Imre: A Memorandum (1906)

Author: Edward Prime-Stevenson

What do we know about the author?

Although Edward Prime-Stevenson was born in New Jersey in 1858, upon moving to Europe as an adult he lied and stated his year of birth as 1868 (Gifford). Prime-Stevenson came from a wealthy, religious family (Gifford). He studied law, but he spent his entire career writing, especially fiction and music criticism for periodicals (Gifford). Many of his works of fiction have homoerotic themes (Gifford).

In his 20’s, Prime-Stevenson fell in love with an heir to an oil and railroad fortune, Harry Harkness Flagler (Gifford). While they shared a love for music, theater, and literature, Flagler ended their friendship in 1893 (Gifford). To Prime-Stevenson’s great sadness, Flagler married a woman a year later. Prime-Stevenson never really recovered from losing his friend and crush (Gifford).

He used money inherited from his mother to immigrate to Europe, where he could be more open with his sexuality (Gifford). The money allowed Prime-Stevenson to travel frequently around Europe (Gifford). In Europe, he studied homosexuality extensively (Gifford). Prime-Stevenson talked to a number of medical professionals, and he visited many gay meeting places (Gifford). In response to medical professionals conveying homosexuality as an affliction, he published a very long non-fiction book called The Intersexes: A History of Simi-sexualism as a Problem in Social Life (1908), based on knowledge acquired from his conversations with noted Viennese sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing (Gifford). Imre: A Memorandum was the fictional counterpart to his longer work of non-fiction (Gifford). He only initially published 125 copies of Imre: A Memorandum under the name Xavier Mayne (Gifford). However, by 1913 he published a book of short stories with overt gay themes under his own name in Italy (Gifford).

Prime-Stevenson was a bold writer, and a proud champion of queer masculinity. Through climbing mountains and going to gymnasiums, among other activities, he maintained a fit physique (Gifford). Perhaps like his protagonist Imre, Prime-Stevenson is a symbol of gay virility (Gifford).

What is the plot of this book?

Imre: A Memorandum takes place in Budapest, Hungary. Like the main characters in the story, even the city of Budapest is masked. Prime-Stevenson calls Budapest Szent-Istvanhely, after the patron saint of Hungary (Gifford). In the gay cruising area of this city, Oswald, a British man who is “past thirty,” approaches the twenty-five-year-old Hungarian military officer Imre in a café. In fact, a man before his time, Oswald carries with him his iced coffee to Imre’s table.

Imre is a conflicted man in many respects. He enjoys the arts and music, but his father forced him into a military career. As the son of a Transylvanian family of high regard, military service is a family tradition. Imre excels at being a military officer despite the dissatisfaction and depression that his career inflicts upon him. Oswald is in Hungary to learn the Hungarian language, with time and money not seeming to be constraints.

As Oswald and Imre talk, Oswald notices that many soldiers approach Imre to greet him warmly. Imre’s reserved response to these soldiers stands out to Oswald. One soldier even criticizes Imre for not writing back to him. Imre explains to Oswald that he hates writing letters. He further explains that he has many acquaintances but few true friends. Imre laments the loss of one close friend named Hermes Karvaly, an officer friend who gets married and is called to go to China. As the conversation unfolds, Oswald and the readers understand the meaning of the memorandum in the title as a “guidebook of Imre’s emotional topography.”

Oswald and Imre’s friendship blossoms, and the two meet each other frequently, talking at length on various subjects. They talk about art, literature, politics, current events, and more. Their “inexhaustible curiosity about each other” exists “in friendship as in love,” as readers contemplate the nature of the love between the two men. Imre even invites Oswald to his parents’ home on multiple occasions. Nevertheless, in public the two are more cautious about their meetings. They meet in quiet cafes, away from the military officer crowd. In addition, they even lie to others about not having seen each other for several years.

As Oswald observes Imre’s standoffish behavior toward his male friends and his indifference toward women, he wonders if Imre is gay. Imre and Oswald even talk about homosexuality as a curiosity, a strange phenomenon. After this conversation, Oswald concludes that Imre is not gay.

When Oswald is called back to England for a long period, his departure from Imre causes him great sadness. Oswald becomes angry when Imre shows “indifference” and “nonchalance” over his departure. Ever the stoic, Imre has inured himself to disappointment and loss as a self-defense.

The conflict deepens as Oswald tells Imre to “be a man” and endure his military service career despite Imre’s misgivings and unhappiness. Anguish over departing clearly imbues the scene. Imre states his discomfort with Oswald’s loving words and romantic sorrow for their separation. Even as Imre says these words, he holds Oswald’s hand and acknowledges that Oswald knows the real Imre.

Imre’s tenderness inspires Oswald to tell his story. Oswald recounts his close friendships with other boys as a youth. One boy whom Oswald really loves returns his affection, but the boy tragically dies from an epidemic. As a young man Oswald sees an American doctor who advises him that he can be cured of his homosexuality if he simply marries a woman and avoids “introspection, idealism, and the sedentary life.” Taking his advice, Oswald gets engaged to a woman who is very committed to him. The engagement unravels when Oswald quickly falls in love with a straight man whom he meets at a party. Although Oswald abandons any hope of a relationship, he eventually reveals his homosexuality to the man, whom he considers a friend. The man is disgusted and rejects Oswald’s friendship.

Despite this painful encounter, Oswald realizes that he does not need a cure, and he ends the engagement. As rumors about the end of the engagement emerge, Oswald flees to Europe, where he talks to several specialists about homosexuality. Through his studies, he realizes that not only are queer men not diseased, they are also not necessarily weak or feminine. All types of people—good and bad—are part of this “Race-Homosexual,” just as straight people can be both good and bad. Oswald’s newfound confidence allows him to have passing friendships with many queer men he meets in his travels, including an English officer, an Austrian architect, an Italian painter, and a Polish doctor.

At the end of this story, Oswald boldly proclaims his love for Imre. In his reserved manner, Imre assures Oswald that they are still friends and that his words do not change Imre’s feelings toward him. Still, Imre makes Oswald promise that they will never talk about Oswald’s feelings again. The men then quietly return to Oswald’s hotel. Imre keeps his arm in Oswald’s arm for the entire walk back to the hotel. At the hotel, Oswald receives a telegram that he is no longer needed in England. They both rejoice.

The next day, Imre is suddenly called to the military camp, where he writes several letters to Oswald. Oswald observes that Imre’s behavior is unusual, as he previously stated that he hated writing letters to friends. Imre assures Oswald that he very much enjoys writing to Oswald. Imre eventually returns from the camp with his hands outstretched to Oswald, and Imre kisses Oswald’s cheek.

Oswald tries to maintain a platonic friendship with Imre, but he cannot deny that he is attracted to Imre. He apologizes to Imre for his desire, but Imre tells Oswald that he need not apologize. Imre finally comes out to Oswald, and he acknowledges that he has been gay all his life.

Imre tells Oswald that he had never been effeminate, but he had had many intense boy friendships, like Oswald had. Imre did not have to endure the “religious and ethical misconceptions” in “Anglo-Saxon civilization” or the “British” and “Yankee” “social hypocrisy” of homosexuality. Nevertheless, he suffered from homophobia in society, and he even contemplated suicide on two separate occasions.

Imre explains that his friendship with Karvaly was an ill-fated attraction. Imre knew that Karvaly was not queer, despite his attraction to him. Nevertheless, Imre asks Karvaly about his opinion of homosexuality, and Karvaly tells him his unfiltered opinion. Karvaly tells Imre that he would recommend suicide if Imre told him he was gay.

Disappointed with Karvaly’s reaction, Imre learns to be removed from male friends and to avoid suspicion of homosexuality. To elude this suspicion, Imre cultivates a reputation as a “Lothario” and womanizer, even as he actually lives a chaste, lonely life. Imre’s fear of being outed and his self-destructive impulse of martyrdom explain why he waits so long to confess his love for Oswald after Oswald professes his love for him. The novel ends happily as the two men make a commitment to each other that will seem to endure through the adversity of societal disapproval.

