Male romantic friendships in art and life
In my sixth year out of the closet, old stories of chaste but intense male friendships became my new dirty secret. Under my comforter, I snuck in their quiet tales about caring for their best buds. They hugged. They shared beds. Sometimes they shed tears. Every time I opened Grindr to start conversations with guys my own age, I’d end up abandoning these attempts and disappearing instead into the late-nineteenth-century short stories of gentle renegades from Missouri or the flirty letters of antebellum South Carolinians who called each other “bedfellows.”
At a moment when sodomy was a felony in every U.S. state, when the word homosexuality hadn’t yet entered the English language, novels and stories about men exploring intimacy with each other abounded: Bret Harte’s “Tennessee’s Partner” (1869), James Lane Allen’s “Two Gentlemen of Kentucky” (1888), Bayard Taylor’s Joseph and His Friend (1870), Frederick Wadsworth Loring’s Two College Friends (1871). These fictional portraits of male comradeship and attachment reflected a social reality: in the nineteenth century, it was common for men to forge romantic friendships—fervid, life-defining connections—with other men. Male romantic friends sometimes expressed their outpouring of emotion through light physical touching and gentle kissing, but, in a culture lacking the terms and concepts of heterosexuality and homosexuality, these gestures weren’t considered at odds with their marriages and domestic lives nor were they seen as challenges to masculinity. Men publicly cultivated romantic friendships alongside their erotic relationships with women.
Romantic male friendship was in no way limited to Southern life and culture. It suffused the inner lives of men across the country, from Abraham Lincoln, who shared a bed with his best friend, Joshua, for four years when they lived together in Springfield, Illinois, to middle- and working-class friends in nineteenth-century New England. In 1832, J. Foster Beal, a Boston box-factory worker in his early twenties, bemoaned the time he’d have to spend away from his romantic friend: “can not forget those happy hours [th]at we spent at G. Newcombs and the evening walks; but we are deprived of that privilege now we are separated for a time we cannot tel[l] how long perhaps before our eyes behold each other in this world.” Striking here is the way he uses the language of heartache and languishment to express a separation between friends.
I pored over these fictional texts and archival letters with the shame and ecstasy of a closeted, confused middle-schooler discovering porn. I felt naughty imbibing all this nonerotic intimacy. There was something strange, almost transgressive about the closeness between these men: their homosocial bonding transcended the realm of friendship while their ways of expressing love only approached the sexual. At once captivated and scandalized by romantic friendship, I decided I had to keep my reading private. I was an out man, but these portraits of sweet male friendships drove me back to secrecy.
In Joseph and His Friend, Joseph goes so far as to kiss his friend: “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.” The love these men have for each other and their ways of expressing it exist outside of the categories we have today for delineating desire and identity, outside of friendship and romance, outside of homo and hetero. This is what makes romantic friendship so deeply queer, so maddeningly, delightfully hard for twenty-first-century readers to define.
That indefinable intimacy had become a part of my own life. For all their peculiarity and temporal distance, these narratives were startlingly familiar to me. These texts felt so immediately unnerving, overwhelming, and gripping because I was part of their transgressions: for three years, I’d been embroiled in a romantic friendship of my own.
We were technically grown men, but Luke Henry and I had the eternal fun of twelve-year-old boys. As English PhD students, we were in our own kind of middle school for would-be adults, united by, among other things, our shared desire to avoid the responsibilities of real life and burrow ourselves in pockets of literary history. We’d built an immediate, all-consuming bond, despite our wild differences. Luke Henry smelled like Old Spice and wore down vests and khakis. He used to play rugby and had a fiancée back in Tennessee he was going to marry at the end of that spring. I loved his reassuring drawl, his cool blue eyes, his soft, husky frame. Luke Henry wore ratty boat shoes and polos, read Renaissance poetry—I wore tight bright t-shirts, blasted Britney Spears, and tried desperately to hide my harsh Long Island accent. We went on to share everything with each other: his worries over his dad’s impending heart surgery, my awkwardness after coming out, his decision to stop playing rugby in college, my secret writing projects. My apartment became our haven, where he’d often spend the night.
But we didn’t touch each other. Although our friendship felt impassioned, my desire for him wasn’t exactly sexual. I didn’t know what my desire was or how to describe it. I was alternately ecstatic and bewildered by my own ecstasy: what was I really feeling and why was this so unlike anything I’d ever felt or seen represented anywhere before? If I was gay, why wasn’t I seeking out relationships with other gay men? Why did I prefer non-physical intimacy with a straight man to sex with my own kind? It wasn’t until encountering these uncannily familiar historical texts that I realized what we had was something like romantic friendship.
Joseph and Philip, the protagonists of Joseph and His Friend, write letters to each other in lavish exclamations: “[P]arted as we are, I see our souls lie open to each other in equal light and warmth, and feel that the way to God lies through the love of man,” Philip writes.
