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Bromances: "Sentiment" Then, "No Homo" Today

This is the fourth episode in a series of interviews with Michael Bronski about the A Queer History of the United States, this year's Lambda Literary Award winner for LGBT Nonfiction. The interviews were conducted by Richard Voos. 
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Listen to Queer History Episode 4-Bromances: "Sentiment" Then, "No Homo" Today

"I don't see how I can live any longer without having a friend near me, I mean a male friend. Yes, James, I must come; we will yoke together again; your little bed is just wide enough; we will practice at the same bar, and be as friendly a pair of single fellows as ever cracked a nut. We perhaps shall never be rich; no matter, we can supply our own personal necessities. By the time we are thirty, we shall put on the dress of old bachelors, a mourning suit, and having sown all our wild oats, with a round hat and a hickory staff, we will march on till the end of life, whistling as merry as robins, and I hope as innocent." —Daniel Webster, letter to James Bingham, April 3, 1804

My dear general—From those happy ties of friendship by which you were pleased to unite yourself with me, from the promises you so tenderly made me when we parted at Fishkill, gave me such expectations of hearing often from you, that complaints ought to be permitted to my affectionate heart. Not a line from you, my dear general, has yet arrived into my hands, and though several ships from America, several despatches from congress or the French minister, are safely brought to France, my ardent hopes of getting at length a letter from General Washington have ever been unhappily disappointed: I cannot in any way account for that bad luck, and when I remember that in those little separations where I was but some days from you, the most friendly letters, the most minute account of your circumstances, were kindly written to me, I am convinced you have not neglected and almost forgotten me for so long a time. I have, therefore, to complain of fortune, of some mistake or neglect in acquainting you that there was an opportunity, of anything; indeed, but what could injure the sense I have of your affection for me. Let me beseech you, my dear general, by that mutual, tender, and experienced friendship in which, I have put an immense portion of my happiness, to be very exact in inquiring for occasions, and never to miss those which may convey to me letters that I shall be so much pleased to receive.— Marquis de Lafayette to George Washington, 1799

A man of deep and noble nature had seized me in this seclusion. . . . The soft ravishments of the man spun me round about in a web of dreams. . . . But already I feel that this Hawthorne has dropped germinous seeds into my soul. He expands and deepens down, the more I contemplate him; and further and further shoots his strong New England roots into the hot soil of my Southern soul. — Herman Melville, review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Mosses and the Old Manse, August 1850

If the Marquis de Lafayette were around today, he might have signed his letters to George Washington, "Love you bro. No Homo."

How do we understand this language, from one military hero to another, which sounds to the modern ear more like a lover's whining than one general having missed contact with a fellow military leader? And the letter from Daniel Webster to James Bigham reminds me of the controversy about Abraham Lincoln that he shared bed with his law partner. Neither Lafayette, Washington, Webster, nor Lincoln was gay or homosexual. Those words didn't exist in their lifetimes. Men slept in the same bed as other men--it was the practice. Yet the feeling in Lafayette's letter and the strength of Webster's attachment to Bingham are undeniable. Are these the "bromances" and "man dates" of the 19th century?

I think that's an excellent question. When we read these letters now-- and I've actually taught these letters and these journal entries in my classes and students are quite perplexed and often try to come up with reasons why they are not love letters-- I think it's difficult to put these in context using anything in our contemporary society, because they have nothing to do with that. What I do think stands out with each of these, thinking particularly of the second Lafayette letter, is that they contain enormous amounts of sentiment. Sentiment as it was known in the late eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century is not as we might think of it today, as sloppy sentimentalism, but as a deep, sincere, honest, and, above all, ethical feeling for one's fellow man, the emphasis on "man," although it could be applied to human beings in general. And I'd like to make a distinction about the Washington/Lafayette correspondence as opposed to the Daniel Webster note--what we're seeing here is men who are valuing one another not only as men-- in all the complexity it might entail for the time-- but actually as patriots. When we look at Washington and Lafayette and we know the history, these are two men who just fought the American Revolution. Lafayette's gone back to France to fight the French Revolution. They are actually putting the Enlightenment ideals of equality, fraternity, and democracy above all else. So that's the context we have to view these in. I'm not arguing that they may not have had a sexual affair-- we have no evidence that they did, nor do we have any evidence that they did not. Certainly the intensity here of emotion and of sheer emotional investment in one another is very, very clear.

It's interesting, Michael, that the expression of that kind of sentiment and emotion today between two men--pick two generals, General Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell--would be completely unheard of and impossible to imagine. What happened in the intervening almost two hundred years?

I think what's happened is that we've lost the notion of sentiment between men, of honest, real, deep emotional feeling that can be expressed. Certainly, men today can feel deeply for one another, can work together. We hear wonderful stories in horrible situations of soldiers and their intense relationships in war time in Iraq or in Afghanistan. But the expression of these is completely different now. Certainly if General Schwarzkopf wrote a letter like this to General Powell--probably on email or texting him because he would not have time to write the entire letter out by hand--he'd have to add what the younger people these days say at the end of the letter: "No Homo." Clearly, he would not write this letter to begin with. I think what we've lost here is the ability of men to actually express their feelings, and maybe their feelings for women as well, but certainly for one another as men.

When we read the Herman Melville quote--and there are certainly others that would be very similar--it's impossible to come to the "No Homo" conclusion. The reading from Melville is really a different matter altogether from the Lafayette and Webster letters. He clearly formed a strong sexual attraction to his neighbor, Hawthorne. And in A Queer History of the United States, you put this in context with a number of homoerotic sentiments expressed in literature and letters by Ralph Waldo Emerson, by Thoreau, by Emily Dickinson, by Margaret Fuller. Some of those sentiments, and certainly Melville's, expressed far more than romantic friendship. And in Melville's work, the homoerotic is a clear theme, and the relationships, like Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby Dick, almost always cross racial lines. Talk to us about the interaction and intersection of the racial and the homoerotic, starting with Melville, but as a theme in A Queer History.

I think one thing to keep in mind here is that when we're looking at this notion of sentiment, it really is in the context of the Enlightenment and in the concept of equality between men and ostensibly among women as well, although that doesn't play out as well until later on when we come into the suffrage movement. But I think that when we're looking at some of the writings by Herman Melville, say, in Moby Dick, or Charles Warren Stoddard in his South Sea Idyls, we're looking at two things. First, we're looking at this early bromance, this early version of the buddy movie between a white man and, as Leslie Fiedler puts it, a "colored" man. But we're looking at this, because it is the Enlightenment and we're looking at equality among men, as a form of racial justice. Keep in mind that at this time the races are completely separated, we have slavery, we have essentially a system of white supremacy across the world. And yet these men, in this case Herman Melville and Charles Warren Stoddard, are able to imagine relationships-- possibly sexual, certainly love relationships, and certainly intimate relationships-- between white men and men of different races. So when we're looking at these, I think it's important to focus on the sexual aspects, of course, but also on the aspect that this is the roots of what I would think of as being a movement, or an imagining, of coexistence between the races, which would bring us to a new level of equality that we had never even imagined before. 

In a future podcast, we're definitely going to talk about the contrast between social purity, persecuting society and social control movements and of movements for racial liberation and sexual liberation. I think that you describe in some detail and very clearly the relationship between the racial and the sexual in that contrast of movements.

What I find fascinating is that when we look at the history of race struggles, the struggle for racial equality within American culture, one of the earliest places that we can find it is in these homoerotic writings of Melville and of Stoddard. So in some ways, there's a very deep connection between sexual liberation, sexual equality, sexual desire, and the desire for equality among men.