Author: Bayard Taylor
What is the connection between the author and the queer community?
According to The Library Company of Philadelphia, Bayard Taylor was a writer who traveled widely in the nineteenth century (“That’s So Gay”). Although he was married to a woman, he may have been queer. Two months after his wedding, his wife died (“That’s So Gay”). Taylor then lived on a boat with a German businessman on the Nile River in Egypt (“That’s So Gay”). Eventually Taylor married the man’s niece (“That’s So Gay”).
Bayard Taylor (Engraver unknown; from a daguerreotype by Mathew Brady / Public domain)
What is the plot of this book?
Joseph is a young adult in his twenties looking for love. His parents are deceased, and he lives with his aunt on a fairly successful farm in the Pennsylvanian countryside. One night he attends a party of a good friend, and he meets cosmopolitan city girl Julia Blessing. Joseph is quite handsome, and other girls pine for him. Nevertheless, Julia woos him, and they pursue a fairly brief courtship before marriage.
Before Joseph and Julia get married, Joseph visits Julia’s father in the city. Julia’s father is preoccupied with making money, to the point where he has actually lost quite a bit of his once considerable wealth. Mr. Blessing uses Julia and his other daughter Clementina to marry men who can provide capital for his investments. Once Joseph and Julia are married, Julia takes an active role in convincing Joseph to finance her father’s investments. There are warning signs before they even get married, and the manipulation of Joseph only gets worse after the wedding.
However, something miraculous happens before the wedding. On his way back to the countryside after a visit with the Blessings, Joseph is in a very minor train accident. Joseph practically falls into the arms of Philip Held during this accident. Philip, who is five years older than Joseph, not only has a dreamy name, but he also catches Joseph’s eye on the train even before the accident. In fact, the men lock eyes. Their instant connection fortifies into a deep friendship after the accident. Although Joseph has just met Philip, Joseph invites Philip to be the best man at his wedding. Philip declines because he was the former fiancé of Clementina. Clementina ditched him once his finances took a tumble.
After getting married, Joseph becomes increasingly frustrated with Julia and Mr. Blessing, as these two persistently pressure him to spend money on risky investments. Meanwhile, Joseph often thinks of Philip longingly. Eventually Joseph discovers that Mr. Blessing’s investments are a complete sham. Joseph becomes very angry with Mr. Blessing and Julia, and Julia and Joseph argue extensively. In the heat of the argument, with Julia believing her marriage is over, she poisons herself. The poisoning slowly takes effect, with Joseph, his friend Lucy Henderson, and a doctor around to witness Julia’s demise.
After Julia dies, suspicion grows about the nature of her death, as Julia had metaphorically claimed that Joseph was killing her. In a relatively uneventful trial, Joseph is proven innocent of killing of Julia. Philip works tirelessly to produce the evidence that clears Joseph’s name. After the trial Joseph goes on a long trip to Nevada and California. Joseph and Philip write each other tender letters. Nevertheless, at the close of the novel when Joseph returns, Philip has a sense that Joseph will marry his sister Madeline. This makes Philip feel sad and lonely.
How is this book queer?
Although Joseph and Philip both have some interest in women, their feelings for each other are far more potent than their feelings for the women in the book. Joseph begins the book wanting love, without quite knowing what love is. He expresses some interest in Julia and Lucy at a party at the beginning of the book. Joseph expresses desire for Julia, but he never expresses love for her. He notices the “sweetness of her lips” and grows faint thinking about touching the “edge of her dress!” Admittedly, these are very mild expressions of his interest. Perhaps Taylor deliberately portrays Joseph’s interest in Julia comically in order to question whether he actually has strong feelings for Julia.
From the very beginning, Joseph values his close male friendship with his best friend Elwood. Even after the party where he meets Julia, Joseph experiences “a tenderer feeling of friendship than he had ever before felt, and begged him [Elwood] to stay the night.” When Elwood sleeps over, “They occupied the same room; and neither seemed inclined to sleep.” Though they stay up talking about Julia and Lucy, Joseph seems to value more the conversation with Elwood rather than the topic of the conversation.
