A friendship of the strongest kind

Picturing Men 1Jonathan Katz interprets the American 19th-century construction of male-male love in a college guy’s secret diary:

On February 2, 1837, Albert Dodd, then nineteen or twenty years old, contemplated in his diary the emotional ups and downs of his past year at Washington College (now Trinity), in Hartford, Connecticut: “First, the friend I loved,” a classmate, John Heath, “the first one whom I had ever truly loved in this wide world, became estranged from me, as I indeed did from him.” […]

Dodd wondered what to name his feeling for Heath: “It is not friendship merely which I feel for him, or it is friendship of the strongest kind. It is a heartfelt, a manly, a pure, deep, and fervent love.” This is literally a defining moment in his diary. Dodd toyed with the word “friendship,” but then rejected if for “love,” qualified as especially intense. Adding qualifiers to the terms “love” and “friendship” was one of the main ways that men of this time affirmed their special feeling for men. […]

In Dodd’s day, a sensual possibility was realized only in strongly condemned acts of man-to-man “sodomy” or “mutual masturbation.” Separate and distinct from those carnalities, “love” and “friendship” inhabited another, lust-free world. Thus freed of lust, love and friendship were the two most common terms men employed to name and understand their intimacies with other men. It sometimes took a bit of mental maneuvering, however, to keep these intense attractions free of any conscious taint of fleshly desire.

Dear Friends 8

Why, Dodd added, had he not told Heath “of the fire that was burning at my heart?” His emotions were strong, and he had feared that his declaration “would not meet with an equally warm welcome.” Inequality of affection was the problem Dodd perceived in his relationship with Heath, not the fact that the object of his desire was male. Dodd repeatedly sought a democratic reciprocity of the heart. Just fifty years after the U.S. Constitution declared equality for all (except slaves, free blacks, and women), Dodd yearned for an equal exchange of affection. […] “I can love, God knows that I can love.” He hoped that this “ever burning flame” would one day “kindle a like affection in the breasts of others” — sex unspecified.

[…] The next day, Dodd referred to “things that trouble me particularly,” first among them “that ----- which has long troubled me; and also -----” (two sins unwritable among that day’s college students, most probably sexual sins, which Dodd represented by long dashes). “Besides there is M.O. [mutual onanism? masturbation? onanism?] ----- I dare not write even here these things ----- which it is my prayer may soon be settled.“

Dear Friends 7Was Dodd again fending off awareness of carnal desire in his fervent love for Heath? He was plagued, it seems, by powerful, internal, moral strictures that made his trouble literally and metaphorically unspeakable. His moral antagonist lived within him, internalized from without.

Two days later, still trying to understand his worries, Dodd thought that it may be „my ----- I dare not write it in full; or it may be that my thoughts run upon ----- as much as any other thing.“ He prayed: „O that I could for a time forget all these sources of care, both great and small.“ He even half wished for death before melodramatically banishing the thought: „Away fiend, tempt me not; Avaunt, ye blue devils …“ […]

Here, someone, probably Dodd or a protective friend or relative, has torn away the diary page, destroying a precious document of love’s history. But clearly, Dodd was struck by the similarity of his “affection” for men and for women. That similarity of feeling contradicted his society’s idea that man’s love for men was free of lust, man’s love for women potentially lustful. No homo/heterosexual distinction told Dodd that he was experiencing two essentially different kinds of erotic feelings. […]


A week later, memories of John Heath’s “beloved form” had not faded, and Dodd reproached himself again for not telling Heath of “my deep and burning affection.” Why, he asked, when they were together, did he not declare: “John I love you much, do you love me?” But whatever had Heath replied, “Would this satisfy my ardent feeling?” Dodd doubted it.

[…] Reveling in self-pity, Dodd moaned: “O God, to have one’s love slighted, neglected, treated with coldness, when it might rightly claim at least a little regard in return. It is hard, hard.” Only in his “private volume, whose pages shall be surveyed by no eyes,” did Dodd freely repeat his “secret avowal” of love for his “friend” and “companion” Heath, the “sole inhabitant of my heart.” Again, he hid his love for Heath, not because its object was male, but because he feared Heath did not reciprocate his feeling.