How is this book queer?

As a tale of introspection, love, and identity, the entire story is gay. Still, certain key moments stand out for their gayness. Most superficially, appreciation of male beauty abounds. Upon meeting Imre, Oswald immediately notices his “seductive” quality and that he is “of no ordinary beauty.” Later, Imre compares Karvaly to a beautiful Greek statue. However, Prime-Stevenson depicts the beauty of male intimacy as well. The time that Oswald and Imre spend together is the most “important matter of each day.” Their “inseparable sort of partnership” from the very beginning is so strong that Oswald even visits the home of Imre’s parents.

Masculinity is a significant part of this beauty. Imre is an exquisite gymnast and swimmer, and Oswald has never witnessed such “elasticity and dignity.” Imre’s appeal is traditionally masculine in many ways. He abhors jewelry, and he does not mingle with musicians or “theaterfolk in general.” Observing Imre, Oswald deduces that gay men are not necessarily any more feminine or masculine than straight men. After all, gay men, like straight men, work in various fields, including politics, sciences, and the military.

As Imre asserts his masculinity, he shies from femininity, equating it with weakness. To mask his sexual orientation, he carefully constructs a persona of a womanizer. In addition, to demonstrate his discomfort with male intimacy, he complains about a male friend who is “so hideously womanish” that he kisses him. When Oswald initially jokes about same-sex attraction, Imre proclaims that there is nothing “womanish” or “abnormal” about him. By the end of the novel, when Imre finally concedes his homosexuality, he equates his own weakness with that of “the woman” who “says ‘no’ when she means ‘yes.’” Clearly, to Imre, women have a weak will. 

The misogyny that Imre espouses is inextricably conjoined to the homophobia of the time, as these two prejudices frequently are interconnected. Both Oswald and Imre, closeted gay men, perpetuate homophobia as they attempt to make sense of the world around them. As he gets to know him, Oswald wonders if Imre is “Uranian,” the term formerly used to describe gay people. Imre initially firmly rejects even the suspicion of anyone in the military identifying as gay; overt gayness automatically disqualifies one from military service. When Oswald and Imre first talk about the subject of homosexuality, Oswald stumbles over his words, stating that it would be “better not to try to understand” it while also claiming not to express disapproval. Avoiding an understanding is indeed an expression of disapproval; Oswald avoids an understanding of his own true desires. Even worse, Imre tells Oswald about ending a friendship with a “particular brand of fool” who got caught making love to a cadet. Clearly, the journey that Imre and Oswald take together from their initial homophobic utterances to their eventual self-acceptance is stunning.

Equally stunning is that Imre and Oswald even find each other. At different points in the novel both men seem resigned to the fact that they will never be in a loving relationship with a man. Imre understands that “the world thinks as it thinks now” with little hope for change or acceptance of gay love. In contrast, Oswald even doubts that he could privately find love. He imagines his “life alone, year after year.” Oswald faces a backlash when he privately comes out to a close straight friend. Upon attempting to do so, the friend yells that they are “strangers.” Oswald resigns to being “content with tranquility, pleasant friendships.”

Given the high stakes, coming out and the very publication of his book were huge risks in 1906. The novel frequently compares coming out to a dramatic unmasking. The titles of the three sections of the novel are “Masks,” “Masks and—A Face,” and “Faces—Hearts—Souls.” Indeed, Oswald understands “perfectly that a man must wear the mask” and stay in the closet for his own self-preservation. Privately, Oswald makes the journey to self-acceptance with an acknowledgment that some of the greatest minds belonged to gay men. Prime-Stevenson claims many notable men as part of the queer community: noted poet Abu-Nawas, Michelangelo, William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, King Ludwig, Lord Byron, Walt Whitman, and Ludwig van Beethoven, among others.

The necessity to stay closeted makes Imre and Oswald’s eventual coming out to each other very powerful and understandably tentative. After Oswald comes out to Imre and even confesses his love for him, Imre cautiously says, “We are what we are!” It is a begrudging acceptance of Oswald, not an expected embrace. Oswald proclaims that he “will go to the other end of the world” to escape Imre after he fears that his desires have ruined his friendship, echoing a concern that many queer men still face as they come out to other men. Imre later explains that his survival instinct had instilled in him a commitment to “bear anything alone—alone—yes.” To maintain his acceptability among his male peers, Imre becomes a “friend of everybody in general who is the friend of nobody in particular.” To coexist with male peers, queer men and boys still adopt this strategy of detachment and blandness to avoid offending straight men. Fortunately, Imre manages to overcome this mindset to realize his love for Oswald.

 Who would enjoy reading this book?

Those inclined to an introspective look at gay male identity will enjoy this book. There is a romance in this novel, but it is not the focus. The memorandum subtitle refers to the deep reflection on the characters’ places in the world. Because Imre and Oswald are so cautious with the expression of their identity and sexuality, one does not immediately understand the characters. The reader must rely on clues along the way to make sense of interactions. In this sense, the novel almost progresses like a mystery novel. Who are Imre and Oswald? By the second half of the novel, readers understand who they really are. To the modern reader, the last half of the novel may drag on a little too long. Nevertheless, this slow progression affirms the caution and apprehension around coming out in the early twentieth century. This is a beautiful tale of self-discovery during a time when self-discovery was virtually impossible for gay men. If schools are serious about diversity and inclusion, all students should read a book like Imre: A Memorandum to understand the pain and joy of coming out as a young person. While the novel ends happily, one wonders what will happen to the lovers as they pursue a secret relationship. That would be the topic of a great sequel.


Prime-Stevenson, Edward. Imre: A Memorandum. Edited by James J. Gifford, Broadview Literary Texts, 2003.


Maurice (drafted 1914, published 1971)

Author: E. M. Forster

What do we know about the author?

The noted British writer E. M. Forster came of age during the turn of the twentieth century, and he lived until 1970. At the age of sixteen, the trial and conviction of Oscar Wilde for his homosexuality left an indelible mark on Forster’s ambitions as a writer. The trial motivated Forster, who was also gay, to avoid discussion of queerness in his work. Indeed, his most celebrated works, such as A Passage to India, portray heterosexual characters. Forster managed to publish novels with traditional themes until 1924, when he could no longer bear to write only about heterosexual people. For the last thirty-seven years of his life, he only published essays.

A year after his death, Forster’s friend, famous gay writer Christopher Isherwood, published Maurice, a novel with queer characters that he originally drafted in 1914. The book was inspired by queer encounter upon a visit to gay poet Edward Carpenter, when his lover George Merrill touched Forster’s backside. Despite Isherwood’s pleas, Forster never published the book during his life because he believed that society would roundly reject it for its queer subject matter. Forster even wondered whether the novel was moving prose or just salacious trash. 

E.M. Forster circa 1917 (Unknown author / Public Domain)

What is the plot of this book?

Maurice opens with the titular character, Maurice Hall, as a young teenager learning about human sexuality from his reserved, British teacher Mr. Ducie. After Mr. Ducie provides a very heteronormative explanation of sex, he expects a lot of questions from Maurice. However, Maurice does not have any questions, foreshadowing his bewilderment with the heterosexual norms imposed on him.

Maurice comes of age in turn of the century London. He comes from a privileged suburban background, but he is not nearly as posh as the real British aristocracy. Nevertheless, he still goes to elite schools, including Cambridge for university.

Despite his privileged status in society, Maurice is very average in many ways. He is not the smartest or most cultured man. He develops into a fairly attractive man, but he is by no means a heartthrob. His family knows what they want him to be. From a very early age, Maurice understands that he will go to Cambridge, get a job as a stockbroker, and settle down with a wife and children.

