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LHMP #406 Castiglia 2014 Same-Sex Friendships and the Rise of Modern Sexualities

Full citation: 

Castiglia, Christopher. 2014. “Same-Sex Friendships and the Rise of Modern Sexualities” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles meant as a critical reference work on literature across time and space that might be considered “gay and lesbian literature.” Only articles with lesbian-relevant content will be blogged in detail.

Chapter 16 - Same-Sex Friendships and the Rise of Modern Sexualities

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The article begins by tackling the complicated question of the correspondence between 19th-century, intensely affectionate, same-sex friendships and current understandings of same-sex desire. Based on the emotional language (and domestic arrangements) of many 19th-century, same-sex pairs, the urge to identify these feelings and people as “homosexual” is strong. And (the question I always want to ask.) does it matter whether we can clearly categorize people in this way? As an article about literature, Castiglia focuses on authors, and how they expressed the range of intimate feelings – including love, sex, romance, friendship – in their writings. Is it correct – as Foucault asserts – to claim that such people cannot be considered “homosexual” until that category was invented by late 19th century, sexologists and promulgated into general knowledge? Or is it reasonable to see the range of earlier homoerotic experiences as representing a cultural phenomenon, one that can reasonably be labeled “queer” in modern parlance?

The article notes Smith-Rosenberg’s study of how women’s intimacies were accepted and integrated with marital expectations. In contrast, men’s same-sex intimate friendships went through a more drastic revision from the unselfconscious romanticism of the early 19th century (often expressed in terms of intellectual and emotional closeness, rather than sensuality) to the self-conscious anxiety around male-male relations, introduced later in the century.

One feature of these romantic friendships was the potential for feelings of loss and disappointment when social forces interfered with them. Emily Dickinson’s longing letters to Susan Gilbert are offered as an illustrative example.

The next section of the article looks at male cross-racial intimate friendships and the complex dynamics that race added to the mix. In literary examples, these cross-racial relations often depict the racialized character as ultimately harmed within the relationship, if only by the careless ignorance of the white character, although there are counterexamples. I the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby Dick is examined. The intersection of m/m friendships in life and literature for Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman is explored.

Another, darker view of f/f, romantic friendship is explored in Margaret Sweat’s novel Ethel’s Love Life, in the form of letters from a woman to her male fiancé, which brings an element of voyeurism to the table.

The article concludes with an examination of the transformation of romantic friendships on an individual level, to a subculture of same-sex desire in the writings of Theodore Winthrop.

Time period: 

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