A month later, however, on March 21, 1837, Dodd’s roving heart was heading again for Anthony Halsey, who had not answered his letter: “I do long to hear from him again. How I love him! He lately seems to have occupied my thoughts more than J. H. and I feel as if I loved him more ardently and intensely than John. I do perhaps; but both are very dear to me, and Anthony loves me in return I am sure” — a big plus given Dodd’s desire for reciprocated feeling. “Dear Anthony,” he added, “how I long to see you, to be with you again, to embrace you. O God, when shall we meet again?” […]

Dear Friends 4Three days later Dodd recalled his earliest, excited sightings of Anthony Halsey “as he came along down from College … his appearance was very interesting, he was so handsome.” He did not think Halsey as handsome now, “but still he is beautiful in person, in mind, and in heart.“

“Well, I became acquainted with him when I entered College,” Dodd recalled, and he and Halsey “became intimate, and soon too, I loved him with my whole heart. Yes, very intimate we became, and though we did not room together, yet we were with each other much of the time. How completely I loved him, how I doted on him! We often walked out into the fields together arm in arm,” talking about mutual friends.

“Often, too he shared my pillow or I his,” remembered Dodd. Though not roommates the two had “often” found a way to share a bed, apparently without comment or self-consciousness. Bed sharing was an emotionally loaded practice for him, though not one acknowledged to include eros.

Dear Friends 2

Then, “how sweet to sleep with him,” Dodd recalled of his nights with Halsey, “to hold his beloved form in my embrace, to have his arms about my neck, to imprint upon his face sweet kisses! It was happiness complete. O if those times would only return! If I could only know him again as I did then, behold his youth, beauty, and innocence of aught of evil, how sweet it would be! Dear, dearest Anthony! Thou are mine own friend. My most beloved of all! To see thee again! What rapture it would be, thou sweet, lovely, dear, beloved, beautiful, adored Anthony!” Recognizing the intensity of his love for Halsey, Dodd still did not apparently see sensuality in it — even in sweet kisses and embraces shared in bed.

[…] He then remembered a kissing game he had played with [Julia] Beers a year earlier in which he gave her a kiss, “sweet and delicious,” a kiss that she had returned. “Heavens!” he scolded himself, “I did not take half the advantage that I might have done, for I was so astonished, and fluttered, and confused.

Dear FriendsA double standard was operating: Dodd could sleep repeatedly with his beloved “Tony,” and kiss and hug him, acts not perceived as sensual. But, with Julia, Dodd was permitted only a kissing game and a dream convulsion, acts perceived as verging dangerously toward the lubricious.

By early June, Dodd was dreaming of yet another girl: “I held you in my arms and you smiled upon me. … Dearest best Elizabeth.” He thought of Elizabeth all the time, he said in a poem addressed to her. Again, no homo/heterosexual division told Dodd he was supposed to love women or men.

About the same time, Dodd admired “Old Webb’s daughter,” a “lovely, perfectly beautiful girl, of handsome form,” with “the most rosy, luscious lips I ever beheld,” and eyes that are “large and dark … and melting.”

By October 10, 1837, Dodd had transferred to Yale College, where he also transferred his affection yet again, this time to Jabez Sidney Smith, a freshman, whom he saw “much less than I whish I might. It is strange how I ‘fell in love with him’ (if I must use the expression, and I can think of no other to express my meaning so well).” A man’s “falling in love” with a woman might include carnal desire, so Dodd’s “falling” for Jabez made him uneasy. Finding the right word for his feelings was still a struggle.


[…] At Yale, Dodd read the Greek Anthology and other classic texts and began to use his knowledge of ancient affectionate and sexual life to come to terms with his own — a common strategy of this age’s upper-class, college-educated white men. […]

The intensity of Dodd’s feelings exceeded romantic friendship by including an erotic element, as Dodd himself apparently began to see. Like many men of his century, he was perplexed about what to call and how to understand his strong attraction to men as well as to women. Like Lincoln, Dodd floundered in a world with few affirmative words for his fervent response to other men. In the diary of Albert Dodd we see how men contended against the verbal void that had also left Lincoln and Speed at a loss for words to name their mutual feelings. Against such condemnatory terms as “mutual masturbation,” “onanism,” and “sodomy,” men in the nineteenth century struggled for a new, affirmative language of sexual love. They began to develop a counterpractice, attempting to rename, rethink, and publicly affirm men’s erotic desires for men, and, sometimes, their sexual acts with them. Through their oppositional search for words, they began, tentatively, to come to terms, literally and metaphorically.

Jonathan Katz: Love StoriesTaken from:
→ Jonathan Katz, Love Stories: Sex Between Men Before Homosexuality. Chicago, 2001. 26-32.

Photos:
→ David Deitcher, Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together, 1840-1918. New York, 2005.
→ John Ibson, Picturing Men: A Century of Male Relationships in Everyday American Photography. Chicago, 2006.
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