Of course, that plan does not completely come to fruition. The undoing begins when Maurice becomes fascinated with a flamboyant character named Risley at Cambridge. When Maurice calls upon Risley at his dormitory, instead he finds Clive Durham. Clive and Maurice become close friends, even as flirtation lingers in the background of their friendship. Their friendship is further solidified when Clive confides in Maurice about the difficulty of telling his mother that he is not a Christian.

In awkward fashion, Maurice and Clive reveal that they love each other. Maurice initially tells Clive about a crush on a girl that arises during a school break, and Clive is disappointed. Maurice slowly realizes that the crush is not real. Their friendship progresses, and they casually caress and stroke each other’s hair. Clive summons the courage to tell Maurice that he loves him, and Maurice reacts in horror. Clive, in turn, reacts with embarrassment, and the two try to forget the whole incident. Maurice eventually admits to himself that he is only attracted to men, and more specifically to Clive. After some frustration and social awkwardness, he tells Clive that he loves him.

In the throes of love, Maurice and Clive skip school to go on a country romp. They both flagrantly flout authority, yet only Maurice receives punishment. Unlike Maurice, Clive comes from a very aristocratic family. Clive is also very intelligent, and many anticipate a political career for him. The school officials take note with wariness of the extremely close friendship between Clive and Maurice. As a result, Maurice is expelled until he apologizes to the dean. Obstinate Maurice refuses to apologize, but Maurice still manages to become a successful stockbroker.

While Maurice and Clive are separated they still manage to continue their romance. Maurice visits Penge, the Durham family estate, and Clive and Maurice nest in a secluded wing of the estate. The happiness is too good to be true. Mrs. Durham reveals that Clive must marry to inherit the family estate. For the next two years, Clive and Maurice maintain a discreet relationship with each other. Maurice spends every Wednesday and his weekends at Clive’s flat in London.

During dinner one evening at the Hall residence, Clive becomes ill and faints. Maurice’s surreptitious kiss does not revive him. To add insult to injury, Clive tells Maurice that he prefers the nurse to restore him to good health, even as Maurice loyally cares for him. Clive’s health eventually improves to some degree, but he goes to Greece to fully recover.

Shockingly, Clive writes Maurice from Greece to tell him that he is no longer queer. Clive believes that his illness causes the epiphany. During his illness, he notices his nurse’s charm and beauty. Clive believes that he simply experiences a natural, physical change in his sexuality. A disbelieving Maurice tries to convince Clive that he is queer, to no avail.

Nevertheless, Maurice manages to sustain a friendship with Clive, as Clive wants to stay friends. Clive gets married to a woman named Anne Woods, whom he meets in Greece, and the three miraculously live in harmony. Clive and Maurice espouse similar political views, and Maurice visits Penge regularly. Clive has now become a successful lawyer, and he seems close to attaining a higher office.

Feeling anguish over his queer desires, Maurice decides to visit a doctor to try to vanquish his homosexuality. Maurice’s visit to close family friend Dr. Barry is a disaster. Dr. Barry says Maurice’s desires are “rubbish,” and he advises Maurice to avoid the “temptation from the devil.”

Maurice’s visit to a hypnotist, Mr. Lasker Jones, goes more smoothly. Lasker Jones diagnoses Maurice with “congenital homosexuality.” Maurice consents to treatment, and he follows Lasker Jones’s advice. Lasker Jones advises Maurice to stay at Penge with Clive and Anne, but this stay thwarts the treatment efforts. When Maurice returns to Penge, the gamekeeper Alec Scudder becomes the object of his affection.

Although Maurice is initially very rude to Alec, Maurice warms to him. One night, Maurice sleepwalks to the window of his bedroom and cries out “Come!” Repairmen who were repairing the tiles on the roof had left a ladder resting against the windowsill of Maurice’s room. Conveniently, after Maurice cries out, Alec climbs up the ladder and whispers, “Sir, was you calling out for me? … Sir, I know … I know.” They talk in low whispers, and they sleep in each other’s arms.

After a cricket game the next day, Maurice becomes ill and abruptly leaves Penge. Alec sends telegrams and letters to summon him back to Penge, and more specifically the boathouse at Penge. Maurice longs for Alec, but fears that Alec is trying to blackmail him. Meanwhile, Maurice gives up his treatment with Mr. Lasker Jones. Lasker Jones tells Maurice that he is subconsciously resisting hypnosis, and they both agree that Maurice is unavoidably gay.

Maurice persistently avoids Alec’s messages, but the two eventually meet at the British Museum when Alec threatens blackmail. The threat is a bluff, and the two profess their love for each other. Maurice cancels an important social engagement, and they spend the night together.

Alec has long planned to move to Argentina, and Maurice implores him to stay in England. Alec does not believe that they can reasonably maintain their relationship without ruining their lives. Maurice tries to say farewell to Alec, but he discovers that Alec never boards the ship for Argentina. Returning to the boathouse at Penge, Maurice discovers Alec. The two pledge their commitment to each other. The book ends with Maurice proudly telling Clive about his commitment to Alec.

How is this book queer?

Forster makes it clear from the beginning that Maurice is gay. In the opening scene when Mr. Ducie tries to explain sex to Maurice, Maurice only replies that he does not think he will marry. He perhaps says this because gay men did not marry in that era. Nevertheless, Maurice cries when George the garden boy leaves his home abruptly; he later dreams of a naked George playing football.

At Sunnington College, the all-boys prep school that he attends before Cambridge, Maurice even surreptitiously flirts with boys: “He dared not be kind–it was not the thing–still less to express his admiration in words. And the adored one would shake him off before long, and reduce him to sulks.” At the end of the novel, Maurice sees Mr. Ducie again in the British Museum when he is with Alec. Maurice rests his hands on Alec’s neck, but Mr. Ducie does not notice. Maurice is finally comfortable with his sexuality, even as a cluelessly heterosexual Mr. Ducie observes him.

The queerness of Maurice and Clive truly blossoms at Cambridge. In their translation class, Clive and Maurice hear the dean say, “Omit: a reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks,” in reference to gay love in the text. While this comment piques the interest of Clive and Maurice, it also explains how positive portrayals of queerness have been erased from history and perhaps even religion. Rightfully so, Clive is incensed over the dean’s omission: “… to omit it is to omit the mainstay of Athenian society.” Maurice is relieved that homosexuality can even be discussed in public, and Clive recommends for him to read The Symposium.

The evolution of Clive and Maurice progresses in surprising ways, as Clive ultimately rejects his own queerness and Maurice embraces his own homosexuality. The reader wonders if Clive is a repressed queer man or if his queerness mysteriously vanishes. The evidence suggests that Clive is closeted and repressed, but the truth is never revealed. As a boy, Clive struggles with an attraction to men and also wanting to be part of his family’s tradition of wealth and dominance. Even as a boy, he tries to find a Biblical justification for homosexuality: “He wished Christianity would compromise with him a little and searched the Scriptures for support. There was David and Jonathan; there was even the ‘the disciple that Jesus loved. But the Church’s interpretation was against him.’” This struggle portends Clive’s eventual submission to money and power.

Indeed, Clive has an unusual marriage to Anne, and it seems fraudulent: “He never saw her naked, nor she him. They ignored the reproductive and the digestive functions.” Perhaps this sort of relationship was typical for the era, but one wonders why Forster emphasizes this dynamic. Moreover, Clive’s homophobia intensifies, perhaps as a sign of his repression. Clive is positively disgusted as he tries to break up with Maurice: “The horror of masculinity had returned, and he wondered what would happen if Maurice tried to embrace him.” Only when Maurice ceases to threaten his sexuality does Clive let down his guard. Clive is overcome with emotion and gently kisses Maurice’s hand when Maurice lies about getting engaged to a woman: “Dare he borrow a gesture from the past?” Clive returns to his homophobia when Maurice reveals his love for Alec: “Clive sprang up with a whimper of disgust. He wanted to smite the monster, and flee …”

Clive’s homophobia is in stark contrast to his initial feelings for Maurice. Clive and Maurice skip class to enjoy nature, in a beautiful description of love in its infancy: “All this last part of the day was perfect. The train, for some unknown reason, was full, and they sat close together, talking quietly under the hubbub, and smiling.” Frustrated by the heterosexism in society, Clive fumes about Maurice’s punishment for skipping: “If a woman had been in that side-car, if then he had refused to stop at the Dean’s bidding, would Dr. Barry have required an apology from him? Surely not.”

