio Alger, among many others, should be included in any discussion of gay American literature. Although the sexual identity of these writers is not certainly homosexual, what is clear is that male attachments structured their lives and writing in significant ways. Critics may therefore argue that such facts should not be “explained” by critics invested in “protecting” these figures.
The central figure in gay American literature is Walt Whitman. More than half of Robert K. Martin’s The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry (1979) is focused on Whitman. Martin argues persuasively that many poets and other writers who followed Whitman consciously looked to him as a father-figure, spiritual and sexual mentor, and even as a kind of lover.
Much of Whitman’s poetry, especially Leaves of Grass (1855), stresses the importance of a highly sexualized and eroticized body and the centrality of “adhesiveness,” Whitman’s term for male same-sex behavior. Whitman’s vision, which affirmed the values of America and democracy, placed its faith in the love of men for each other. He celebrated that dynamic in his writing, even in his impassioned Civil War writing, which contains elements of love and...
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