Other times, though, the language of manly love is hard and tough, and we feel its sentiment in the unspoken. In Bret Harte’s short story “Tennessee’s Partner,” the romantic friend of reckless gambler Tennessee offers a matter-of-fact testimony when asked to defend his character to a judge:
I come yar as Tennessee’s pardner, knowing him nigh on four year, off and on, wet and dry, in luck and out o’ luck. His ways ain’t allers my ways, but thar ain’t any p’ints in that young man, thar ain’t any liveliness as he’s been up to, as I don’t know. And you sez to me, sez you . . . “Do you know anything in his behalf?” and I sez to you, sez I, . . . “What should a man know of his pardner?”
It is not until later, after Tennessee’s partner buries the body of his hanged friend, that we see the heart-stopping love he had for his mate: “[F]rom that day his rude health and great strength seemed visibly to decline; and when the rainy season fairly set in, and the tiny grass-blades were beginning to peep from the rocky mound above Tennessee’s grave, he took to his bed.” Tennessee’s partner finally surrenders himself in the midst of a terrible storm: in death they reunite. Harte tells the story of surly frontier besties in the hushed language of inarticulate but star-crossed lovers. Romantic friendship can be exultant or quiet. It can also be tragic.
I discovered these texts just at the moment when it felt like that tragedy was about to hit me. Luke Henry and I were attached at the hip, yet in three months, our bond would be severed for good. I knew that as soon as he married his fiancée and she joined him in Michigan, he wouldn’t be able to spend nights at my place the way he did now, that our closeness would change forever. Eventually, his plans would lead him and his wife back to Tennessee to start a family. I knew, in that lifestyle, there was no room for our all-consuming brotherhood.
Everything about my reading and living felt belated. I’d missed by one hundred fifty years the cultural context that somehow explained my intimacy with Luke Henry better than I could, and my education in nineteenth-century romantic friendship came too late. It wasn’t until three years after meeting Luke Henry, right before his wedding, that I first became aware that there was a tradition for our form of companionship. It was my final semester of coursework, and I’d enrolled in a seminar on the history of male romantic friendship, a class that seemed designed for my inner life.
I learned that, in the nineteenth century, many men continued their companionships after marriage. For men like William Wirt and Dabney Carr, both part of a circle of ten nineteenth-century Virginian lawyers who carried on correspondences that professed their love, the two forms of intimacy were not mutually exclusive. “To be sure we are both married—but is that any reason why we should cease to love each other?” Wirt wrote to Carr.
Whereas the kinds of male romantic friendship prevalent in the northern United States, especially New England, were often limited to youth, the particular Southern strand of romantic friendship tended to last much longer, throughout the entire lives of men. For some Southern men, romantic friendships came from a practical need to create professional networks that didn’t otherwise exist. Lawyers and other kinds of upper-middle-class white bureaucrats, though affluent, were somewhat alienated from the elite circles of agrarian patriarchy, and so they developed very close relationships with peers in their positions. In these spheres of friendship, men offered counsel and encouragement to their colleagues at crucial times in their careers.
What often started as a kind of professional bonding became an intense emotional connection. These men voiced their deeper level of familiarity, warmth, and support in gushing letters exchanged over decades and regularly planned long stays at each other’s homes. While nineteenth-century codes of Southern masculinity generally celebrated imperturbability coupled with an honorable combativeness in the face of any threats to family or property, these friendships suggest a more expansive kind of virility, between men, that embraced empathy and tenderness. “I look to you as one of those few well-tried and dearly-beloved friends who will often relax my ‘brow of care,’ and checker, with soft and genial light, the dusky path of life,” Wirt wrote to Carr.
During the nineteenth century, the institution of romantic friendship was almost as socially codified as marriage. In the hypnotic images that David Deitcher collects in Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together, 1840–1918, men clasp hands and pose like married couples might today. James Blake talks about the deliberation and ceremony behind choosing his romantic friend as if it were a kind of wedding: “After an acquaintance of nearly three years I have chosen [Wyck] as my friend, and he has reciprocated; May he live long and happy, and may the tie of pure friendship which has been formed between us, never be severed, but by the hand of death . . . ever keep us as we now are in oneness, one life, one interest, one heart, one love.”
I wanted what James and Wyck had. I looked to these nineteenth-century texts for answers. I wanted to know how I could make my own romantic friendship last beyond Luke Henry’s wedding, but at the same time I knew it didn’t stand a chance.
Hopeless and riveted, I beamed, blushed, and squealed as I read these men’s glittery, loving prose, men who married women and who in no way thought of themselves as queer. In a very unexpected way, the pre-gay-liberation U.S. was welcoming to male-male friendships that crossed boundaries twenty-first-century readers would consider undeniably queer. In the absence of language and categories to delineate sexuality, there is a surprising, wonderful fluidity of identity.