Nevertheless, for a while, Clive perseveres with his love affair with Maurice. When Maurice visits Clive at Penge, Clive arranges for them to have their own secluded wing of the country estate. The necessity for the seclusion revives Clive’s frustration with the heterosexist status quo: “‘It served my mother right when I slipped up to kiss you before dinner. She would have no mercy if she knew, she wouldn’t attempt, wouldn’t want to attempt to understand that I feel to you as Pippa to her fiancé, only far more nobly, far more deeply, body and soul, no starved medievalism of course, only a—a particular harmony of body and soul that I don’t think women have even guessed. But you know.’” The comment reveals Clive’s misogyny, and Maurice also possesses his own brand of misogyny, as seen through his poor treatment toward his sisters. However, Forster rightly notes the frequent equality in same-sex love that is often missing in heterosexual love: “He educated Maurice, or rather his spirit, for they themselves became equal. Neither thought “Am I led; am I leading?” Love had caught him out of triviality and Maurice out of bewilderment in order that two imperfect souls might touch perfection.” They forge a deep love that continues through the foulness of sickness. When Clive becomes ill, Maurice lovingly cares for him: “Maurice lifted him out of bed and put him on the night stool. When relief had come he lifted him back.” Yuck.

Naturally, Maurice is a broken man when Clive abruptly terminates their relationship. As desperate times lead to desperate measures, Maurice is ashamed at his lust for Dr. Barry’s nephew, who is far too young for Maurice. An embarrassing and suggestive encounter with an older man leads Maurice to seek treatment. Maurice flirts with an old man in a train, and the man smiles back. Chaos ensues when Maurice plays too rough and knocks the man down, giving the man a bloody nose: “He sputtered apologies, offered money. Maurice stood over him, black-browed, and saw in this disgusting and dishonourable old age his own.”

Resolving to get rid of his homosexuality, Maurice decides to see a doctor to get rid of his homosexuality: “He might ‘keep away from young men,’ as he had naively resolved, but he could not keep away from their images, and hourly committed sin in his heart.” Maurice does not know if any doctors actually treat homosexuality, or if he can even trust any doctors. Maurice’s feelings echo the feelings of many queer people even to this day, as queer people strive to find care that affirms their identities. Indeed Dr. Barry’s reaction to Maurice’s confession is what queer people fear most: “‘The worst thing I could do for you is to discuss it.’” Maurice reasonably responds that he wants advice: “It’s not rubbish to me, but my life.” Forster notes that Dr. Barry is typically clueless about caring for queer people, as were virtually all British doctors in that era: “Dr. Barry had given the best advice he could. He had read no scientific works on Maurice’s subject. None had existed when he walked the hospitals, any published since were in German, and therefore suspect.” Sadly, Maurice had always trusted Dr. Barry, and he wonders if his own sexuality “might not be rubbish, though every fibre in him protested.”

Fortunately, Maurice seeks a second medical opinion, which turns out to be slightly less flawed. The hypnosis of Mr. Lasker Jones ultimately fails, and Mr. Lasker Jones tells Maurice to live in a country such as France or Italy where homosexuality is not a crime. Mr. Lasker Jones doubts that England will ever accept homosexuality as England “has always been disinclined to accept human nature.” Forster’s critique of England cannot be missed. Through Mr. Lasker Jones’s care, Maurice accepts that there have always been people like him, that there always will be, and that queer people have been and continue to be persecuted. This is a feeling queer people continue to realize even today. Disappointingly, Mr. Lasker Jones is not the queer ally that the reader hopes him to be: “The doctor wanted to get on to his next patient, and he did not care for Maurice’s type. He was not shocked like Dr. Barry, but he was bored, and never thought of the young invert again.”

Thankfully, Maurice concludes with the happy romance between Alec and Maurice that transcends class. The bond between Alec and Maurice overcomes their class difference, as Alec belongs to a lower class. Indeed, Clive tells Maurice that Alec is smart, but “you can’t expect our standard of honesty in servants, any more than you can expect loyalty or gratitude.” Forster emphasizes Maurice’s classist attitudes, as Maurice jokes about the poor and works in a profession that prioritizes wealth preservation. Maurice’s immediate distrust of Alec is revealing, as he assumes that Alec only wants to be intimate in order to blackmail Maurice. Regardless, the coming together of Alec and Maurice in front of an Assyrian bull sculpture in the British Museum reinforces that the men inescapably belong to a rigid class system within an imperial behemoth.

Jealousy is also an obstacle to the romance between Alec and Maurice. From afar, Maurice first sees handsome Alec flirting with two maids, and a “pang of envy” arises in him. Alec later says that Maurice in that moment had looked at him with anger and gentleness. Alec believes that Maurice does not respond to his letters out of jealousy. The reader wonders whether Alec is actually bisexual: “It was before you came. It is natural to want a girl, you cannot go against human nature.” Is it natural for everyone? This is a curious comment that would benefit from further explanation, as Maurice survives the novel as an increasingly balanced man who is only attracted to other men.

Who would enjoy reading this book?

If you enjoy beautiful writing and a happy ending, Maurice will not disappoint you. Indeed, this is a good–almost great–book. Maurice addresses male queerness with great sensitivity, acknowledging a range of experiences. Forster portrays the misogyny that was pervasive during that era, even among queer men. In addition, the author imagines both class tension and class deconstruction between queer men. Queerness takes different forms in the characters of gay Risley, gay Maurice, ostensibly bisexual Alec, and questioning Clive. The novel could be even better if it discussed with more depth the sexual identities of these characters, with the possible exception of Maurice. Admittedly, the work is refreshingly candid given the moral propriety of the era, but a modern reader yearns for more. 


Forster, E. M. Maurice. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2011. Digital.

Symondson, Kate. “E M Forster’s Gay Fiction.” The British Library, The British Library, 4 May 2016,

A Marriage Below Zero (1889)

Author: Alan Dale

What is the connection between the author and the queer community?

There is perhaps no clear connection between the author and the queer community. Like so many authors of this period, it is difficult to know the nature of their sexual orientations, as people did not talk openly about attraction outside of a heteronormative context. We do know that Alan Dale was a pseudonym for Alfred J. Cohen (“Alfred J. Cohen”). The author was born in Britain, but he moved to New York and became a theater critic and novelist (“Alfred J. Cohen”).

What is the plot of this book?

Elsie Bouverie, the main character of the book, is an upper class woman in London who is an outsider. According to her narration, she appears not to conform as strictly to the norms of women in her milieu. Elsie derides the open expression of emotions and affection that afflicts the newly-weds of her age. One might even characterize Elsie as rebellious in her prudery. Nevertheless, she does desire to marry.

To Elsie, Arthur Ravener is unique, despite his bad reputation and constant presence around Captain Dillington. Elsie appreciates that she can have a genuine conversation with Arthur without him flirting with her. Ironically, in the absence of flirtations, Elsie falls in love with Arthur, even though Elsie despises Arthur’s close friend Captain Dillington. Although Arthur readily agrees with Elsie’s standoffishness, he notices her romantic glances, and he asks Elsie to marry him. Arthur convinces Elsie to forego a honeymoon because he claims that honeymoons are out of style. However, Elsie cannot bear Arthur absconding to London on their wedding night, leaving her confused and alone at home.

