Thursday, November 27, 2008

Stoddard & Whitman

In 1867, the twenty-four year old self-described “boy poet” of San Francisco, Charles Warren Stoddard, had his first book published. It was a slim volume of forty-five poems, underwritten by subscription, and published by Anton Roman. Amid mixed reviews and anxious to garner approval and autographs for his growing collection, the young Stoddard sent his book out to leading literary figures of the day including Walt Whitman. Just the year before Stoddard had written, “I have been reading Walt Whitman and him I thought a fool––and him I am growing to glorify. Who shall say we are not all babes and fools; and that this one and the other one who are declared gross and rude––because their eyes see all things clearly and their lips speak out––who shall say they are not prince and king among us––and shall by and by shine brightly and be understood.” Apparently Whitman did not feel Stoddard saw or spoke things clearly, for he did not respond.

In October 1868, after a year of trying to recover emotionally from the critical failure of his volume of poetry, Stoddard decided to return to the Hawaiian Islands. He had spent a glorious six months there in 1864 recovering from a “nervous disorder.” The twenty-one year old made fast friends with the thirty-eight year old manager of the Royal Hawaiian Theater, Charles Derby, and also discovered the delights to be found with naked native boys.

On 2 March 1869 Stoddard wrote once again to Walt Whitman from Hawaii. This time Whitman did respond. Stoddard wrote:
May I quote you a couplet from your Leaves of Grass? “Stranger! if you, passing, meet me, and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you?”
I am the stranger who, passing, desires to speak to you. Once before I have done so offering you a few feeble verses. I don’t wonder you did not reply to them. Now my voice is stronger. I ask––why will you not speak to me?

So fortunate to be traveling in these very interesting Islands I have done wonders in my intercourse with these natives. For the first time I act as my nature prompts me. I would not answer in America, as a general principle,––not even in California, where men are tolerably bold. This is my mode of life.

Stoddard now spoke to Whitman in Whitman’s own language; he told Whitman that he understood more now, “Now my voice is stronger. . . For the first time I act as my nature prompts me.” Stoddard had come to fully understand the meaning of Whitman’s language, that Whitman speaks not only to Stoddard but to all men-loving men, all “Strangers” to whom he desired to speak.

I mark one, a lad of eighteen or twenty years, who is regarding me. I call him to me, ask his name, giving mine in return. He speaks it over and over, manipulating my body unconsciously, as it were, with bountiful and unconstrained love. I go to his grass house, eat with him his simple food, sleep with him upon his mats, and at night sometimes waken to find him watching me with earnest, patient looks, his arm over my breast and around me. In the morning he hates to have me go. I hate as much to leave him. . . .

You will easily imagine, my dear sir, how delightful I find this life. I read your Poems with a new spirit, to understand them as few may be able to. And I wish more than ever that I might possess a few lines from your pen. I want your personal magnetism to quicken mine. How else shall I have it? . . .

In “speaking” to Whitman, Stoddard relayed his erotic encounter in Hawaii. A lad of eighteen who manipulated Stoddard’s body, whom he spent the night with wrapped in his arms. Stoddard then told Whitman that he knew Whitman understood how much Stoddard loved being there. Stoddard was telling Whitman that he knew that, like himself, Whitman was also a lover of men. Stoddard’s phrasing of his request for a few lines from Whitman’s pen, “I want your personal magnetism to quicken mine,” has a sexual feeling; as though an exchange of literary lines could be like an exchange of bodily fluids. Indeed, how else would Stoddard have it?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Charles Warren Stoddard, Ambrose Bierce and the Taxonomy of Desire

When Charles Warren Stoddard arrived in London on 13 October 1873 to begin his new career as roving reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, he received a letter from his friend Ambrose Bierce who was in Paris for a month to escape the London weather. In his letter Bierce implored his friend to be careful, “You will, by the way, be under a microscope here, your lightest word and most careless action noted down, and commented on by men who cannot understand how a person of individuality in thought and conduct can be other than a very bad man. . . . Walk, therefore, circumspectly . . . avoid any appearance of eccentricity.” What Bierce had learned from his publishing and newspaper friends in London was that homosexuality was something that people went to prison for in England. He did not want such a fate to befall Stoddard.