A century and a half later, with Luke Henry, I felt part of this fluidity. At the end of our endless nights together, Luke Henry would sleep over at my apartment. I always gave him my bed and took the couch, insisting he was so much bigger that it didn’t seem fair to make him crumple up on the sofa. His taking up my most private space while I lay in the next room epitomized our weird closeness through distance. We were bedfellows who’d never actually slept in the same bed.
I cherished our nonerotic intimacy, but I also wondered, as I threw myself into these texts, if it was actually possible to gain queer self-understanding from men who didn’t think of themselves as queer. Or was my obsession with other people’s romantic friendships—and my romantic friendship—holding me back from my own homosexuality?
My romantic friendship with Luke Henry came out of other people’s unfulfilled desires. Three years before he got married, during our first semester of graduate school, we both found ourselves in a seminar called Theories of Love, covering the highlights of unreciprocated lust in over two thousand years of Western literature, from Plato and Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas and Madame de La Fayette to Proust and Nabokov and Barthes. Many of the texts we read simultaneously luxuriated in and mourned over the illusory quality of their love objects. They recognized the unreal quality of their idealized lovers only to double-down on their desire. They articulated in devastating language the self-defeat of pining for someone who didn’t return their love, or the delusion of love itself as a state of being, but they still couldn’t stop themselves from falling into it.
This backdrop of romance’s impossibility immediately imbued our friendship with an ambiguous intensity. Every Thursday after class, Luke Henry and I would go to happy hour and wouldn’t say goodbye until the next morning.
My specialty was in listening, and his was in going on and on. From my recliner, until the early hours of the morning, he’d hold forth on the diary of the seventeenth-century English teen aristocrat he'd found in the archive or the surprising parallels between Run-DMC and Virgil. In between his lectures, while I played Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream on a loop, we revealed our own dreams and worries and fears and loves. I felt totally understood by my friend in a way I’d never felt before. My apartment became like a treehouse, a hideaway for two boys who’d never have to answer to adulthood.
For my whole life, my closest friends were always women. Growing up, like many gay boys, I felt more comfortable around and understood by girls. I’d had brief, overpowering connections with select boys—connections that were somehow deeper than my relationships with girls, though I could never make sense of their intensity until after they were gone. In high school, there was the flautist who read to me from his grandfather’s old books in his basement and then broke my heart when he got a girlfriend. In college, there was the moody logic student obsessed with Baroque harpsichord music who introduced me to Visconti’s Death in Venice and took my virginity. This was a step up from the flautist: I was surer of my feelings and able to experience them physically with someone who was actually interested in men, but I knew he didn’t share my love, and I wasn’t even sure that I wanted him to. Indeed, part of his—and the flautist’s—allure was that mixture of unavailability and occasional, vaguely reciprocated passion. Still consumed by shame over my sexuality, I denied myself the pleasures I didn’t think I was worthy of. I believed my love for Luke Henry was stronger than my previous loves for the flautist and the logician. And I felt him return that love, during our long walks through the arboretum, our endless happy hours, and especially the three nights a week when our after-class drinking bouts turned into sleepovers.
Our intimacy overwhelmed and confounded me. I couldn’t understand why I was so intent on spending all my time with a man engaged to a woman when I had all the benefits of post-Pride identity available to me, when I should’ve been mature enough to have normal romantic and sexual relationships with other gay men. I feared I was repeating the emotional patterns I still hadn’t gotten past in my adolescence.
In the throes of boyish romance, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to move past adolescence. Even more coddling than my treehouse nights with Luke Henry was the stunted paradise of grad school itself. That, too, was starting to come to an end. The semester I studied romantic friendship was my last semester of coursework. This time, I studied alone. Luke Henry didn’t take the course with me.
The seminar on romantic male friendship was like a sequel to Theories of Love. It taught me that pure platonic love between men was actually possible, just in a completely different time, totally irretrievable to us. The first seminar of my graduate career brought me and Luke Henry together—my final one illuminated our unavoidable separation.
In Loring’s Two College Friends, Ned declares his love for his schoolmate turned romantic friend turned Civil War battle partner Tom after they’re both captured by Stonewall Jackson:
When you get well again, have some memory of my bending over you and saying it, and telling you that I was saying good-by, good-by, good-by! O Tom, my darling! don’t forget it. If you knew how I love you, how I have loved you in all my jealous, morbid moods, in all my exacting selfishness,—O Tom! my darling, my darling! . . . Don’t you remember when we were examined for college together? You sat across the hall. I saw you there; and I wanted to go over and help you. And your picture, Tom, that we quarrelled about,—I have it now, Tom; it will be with me when they bury me.