The wedding night escape is not a singular event. Time and again, Arthur is away from home for long stretches. When Arthur is at home Captain Dillington is regularly with him, to Elsie’s chagrin. Arthur rebuffs Elsie’s advances and desire for intimacy, and Elsie becomes frustrated and despondent. Arthur notices Elsie’s discontent, and the two have a heart-to-heart talk, not before arguing extensively. Both wonder if their marriage was a mistake. While Arthur states his fondness for Elsie, he understood that their marriage would only consist of pleasant conversation. Elsie needs more out of her marriage.

Elsie resorts to seeking the advice of her aloof, pretentious mother, with whom she has a distant relationship. After Elsie describes her husband’s inattentiveness and frequent absences, her mother is convinced that Arthur is having an affair with another woman. Elsie’s mother refers her to a private detective, and Elsie enlists his services. Impatient to hear the private detective’s findings, Elsie breaks into Arthur’s locked private study in their home. Once in the study, she finds a payment for rent on a house in London.

Barreling through her grief and fury, Elsie breaks into the London house to confront Arthur and his alleged mistress. Elsie is not surprised to find Arthur with Captain Dillington inside the house, as she had suspected Dillington of arranging Arthur’s meetings with his mistress. Elsie’s fears about Dillington are confirmed when she finds him with Arthur in the house.

After Elsie’s discovery, Arthur falls very ill. Captain Dillington attempts to visit him, but Elsie turns him away. Miraculously, the relationship between Arthur and Elsie improves dramatically, and they are suddenly a loving couple. With hopes high, Elsie goes with Arthur to New York for a vacation. One day, as they pass a hotel, Arthur pauses curiously, but Elsie dismisses this hesitation. Later, Arthur feels ill and stays in the hotel while Elsie goes to the opera with some friends. Upon her return to the hotel, Arthur is gone.

Through dogged detective work, Elsie discovers that Arthur has boarded a ship back to England with Captain Dillington, whom she believes Arthur saw as he paused by the hotel. Despite Elsie’s attempt to find Arthur and save him from Dillington’s influence, she eventually relents. Realizing that her marriage is probably irreparable, Elsie gives up looking for Arthur and goes into seclusion. After some time has passed, Elsie discovers that Dillington is embroiled in a scandal in Paris. She goes to Paris and locates his hotel room. Elsie discovers that Dillington has been arrested and Arthur has killed himself in the hotel room. Before leaving the hotel room, she finds photographs of Dillington and Arthur and destroys them.

How is this book queer?

Unlike many novels in the Queer Male Canon Project, this novel is told from the perspective of a woman. This may seem like a novel conceit, except that it leaves the main queer characters nearly voiceless. Equally disappointing is the desperation of Elsie as a heartbroken wife. Taken together, the book implicitly serves as a testimonial for marriage equality so that queer men can love and women can be spared from marriages based upon lies.

The character of Elsie is problematic because she elicits both empathy and frustration from the reader. Is Elsie simply an awkward, isolated, and foolish young lady, or is she also a calculating, unreliable narrator who portrays herself as a victim? Does Elsie marry Arthur knowing that he was queer in order to sabotage her own happiness or to rebel against her pretentious mother? The reader never really discovers the answers to these questions, but there are clues.

Elsie is attracted to Arthur because he is different. They are both introverts, and they share a disdain for social functions and customs. However, Arthur’s peers return the hatred, seemingly because of his close relationship with Dillington. From the beginning, there are suggestions of a queer relationship and the peers’ homophobia. Elsie misses the subtlety, and she actually admires the close friendship. However, does she miss the subtlety? Before they are even married Elsie says, “I had already seen them often together, and I knew Arthur Ravener was a different man when removed from his friend.”

The details of the wedding and honeymoon should have given Elsie pause. Arthur rushes the wedding and cancels the honeymoon. Before the cancellation, Elsie had jokingly wondered what Dillington would do during their honeymoon. Does Elsie use humor to deny the truth? Indeed, Arthur spends the night of the honeymoon with Dillington instead of Elsie. This must alarm her, yet Elsie retreats into denial.

Arthur’s lack of affection toward Elsie manifests itself physically. Right after the wedding, Arthur “could not have looked more hopelessly subdued if he had been sitting in a funeral coach, and going to bury a friend.” Elsie demands a kiss from Arthur as he leaves the house, but he kisses her “so coldly and undemonstratively” that she feels surprised and even “chilled.” Elsie must know that this is not normal behavior for spouses.

Nevertheless, Arthur is not cruel, nor does he exactly lie. Arthur takes constitutionals with Elsie, and he maintains pleasant conversations with her during meals. Elsie tries to make Arthur jealous by hosting another man at their home, but Arthur politely engages the man in chatter. Sensing her frustration, Arthur tries to provide a sensible explanation, without outing himself. Arthur tells Elsie that he thought he would never marry, claiming “that women were too exacting.” He even tells Elsie the truth: “I came to the conclusion that you were unlike other girls—that we would live quietly and happily together as friends—you going your way and I going mine.” Arthur believed that Elsie was serious when she claimed that she “would be satisfied with quiet friendship instead of impetuous passion.” Since Arthur is not cruel or abusive and he is surprisingly candid about his emotions, it would be very reasonable for Elsie to consider Arthur’s intense feelings for Dillington as she ponders his aloofness toward her.

Clearly, Elsie is very daft or very much in denial. The reader nonetheless feels sad for Elsie as she overhears two men talking on the train about the rumors of Arthur’s relationship with Dillington. The men quite reasonably theorize that Arthur married a foolish girl simply to quiet the rumors, and that he surreptitiously continues his relationship with Dillington. Even after hearing this, Elsie still does not understand, or at least she claims ignorance. As time and again, she finds Arthur with Dillington, she only perceives that the latter has some unknown evil influence over the former. Her confusion continues even when she discovers Arthur’s secret house with Dillington and when Arthur and Dillington run off together on a ship from New York to England. Only then does she begin to worry simply that another woman may not be the source of the mysterious iniquity.

Why does not Arthur tell Elsie about his relationship with Dillington? Why does not Elsie give up on her marriage? The answer to both questions is that Elsie was on a mission to “save” Arthur, and Arthur knew this. Elsie commits herself to separating Arthur and Dillington: “It was only by removing him from this man, whom I felt to be his evil genius, that I could have hoped to win my husband.”

Even at the end of the novel, Elsie remains possessive of her husband: “He was mine, and I would cherish him forever.” Only at the very end of the book is Elsie suddenly “repulsed” to see photographs of Dillington and Arthur in the same frame. She smashes the frame, tears the photographs, and throws the fragments out the window, her hands bleeding profusely from broken glass. She then leaves the hotel room, without another look at Arthur’s dead body. Elsie becomes a villain because she cannot bear Dillington and Arthur being together once again in death.

Although Arthur and Dillington suffer a tragic fate, their love is real and glorious. Among their peers, Arthur and Dillington are known as Damon and Pythias, after the Greek legend of two friends with a profound friendship (“Damon and Pythias”). All of their peers deride their closeness, joking that they would dance with each other at parties if that were socially acceptable.

Sadly, Arthur and Dillington are in constant fear that their love for each other will be discovered, knowing that the discovery of their love will separate them. In fact, when Elsie asks Arthur how Dillington is, she observes a pained Arthur: “There had been a smile on his face as I began my speech. It froze at once—as they say in the novels. A pained blush spread slowly over his face.” Later, when Elsie discovers Arthur’s secret house, Arthur asks her why she has come to the house. Dillington interrupts and explains that Elsie expected Arthur to be with a woman at the house. Elsie retorts that she does not have “business” with a woman, only Dillington. Thinking Elsie has discovered his relationship with Arthur, Dillington “gasped,” which is a word that carries with it a connotation of dramatic queerness.