Bierce and Stoddard had been friends in San Francisco since 1868, where they discovered a shared fondness for getting drunk. Following Stoddard’s arrival in London, he and Bierce maintained a steady correspondence through the fall of 1875. At one point Bierce expressed a wish for Stoddard to remain in London, as Stoddard had been on an extended trip throughout Europe and now hinted at going to Ireland. Bierce even offered Stoddard a small loan when he learned he was “between remittances.”

These were two men who were fond of each other; enough so as to carry on a regular correspondence, worry when a letter was not forthcoming, and offer assistance to each other. Once Bierce left London and returned to America Stoddard remained on tour in Europe and the Middle East. Their paths would not cross again until the fall of 1878, by which time Bierce and Stoddard abhorred each other. What had precipitated such a dramatic shift in feeling? Letters which Bierce exchanged with a new protégé, George Sterling, after Stoddard’s death reveal the real reason. Bierce wrote, “I did not care for him––my objection to him was the same as yours––he was not content with the way that God had sexed him.” Bierce evidently had not felt that way on 13 October 1873 when he expressed to Stoddard via his letter from Paris how men in London could not "understand how a person of individuality in thought and conduct c[ould] be other than a very bad man.” Bierce had been aware of Stoddard’s predilections, was friend enough to warn Stoddard of what he perceived as the danger London presented, and continued to carry on a relationship.

What sheds light on Bierce’s shift in attitude is an exchange from George Sterling concerning their mutual disgust for Stoddard. In a letter to Bierce, Sterling wrote “I’d not seen him for three months before his death, as he was a case of inversion of sex, and it gave me the “jims” being with him after I’d found that out.” Inversion was one of many competing nineteenth century medical terms attempting to form a proper classification for what later became known as homosexuality. Homosexual, itself a medical term coined in 1870 by Carl Westphal’s article on “contrary sexual sensations,” represents the creation of a category, a type, a species, where before had only existed a catalogue of forbidden acts, a temporary aberration. The nineteenth century fascination with the body and attempts at scientific classification and definition by type grew out of western colonial needs to define white, European, male superiority as a way of rationalizing oppression, exploitation, and enslavement of those who were seen as different or weaker. So it was Sterling’s (and Bierce’s) perception of Stoddard as a type, a species, a “case” so different from themselves as to illicit disgust and revulsion.

In 1873 Bierce and Stoddard were friends. Bierce was warning Stoddard that he might be seen as a “bad man” because of his “individuality [of] thought and conduct.” It is evident that Bierce knew what Stoddard did and what the legal ramifications for those acts were, but by 1878 Bierce found Stoddard himself abhorrent. Stoddard had not changed. What had changed were the ways in which masculinity itself was defined and categorized, the ways in which certain behaviors were assigned classifications linking them not only to perversion but a perversion which came from within the body, a physical aberration, a sickness, a plague. I believe we can see the effects this taxonomy of desire had on the nineteenth century male social sphere in the changing dynamics in the relationships between Charles Warren Stoddard and Ambrose Bierce as well as Stoddard's relationship with various other men. We may also see, reflected in his writing, how this change affected Stoddard.

Today is twenty-one years of domestic bliss.

I love him so much, my life would be so empty without him.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

This Is How I Feel

I worked today, served breakfast to folks headed to and coming back from the rally at city hall, wishing I could have joined. It was an exceptionally fine day in SF, perfect for naked protesting. Alas, but not for me. Was anyone naked at the protest? I saw one gentleman wearing a tiny black posing thong and a cowboy hat on Castro Street as I walked home after my day's toil. I stopped to tell him how much I appreciated seeing him around. He said he had been at the rally wearing his itsy-bitsy costume!

I've been thinking a lot about the aftermath of this election, trying to reconcile my ambivalence with my sense of outrage. I do not believe in special rights for married people. I think government sanctioned marriage creates an institution which privileges a group of people; those who are able to take advantage of that institution and its specific rights which are not available to everyone. And everyone is not able to join that institution, either because they can not find a partner, choose not to, or are in relationships which do not fit the definition prescribed by the state. In that sense, when I see signs saying "Equality For All," I do not buy the argument--do not want to be a part of that movement--because it is a lie. It is NOT equality for all, it is only about being added to the list of people who are privileged with the rights which the institution of marriage affords.

However, I do not believe it is okay to change the constitution to disadvantage one group of people. What is next, shall we vote to rewrite the constitution to not allow blond people the right to vote? Of course not. This is about bigotry and homophobia, which we must fight. But do not tell me it is about equality, it is not.

Now get out there and make some noise! And a big thanks to everyone who did just that today.