Finding these texts while I was grappling with Luke Henry’s imminent nuptials and the oncoming end of our romantic friendship, I felt enlightened, enlivened, comforted, validated to know that other men had experienced this mystifying, crushing love I had, yet I also felt strange to be striving for a form of male-male affiliation that occurred in a time before out-and-proud homosexuality, in a context fraught with inequality and repression more toxic than our own. I felt retrograde to be pining for this old-fashioned kind of love. But even more discomfiting and disturbing was what my infatuation with romantic friendship revealed about my repression: I wasn’t just out of touch with post-millennial queerness—I was disconnected from my own identity. I started to see that I was too held back by internalized homophobia to embrace other gay men, even though I was out to my family and friends. Part of my attraction to Luke Henry was his straightness. He was the thing that I could not be myself, and that drew me to him.
What delighted (and unnerved) me most about the nineteenth-century romantic friends was their self-possession. These men were completely attuned to their desires. They articulated their affiliations and emotions, and they spoke them to each other, in the measured tones of loyal bedfellows.
One hundred and fifty years after men had found a structure and vocabulary for sharing their feelings for each other, Luke Henry and I were both inarticulate. We were more like Harte’s taciturn Western mountain boys than the emotive romantics of Two College Friends and Joseph and His Friend or the bosom gentlemen of antebellum Southern society. We never acknowledged our love, maybe because we were too ashamed of it, maybe because our own cultural moment didn’t allow for romantic friendship.
My nineteenth-century pals showed me what I couldn’t articulate to myself: that my desire was bigger than friendship, that my emotions were uncontained by conventional romance, that it was okay to resist categorization. Romantic friendship wasn’t ever really clearly defined. Its pleasures were confusing, challenging, queer.
Romantic friendship wasn’t always easy. It wasn’t always forever.
For the rebels of Harte’s Western pioneer adventure fantasies, manly love ends in death, a trope of early homosexual texts. For the romantic friends in Joseph and His Friend, manly love isn’t fatal, but it’s far from infinite. At the end of novel, Philip comes to the realization that Joseph will likely settle down with a woman—Philip’s sister—and it momentarily disturbs him. The thought is brief but heartbreaking: “Will it take Joseph further from my heart, or bring him nearer? It ought to fill me with perfect joy, yet there is a little sting of pain somewhere. . . . Well, I must be vicariously happy, warmed in my lonely sphere by the far radiation of their nuptial bliss.”
I shared Philip’s vision of a life on the margins. I, too, felt destined to be on the periphery of a man and a woman’s love, but our commonality ends there, for Philip immediately resolves to find a woman who will complete him. His only other option for love is to throw himself into the same institution that will end his romantic friendship: “The world is a failure . . . if there is not now living a noble woman to bless me with her love, strengthen me with her self-sacrifice, purify me with her sweeter and clearer faith! I will wait: but I shall find her!” The dissolution of romantic friendship becomes fuel to marry a woman.
Me, I didn’t want to find someone else. I came to see just how much I wanted to resist institutions themselves. I wanted no part in the milestones of matrimony and child-rearing, the standard trajectory of emotional life. I didn’t want a conventional relationship with another gay man, but in a way, my desire was even queerer. That’s what romantic friendship really taught me: that I didn’t need to make my desire fit a preexisting category even if I still had to work through issues of self-acceptance. My queerness wasn’t just my attraction for men: it was my hunger for nonnormative forms of affiliation with others.
Part of me wished I’d discovered the literature of romantic friendship before I’d fallen in love with Luke Henry. I wouldn’t have stopped myself from loving him if I’d read the ill-fated, wistful end of Joseph and His Friend and all these stories and novels and letters beforehand, though I might’ve been less baffled and shamed about what turned out not to be such uncharted territory.
The other part of me was grateful to meet these texts when I did, the winter I was losing Luke Henry to matrimony. Tennessee and his partner, Joseph and his friend, William and Dabney, Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed—they didn’t cure my sadness. They made me vividly, bracingly aware of my heartache. There was no cure, just a desperate, ferocious desire to read more. It felt appropriate that the second life of a romance born out of textuality was an archive.
During his last week in Ann Arbor as a single man, Luke Henry left his vest in my apartment. He went back to Knoxville before I could give it back to him. For a few nights, I took his vest to bed with me. It became my blanket. I enveloped myself in it, feverishly, dolefully inhaling all its layered notes, the Old Spice, the sweat, the pizza, the woodsy air of the North Carolina cabin where we went for his bachelor party, the beer, the nachos, the fresh air of the arboretum where we used to go birding, the Michigan rain and the Tennessee smoke.
I’d made a wonderful mistake that even two millennia of love theories couldn’t teach me to avoid. I saw the impossibility of romance, the fiction of all love objects, and doubled-down on it.
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