Eventually Dillington quite bravely fights for his relationship with Arthur. When Elsie objects to Arthur returning home with her, Dillington says it is Arthur’s right to do so because Elsie is his wife. Elsie fires back, “And you- ?” This reply startles Dillington, as he again believes that Elsie has discovered his relationship with Arthur. Courageously, Dillington answers, “I am his friend, and I am not ashamed of it.” They were at college together, and their “intimacy has continued since those days.” Dillington proclaims that he would “aid Arthur Ravener whenever [he] can; [he] will do anything for him.” Dillington virtually professes his love for Arthur to Elsie: “He is my bosom friend, and I am ready to say so before anybody.”

Although he may not be as brave or vocal, Arthur reciprocates Dillington’s love. When Elsie questions the hotel detective in New York about Arthur’s interaction with Dillington at the hotel, the detective describes a romantic rendezvous: “The young man seemed to be much excited. He could hardly reply to the glib remarks of his companion. He appeared to be in a dream.”

One could interpret the title of the book to be the marriage of Elsie and Arthur. Their romance is frigid and fraudulent. In contrast, the true, unofficial marriage is that of Arthur and Dillington. Their marriage is “below zero” because society spurns the idea of queer male romance. Only below zero, in the hidden corners out of the public’s view, can Arthur and Dillington love each other honestly.

Who would enjoy reading this book?

One can imagine this story being retold, perhaps in a film adaptation, in a sensitive way that portrays the anguish of the queer characters, like Todd Haynes captures such anguish in his film Carol. Nevertheless, tragedy mercilessly ravages the lives of all the main characters. Some lose their lives, and all lose love. One wonders about the real purpose of this novel. If the purpose is to convey this anguish, the author could have more effectively done this by telling the story from the perspective of one of the queer characters. In fact, the novel actually transcends the queer relationship by serving as a cautionary tale of rushing into a marriage at a young age. Indeed, Elsie ignores the warning signs to her own detriment, and Arthur naively believes that he can continue his relationship with Dillington without consequences. If you like tales of jealousy, tragedy, and unrequited love, then this novel is for you.


“Alfred J. Cohen.” Jewish Encyclopedia. Accessed 30 Nov. 2018.

Dale, Alan. A Marriage Below Zero. Kindle ed., Amazon, 2017.

“Damon and Pythias.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 10 Jan. 2017, Accessed 1 Dec. 2018.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)

Author: Oscar Wilde

What is the connection between the author and the queer community?

Although Oscar Wilde was married to a woman and had children, he had at least one male lover (Ross). In fact, his lover, Alfred Douglas, was very similar to Dorian Gray because Douglas was extremely beautiful and possessed a cold heart (Ross). However, Wilde only met Douglas after The Picture of Dorian Gray was published (Ross). Unfortunately Douglas’s father discovered his son’s relationship with Wilde, leading to Wilde’s trial and subsequent conviction for “committing acts of gross indecency with certain male persons” (Ross). In other words, Wilde was imprisoned for being queer. At his trial, the homoerotic language from The Picture of Dorian Gray was used as evidence to prove Wilde’s queerness (Ross).

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Oscar Wilde (Napoleon Sarony / Public domain)

What is the plot of this book?

The story takes place in the elite, wealthy circles of London in the late nineteenth century. As the story begins, the main characters are young men. Basil Hallward is a painter who is obsessed with painting portraits of the extremely handsome Dorian Gray. Lord Henry is their older, witty friend.

Once Basil completes the portrait of Dorian, he gives it to Dorian. Upon seeing this portrait, Dorian realizes the fleeting nature of his youth. Dorian wishes that the version of him in the painting aged so that he could remain young.

Dorian falls in love with a talented and beautiful actress named Sybil Vane. He attends all her theatrical performances, and the two decide to become engaged. Sybil comes from a very humble family with few financial assets. Sybil’s brother James is skeptical of Dorian and the engagement. In contrast, Sybil is so confident in their love that she decides to give a terrible performance one evening in order to end her career and to commit herself solely to Dorian. Dorian brings Basil and Lord Henry to this performance, and the two friends decide to leave early because Sybil’s acting is so bad. Sybil’s bad acting embarrasses Dorian, and his passion for her dies. After the performance, Dorian promptly breaks off the engagement and abandons Sybil, leaving her heartbroken.

When Dorian returns home, he sees that the version of him in the painting has aged and withered from the ugliness of his bad behavior. Realizing that his wish has come true, Dorian hides the painting in a room in his house to which only he has access. While he contemplates getting back together with Sybil, Lord Henry informs him that her grief made her commit suicide. Dorian then becomes very self-indulgent and explores numerous vices.

Years pass and Basil hears many rumors about Dorian’s hedonism. Indeed Dorian earns a very bad reputation. In addition, as everyone else visibly ages, Dorian maintains his youthful appearance.

Concerned for Dorian, Basil confronts him about his bad behavior. Dorian becomes very angry and murders Basil with a knife in the secluded room in which the painting of Dorian hangs. Dorian then blackmails his friend Alan into disposing of the body. The reader later discovers that Alan’s guilty conscience over helping Dorian makes Alan commit suicide.

For years, James seeks vengeance on Dorian. After James finally locates Dorian, he follows Dorian to the home of one of Dorian’s rich friends. Before James can avenge Dorian, Dorian’s friend accidentally shoots and kills James while they are hunting.

Given this close escape from murder, Dorian decides to reform his evil ways. Dorian kindly ends a relationship that is going nowhere, and he wonders if the version of him in the painting becomes more beautiful. When he discovers that his image in the painting is uglier than ever, he takes the knife with which he murdered Basil and stabs the painting. Screams are heard throughout the house, and the servants force themselves into the room. They find the painting in pristine condition with a youthful, beautiful version of Dorian. On the ground, the grotesque version of Dorian from the painting is dead on the floor with the knife in his heart. Clearly, the two versions of Dorian have changed places.

How is this book queer?

The three main characters of The Picture of Dorian Gray are queer. Wilde imagined himself in all three characters: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps” (Ross). Basil is infatuated with Dorian, and Dorian is infatuated with Lord Henry. Aloof Lord Henry does not seem very attached to anyone.

From the very beginning, Basil is smitten with Dorian Gray: “I have always been my own master; had at least always been so, till I met Dorian Gray.” Basil lives for Dorian: “I couldn’t be happy if I didn’t see him every day. He is absolutely necessary to me.” Further, Basil’s art relies on Dorian: “He is all my art to me now.” Basil even compares Dorian’s face to the face of Antinous, who was a notable inspiration in ancient sculpture for being the gay lover of the Roman emperor Hadrian (“Hadrian—life and legacy”). In a more explicit allusion, Wilde compares Basil’s feelings with those of famous men who were known or assumed to be queer: “It was such love as Michelangelo had known, and Montaigne, and Winckelmann, and Shakespeare himself” (Ross).

It is no surprise that Basil is disappointed when he hears Dorian will marry Sybil: “A strange sense of loss came over him.” If it were not abundantly clear, Basil explicitly states the intensity of his feelings for Dorian later in the story: “I worshipped you. I grew jealous of every one to whom you spoke. I wanted to have you all to myself. I was only happy when I was with you.”

Although Dorian’s interest in Lord Henry is much subtler, the reader senses Dorian’s admiring gaze: “He could not help liking the tall, graceful young man who was standing by him. His romantic, olive-coloured face and worn expression interested him.” Whereas Basil is in awe of Dorian’s beauty, Dorian admires Lord Henry’s roguish charm. Dorian is drawn to Lord Henry’s witty personality: “And you will promise to talk to me all the time? No one talks so wonderfully as you do.” Lord Henry takes notice of both Dorian’s attractiveness and Dorian’s admiration for him, and Lord Henry feels “the eyes of Dorian Gray … fixed on him.”