Everything changes when Philip Held arrives in Joseph’s life. When Joseph first notices Philip on the train, “All at once his eye was attracted by a new face, three or four seats from his own.” He recognizes in Philip’s face a “developed character” and “the more he studied the face, the more he was conscious of its attraction.” Philip and Joseph play eye tag with each other on the train. Philip gives him a look that says, “We are men, let us know each other!” After the train accident, they hold hands and lean on each other. Joseph sleeps on Philip’s shoulder as the train goes forward.
The encounter between Philip and Joseph serves as the foundation for a solid relationship. Before his wedding Joseph thinks a lot more about Philip than Julia: “… but towards Philip his heart sprang with an instinct beyond his control.” As Joseph grows apprehensive before the wedding, Philip reassures him. Philip proclaims that Joseph is “nearer than a brother,” and Philip tells Joseph that he knows that they are in each other’s hearts. Philip says, “A man’s perfect friendship is rarer than a woman’s love” and they clasp hands. Immediately after the wedding, Philip’s “dark gray eyes, warm with more than brotherly love” and Philip’s “faithful thoughts” haunt Joseph.
In contrast, Joseph has a contentious relationship with the pastor, Mr. Chaffinch, who visits him after the train accident. Joseph thinks Christians should be more concerned with deeds than beliefs, and Mr. Chaffinch disagrees. They have several arguments over whether Christian beliefs or good deeds matter more. This discussion becomes a recurring theme that Joseph and Philip eventually address in a very oblique way.
The clearest suggestion of same-sex desire and intimacy between Philip and Joseph begins with an opaque discussion of their desire. Joseph says, “If you and I, Philip, stand above the level of common natures, feeling higher needs and claiming other rights, let us shape them according to the law which is above, not that which is below.” Again, Joseph seems to challenge the morality of a religion created by humans, as people like Mr. Chaffinch perceive this morality. Between the lines, Joseph seems perfectly comfortable with the morality of his intimacy with Philip. This conversation eventually ends in intimacy of an unclear, yet highly suggestive nature:
“They took each other’s hands. The day was fading, the landscape was silent, and only the twitter of nesting birds was heard in the boughs above them. Each gave way to the impulse of his manly love, rarer, alas! but as tender and true as the love of woman, and they drew nearer and kissed each other.”
Philip eventually expresses his agreement with Joseph regarding a revised vision of morality: “[T]he world needs a new code of ethics. We must cure the unfortunate tendencies of some qualities that seem good, and extract the good from others that seem evil.” Philip even says that he has learned to be dependent on God through knowing Joseph. In the context of the story, Joseph and Philip seem to believe that love between two men is beautiful and sacred. In contrast, the greed of the religious Blessing family is socially acceptable, though it should not be.
Philip is eventually Joseph’s savior, as the former finds the evidence to exculpate the latter. Philip rejoices at this outcome: “‘You are free!’ His eyes sparkled and his face glowed.” Joseph is grateful and shows his gratitude: “He drew his chair near to Philip’s, their hands closed upon each other, and they were entirely happy in the tender and perfect manly love which united them.”
Sadly, Philip and Joseph do not become lovers in the end. In the end, Philip is certain that Joseph and Madeline, Philip’s sister, have fallen in love. This ending is absurd, as Madeline is an extremely minor character with few lines of dialogue or any real purpose in the narrative. Perhaps Madeline’s only real purpose is to serve as a beard in the final moments of the book. In that era, having Philip and Joseph’s romance come to full fruition would not have been acceptable. At least they both live with the possibility of remaining close friends.
Who would enjoy reading this book?
If you enjoy beautiful love stories with innuendo, tension, and a few plot twists, you will like this book. You may not like this book if indirect depictions of male queerness frustrate you. If overt suggestions of queer romance are not enough and you need something more explicit, this is not the book for you. Regardless, the title of this book is annoying by today’s standards. Joseph and Philip are clearly lovers in the book, and they are more than just friends. It is incredibly frustrating when people refer to queer male lovers as “friends” or “buddies.”
Taylor, Bayard. Joseph and His Friend: A Story of Pennsylvania, Produced by Barry Abrahamsen, Mary Glenn Krause, Chris Curnow, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net, 2017. Kindle ed. Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/54863
“That’s So Gay: Out Early America (Men Together).” The Library Company of Philadelphia, 2015, http://librarycompany.org/gayatlcp/section2.html. Accessed 14 Oct. 2018.