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.

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