Despite this flirting, Lord Henry and Dorian engage in superficial relationships with women. Lord Henry is married, but there is no indication that Lord Henry has any interest in his wife. According to Lord Henry, marriage “makes a life of deception absolutely necessary.” One wonders if the deception includes dating other men. Lord Henry never knows where his wife is. The reader only briefly encounters Lord Henry’s wife, upon which Lord Henry boldly proclaims, “Never marry a woman with straw-colored hair.” Even worse, Dorian’s relationship with Sybil Vane is like a hobby or experiment: “It often happened that when we thought we were experimenting on others we were really experimenting on ourselves.” Dorian’s love for Sybil is insincere, as he loses all interest in her when she gives her terrible performance in Romeo and Juliet.

After Sybil’s demise, Dorian’s self-indulgent hedonism seems to include courting a man, Alan Campbell: “For eighteen months their intimacy lasted.” After Dorian and Alan’s intimacy ends, Alan curiously avoids Dorian at parties. Wilde does not detail what happened between these two men, but Alan appears to be a spurned lover. When Dorian threatens to disclose damaging information about Alan in order to coerce him into disposing of Basil’s dead body, one wonders if Dorian threatens to reveal scandalous, intimate details of their former relationship.

Who would enjoy reading this book?

If you enjoy suspenseful books with witty banter, this book is for you. Wilde is a master of humor and irony, even in this dark tale. Moreover, this book resonates even today, as queer men continue to worry over aging, seemingly more than straight men do. This is a classic book, and every queer man should read this book.


“Hadrian—life and legacy.” The British Museum, 2017, Accessed 5 Nov. 2018.

Ross, Alex. “How Oscar Wilde Painted Over ‘Dorian Gray.’” The New Yorker, 8 Aug. 2011,, Accessed 4 Nov. 2018.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Kindle ed., Open Road, 2018.

Billy Budd, 1888 (written), 1924 (published posthumously)

Author: Herman Melville

What do we know about the author?

We all wish we knew more about Herman Melville, and especially about the desires of his heart. Herman Melville wrote publicly with effusive praise about his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, leading some to believe that the two were lovers (Stein). However, Melville and Hawthorne were both married to women (Stein). There is no conclusive evidence that the two were indeed lovers (Stein). Admittedly, the letters that Melville wrote to Hawthorne reveal strong feelings for Hawthorne. Curiously, the letters from Hawthorne to Melville are mostly missing (Stein).

What is the plot of this book?

Billy Budd is an extremely handsome British sailor who is chosen to sail aboard a ship called the Indomitable as a foretopman. Billy is very popular among the other sailors. His only apparent flaw is a stutter that arises when Billy gets excited, anxious, or angry. Although the ship’s master-at-arms John Claggart is fairly attractive, he is jealous of Billy’s beauty. Because of his envy, Claggart falsely accuses Billy of trying to incite a mutiny on the ship.

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Herman Melville (Joseph Oriel Eaton / Public domain)

Captain Vere allows Claggart to confront Billy with the accusations, and Vere requests a response from Billy. Out of nervousness and rage, Billy stutters and then delivers a single deadly punch to Claggart. Although Claggart’s murder is an accident, Billy must nevertheless endure a trial aboard the ship. While the court-martial believes in Billy’s innocence, they still decide to hang him to prevent future instances of mutiny.

How is this book queer?

From the opening scenes of this book, Billy Budd vividly describes male beauty. Melville writes that passersby on the dock of the seaport were “arrested by a group of bronzed mariners, man-of-war’s men or merchant sailors in holiday attire ashore on liberty.” This description exemplifies the stereotype of handsome sailors stopping at ports to party and to make love. As he describes the sailors on the dock, he describes a black sailor attired in a way that is stereotypically queer by today’s standards: “The two ends of a gay silk handkerchief thrown loose about the neck danced upon the displayed ebony of his chest; in his ears were big hoops of gold, and a Scotch Highland bonnet with a tartan band set off his shapely head.”

Despite these descriptions of male beauty, the novel focuses on the astounding handsomeness of Billy Budd and the admiring gazes of the men of the Indomitable. In awe of Billy, Lieutenant Ratcliff immediately recruits him without knowing much about him. In fact, Ratcliff is “[p]lump upon Billy at first sight.” Billy also attracts “the Captain’s attention from the first.” Indeed, Captain Vere congratulates, “Lieutenant Ratcliff upon his good fortune in lighting on such a fine specimen of the genus homo, who in the nude might have posed for a statue of young Adam before the Fall.”

In contrast, Claggart’s admiration of Billy’s beauty turns into jealousy and insecurity about his own appearance. Even as Billy’s appearance saddens Claggart, Claggart surreptitiously loves and perhaps desires Billy: “… the melancholy expression would have in it a touch of soft yearning as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban.” Claggart may ultimately strive to ruin Billy because he thinks that he cannot have him. Alternatively, Claggart may want the male gaze to focus on him instead of Billy. Either way, Claggart seems to be a frustrated queer man.

Readers know more about the thoughts and desires of the men aboard the ship than they do about Billy’s state of mind. Billy accepts the adulation, but he does not seem to appreciate the intensity of the men’s admiration or Claggart’s envy. However, Billy’s façade crumbles when Vere’s tender empathy exposes Billy’s vulnerability. Vere tries to calm Billy when Billy stutters in his response to the accusations made against him. The empathy infuriates Billy because the “fatherly” tone touches Billy’s “heart to the quick.” Billy does not seem comfortable with the intimacy of Vere’s empathy. On the Indomitable one cannot conquer the masculine sailor culture of emotional stoicism, even as homoeroticism slyly pervades the gazes and banter. When Vere’s concern for Billy shows a desire for sincere emotional intimacy between men, Billy’s homophobia and assertion for masculine self-sufficiency emerge. As a result, these feelings lead Billy to tragic violence.

Who would enjoy reading this book?

If you are a patient reader, you may enjoy this book. The plot is simple, and most of the text addresses descriptions of setting and characters. In true Melville style, the pace is plodding, and the sentences are very long. You will definitely enjoy this book if you enjoy contemplating the psychology of men and homoerotic subtext.


Melville, Herman. Billy Budd. Kindle ed., Plain Label Books, 2018.

Stein, Jordan A. “History’s Dick Jokes: On Melville and Hawthorne.” Los Angeles Review of Books, 15 Dec. 2015, Accessed 29 Oct. 2018.

Joseph and His Friend: A Story of Pennsylvania (1870)

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”).

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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, 2017. Kindle ed. Project Gutenberg,

“That’s So Gay: Out Early America (Men Together).” The Library Company of Philadelphia, 2015, Accessed 14 Oct. 2018.

Moby Dick (1851)

Author: Herman Melville

What is the connection between the author and the queer community?

According to the Amazon Classics kindle version of this book, Herman Melville was born in New York City in 1819. He came from a modest background, and he had little formal education. In addition to working as a schoolteacher, he was a sailor on a whaling ship. Eventually, he began writing, but his novels were not popular when they were published. He managed to make money from his short stories, but he was not widely known during his life.

Melville dedicates Moby Dick to famous author Nathaniel Hawthorne: “In token of my admiration for his genius, this book is inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne.” The two authors wrote many letters to each other, and Melville even moved to Hawthorne’s neighborhood to be closer to him (McCrum). It is not known if Hawthorne and Melville were friends or lovers.

Herman Melville (Unknown photographer / Public domain)

What is the plot of this book?

Ishmael is a sailor who seeks adventure on a whaling ship. The book follows his journey from New York to Massachusetts, where he boards the Pequod as a sailor. Before leaving, he meets Queequeg, a harpooneer from the Pacific Islands, who also boards the Pequod. Once on the ship, the crew discovers that Captain Ahab is on a mission for vengeance. Ahab is determined to hunt and kill Moby Dick. This great white whale ripped off Ahab’s leg on a previous voyage, and, as a result, Ahab walks on an ivory leg. Ahab offers a gold coin to the person that finds Moby Dick. For the rest of the book, the crew searches far and wide for the whale, encountering several ships along the way. As Ishmael recounts the events of the voyage, he goes into great detail about everything one could possibly want to know about whales.

Eventually, Captain Ahab finds Moby Dick, and he keeps his own gold coin. After several attempts, Ahab manages to stab Moby Dick, but the whale drags Ahab out of his boat and into the distance. Among the turmoil of hunting Moby Dick, the whale manages to demolish the Pequod and all of its boats. The only survivor is Ishmael. Ishmael floats away on a coffin that was originally constructed for Queequeg when he became very ill. Another ship finds and rescues Ishmael.

How is this book queer?

This book is queer in so many ways. The words “queer” and “gay” appear frequently throughout the novel, although these words had different meanings in the nineteenth century. The language itself is at many points extremely suggestive, but the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg is overtly queer.

When Ishmael arrives in Massachusetts, Ishmael finds a bed in which to sleep at an inn. However, the landlord informs Ishmael that he must share a bed with another man, as the inn is completely booked. Initially, Ishmael objects vehemently to the idea of sharing a bed. Once he discovers that his bedmate is Queequeg, a menacing, huge, dark, tattooed “cannibal” who wields sharp weapons, Ishmael is intimidated.

However, Queequeg is surprisingly willing to share his bed. Ishmael suddenly sees Queequeg as a “clean, comely looking cannibal.” At first, the two bedmates keep their distance from each other. By the morning the situation is much different: “… I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.” Queequeg fascinates Ishmael: “… I began to feel myself mysteriously drawn towards him. And those same things that would have repelled most others, they were the very magnets that thus drew me.” Queequeg is the brooding bad boy, and Ishmael is the smitten schoolboy.

The following night Queequeg looks “pleased” that he will again share a bed with Ishmael. Queequeg touches Ishmael around the waist, and Ishmael concludes that they are “married.” Later, Ishmael kisses Queequeg’s nose, and they undress before going to bed again. Throwing caution to the wind, Queequeg comfortably tosses his leg over Ishmael’s leg.

However, their relationship is not just physical. They talk in bed like a married couple. When Queequeg fasts and maintains a vow of silence to honor his religion, Ishmael becomes very concerned about Queequeg’s wellbeing. Much later on the Pequod, Ishmael declares that Queequeg will be the executor of his will. When Queequeg attends to a whale carcass outside the ship, Ishmael remains in the ship tied to Queequeg with a rope. Ishmael is Queequeg’s literal anchor.

Nevertheless, after the Pequod sets sail, the narrative rarely mentions encounters between Ishmael and Queequeg. This is so frustrating! When Queequeg becomes ill, Ishmael seems mildly sad, but the details are scant. The reader yearns for Ishmael to prostrate before Queequeg’s ailing body with grief and melancholy. That did not happen. Moreover, Ishmael and Queequeg fade into the background as the obsession with whales and Captain Ahab’s lust for whale murder dominate the story.

Who would enjoy reading this book?

If you are miraculously patient and you have an intense interest in whales, this book is for you. Not much happens in this book, but the book is quite long. If that is fine for you, enjoy! Some people, including me, find this book frustrating to read because the pace is very plodding and Melville writes on many tangents, many involving minutiae about whales. Melville writes in long sentences, which can be difficult to follow. If you are only interested in the queer aspects of this book, stop reading after the Pequod sets sail.


McCrum, Robert. “Herman Melville, the Last Great Enigma of American Literature.” The Guardian, 30 Jan. 2011, Accessed 15 Oct. 2018.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. Kindle ed., AmazonClassics, 2018.

Year in Arcadia: A Shepherd’s Calendar (1805)

Author: Duke August von Sachsen-Gotha (translation and introduction by Carl Skoggard)

What is the connection between the author and the queer community?

As the brilliant translator Carl Skoggard explains in the Introduction, Duke August von Sachsen-Gotha was a remarkable, eccentric person who did not abide by traditional gender norms. To learn more about the duke, I recommend reading Skoggard’s introduction. According to Skoggard, the character of Alethophone, a prophetess, is really a representation of the duke in drag.

File:Ludwig Doell - Porträt des Herzogs August von Sachsen-Gotha-Altenburg.jpg

Duke August von Sachsen-Gotha (Ludwig Döll / Public domain)

What is the plot of this book?

As the title suggests, the story takes place in Arcadia, the region of Greece, in the country’s ancient glory days. In this idyllic and pastoral setting, young shepherds and shepherdesses pursue love with great success. The book is a series of interwoven episodes about love among shepherds and shepherdesses in ancient Arcadia. Nevertheless, the queer love story stands out, while the other stories falter. Beautiful Julanthiskos pines for the gorgeous Alexis. The two young men flirt with each other, but nothing initially results from this flirtation.

Julanthiskos is smitten with Alexis, but Alexis is coy. Julanthiskos becomes heartbroken when he believes that Alexis spurns him. At this time of crisis, the prophetess Alethophone makes a grand entrance and divines the futures of the young shepherds, including Julanthiskos. Although her prophecy is vague, she advises Julanthiskos to have faith that his love will come to fruition.

Alexis becomes trapped on a cliff after he loses his companions in the rough terrain of the mountains. After slaying a beast on the cliff, Alexis is injured and in great peril. Meanwhile, Julanthiskos sacrifices his necklace to the god Hermes, and Hermes in return leads him to the cliff where Alexis is trapped. Julanthiskos effortlessly traverses the rough terrain and miraculously leaps over a chasm to rescue Alexis. Julanthiskos’s steadfast commitment to Alexis wins him over: “You softened my heart through faithfulness.”

How is this book queer?

This book was the first novel (in its modern form) to include an explicitly queer male love story. Ancient narratives like Satyricon addressed male same-sex desire, but these stories are problematic because they portray queer encounters that involve teenage boys in positions of slavery. In addition, numerous works such as The Tale of Genji and Father Goriot only suggest or obliquely mention in passing that a male character may have same-sex desires. By contrast, Year in Arcadia is refreshingly and unmistakably queer.

The two main characters are romantic men indeed. Despite the author’s repeated focus on the great physical beauty of both Julanthiskos and Alexis, the commitment of the former and the vulnerability of the latter stand out as their greatest strengths.

Indeed, the loyalty of Julanthiskos is clear throughout the narrative, especially in contrast to the infidelity of his brother Barys. Serving as a symbol of male heterosexuality, Barys drinks a lot, he parties, and he makes love to a lot of women. He likes to hunt. We get it. He is the typical “manly” man. In fact, the other female characters remark on the difference between Barys and Julanthiskos. When one female character shows frustration with the infidelity of men, another female character interjects that not all men are this way. In fact, Julanthiskos is extremely committed and reliable.

Equating fidelity with sexual orientation is not fair or accurate. Nevertheless, the overwhelmingly positive portrayal of the main queer character and the jocular critique of the straight male character do not dominate the narrative. Although Barys may not be completely loyal to women, he is not a homophobe. He shows concern when his brother is heartbroken over Alexis, for example. The reader has clearly entered a world where everyone, including the virile heterosexual character, accepts and supports love between men.

It is easy to support love between men when the queer men are gorgeous. The author emphasizes the physical beauty of Julanthiskos and Alexis, largely through their admirers. For example, a female character dreams about Julanthiskos being naked. The female characters fawn over both Julanthiskos and Alexis. Perhaps the author chooses these female reactions to demonstrate that these two men are clearly queer and lack interest in women who throw themselves at them. The words and actions of these women frequently made one want to groan. Nevertheless, these men are not portrayed as campy, simplistic cartoons, as has been the tendency in media portrayals for a long time. These queer men are raw, passionate, and beautiful.

Who would enjoy reading this book?

If you are interested in ancient Greece and queer male romance, this book is for you. Although the narrative was not thrilling, this is a sweet, simple book to enjoy in an afternoon. Most impressive is the duke’s unabashed portrayal of queer male love in a time when other authors only suggested that their characters were queer.


von Sachsen-Gotha, August. Year in Arcadia: A Shepherd’s Calendar. Translated by Carl Skoggard, Tropen Verlag, 1999.