Modern Heteronormative Labels vs. 19th Century Romantic Friendships

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“How shall I resist this temptation to be a little romantic and poetical?” This was written in a letter from Daniel Webster to his close friend from college James Bingham during the nineteenth century. Many historians have termed same-sex relationships like this one as romantic friendships. The terminology, romantic friendship, was invented to talk about the close same-sex relationships of the nineteenth century. But caution should be taken when labeling relationships of the past, whether towards homosexual desires and tendencies or towards heterosexual desires. Labeling these historical relationships places a certain stigma on them, and forces historians to look at them with certain preconceived notions, that could limit a historians understanding of the people and their relationship.

Therefore, modern labels and ideologies should not be imposed on the past without considering the social norms of the time being examined. The historian has to look at the social constructs of the time, both social and cultural, as a key component that shaped relationships in same-sex as well as opposite sex relationships. The historiography of romantic friendships has been greatly impacted by the work of Richard Godbeer and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg. Their writings on same-sex friendships have created a foundation for the historiography of romantic friendships. Smith-Rosenberg talks extensively on the importance of not placing our modern “tendency to view human love and sexuality within a dichotomized universe of deviance and normality” but instead to place the relationship in the historical, social and cultural context of the nineteenth century. Godbeer writes along the same lines as Smith-Rosenberg. He warns against the labeling of historical characters, “remarks such as these point to the danger of generalizing about the trajectory of male friendships.” Amongst the two historians there is an understanding of the dangers of applying modern, heteronormative labels to historical characters.

To understand these romantic same-sex friendships it is important to look at the social norms of 19th Century America, and how the gender spheres impacted the relationships that men and women had with the same sex as well as the opposite sex. Smith-Rosenberg explains how the close female friendships of the nineteenth century were encouraged and grew out of the gender divided society of the 19th century. One of the main reasons for the closeness of same-sex friendships was the way in which the society of the time was divided between a female sphere and a male sphere. By looking at the societal arrangement of the 19th century Smith-Rosenberg has made it clear that “American society was characterized in large part by the rigid gender-role differentiation with the family and with society as a whole, leading to the emotional segregation of women and men.” Because of the way society was categorized into male and female areas, men became close because of their constant contact with each other and women became close because of their constant contact with each other. These separate spheres created close relationships that are different from anything found in today’s culture. Smith-Rosenberg explains that the female closeness was accepted, “within such a world of emotional richness and complexity devotion to and love of other women became a plausible and socially accepted form of human interaction.” These separate spheres of interaction led to an awkwardness between people of opposite genders, “contacts between men and women frequently partook of a formality and stiffness quite alien to twentieth century America.” What Smith-Rosenberg says about women in the 19th century can be applied to male friendships as well, illustrating that these relationships were common and often encouraged by the culture of the time.

Now to look more closely at a couple of examples of romantic friendships in order to better understand why it is important to avoid labeling this type of relationship. From Godbeer’s essay “The Overflowing of Friendship” there is the relationship and correspondence between Daniel Webster and his good friend from college James Bingham. This example is used to look at the language and how it can easily be misconstrued and misinterpreted. Smith-Rosenberg uses many of the correspondence between Mary Hallock Foote and Helena de Kay. Mary Hallock Foote’s autobiography also, touches on her relationship with Helena de Kay and can be used to dispel any hard evidence of a homosexual relationship. Focusing on these two relationships will lead to an understanding of why it is so important to steer away from the modern day dichotomized labels of sexuality.

To begin with, Daniel Webster and his friend from college James Bingham, which according to Godbeer began in their days together at Dartmouth. The language of the letters from Webster to Bingham is very heightened and poetic, even romantic. Webster writes, “At this period of our acquaintance I need not tell you what pleasure I receive from your letters, nor with what exultation my heart glows under the impression that our early congenial attachments will never be sundered.” The language, imagery, and tone used here in Webster’s letter to Bingham is very heightened, beautiful, and even poetic. Smith-Rosenberg points out the difference in language from then to now, blaming “the romantic rhetoric with which the nineteenth century surrounded the concept of friendship” for our misconceptions of their meanings. However, There is nothing in any of the Webster letters that can justify the assumption of homosexual tendencies. While the letter to Bingham is clearly filled with many emotions and feelings of closeness and loss, the letters have a specific type of language unique to this time, but there is nothing outright said that would support any claims that there is homosexual feelings or actions on the part of either Webster or Bingham.

From the other side of the gender lines, the romantic friendship between Mary Hallock Foote and Helena de Kay is a great example of a female relationship from the 19th century. Many of the letters between Mary and Helena have the feel of a more intimate, or even sexual relationship. In one of Mary’s letters to Helena she says, “I loved her as wives do love their husbands” and in another letter to Helena’s husband, “do you know sir, that until you came along I believe that she loved me almost as girls love their lovers. I know I loved her so.” But without being able to ask Mary or Helena their true meaning or looking at the full correspondence over the years between the two women, we, as historians, have to continue to avoid putting a label on their relationship. According to Mary Hallock Foot in her autobiography Helena is her “best friend” and explains how they were a part of each others from girlhood to courtship to marriage to children. Mary simply states “our relationship was on bedrocks by that time…so joined yet so contrasted: our children, our housekeeping problems, the new friends on both sides, our individual hurts and grief’s and our home people’s problems.” As Smith-Rosenberg argues, the social norms or female relationships in nineteenth century America, lend themselves to romantic friendships between women. And as can be seen with Mary and Helena it is never safe to assume that women in nineteenth century America, or any one from any time, was in a homosexual relationship or practiced homosexual acts, if not explicitly said.

Looking into the past is difficult enough as it is, but with the added difficulty of queer theory and attempting to look at the history of sexuality, from the viewpoint of a modern society that is still struggling with modern queer theory and a modern search for the meaning of sexuality, it is nearly impossible to accurately impose sexual identities on historical figures. The characters of the past have no way of telling us how they felt about certain people, and what their preferences were when it came to intimate and personal connections with other people. Additionally, due to variables like the ever-changing meaning of language, the social constructions and expectations of the past and the present, as well as a lack of evidence, historians should steer clear of attempting to place sexual identities or acts on historical figures. There is not enough evidence in the correspondence between romantic friends, both male and female, of the nineteenth century to say whether or not certain relationships could be deemed homosexual or just a close same-sex friendship tied to a hetero-normative lifestyle in a hetero-normative society.

Bibliography/Further Readings

Foote, Mary Hallock Foote. A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West. San Marino: The Huntington Library, 1972: 112.

Godbeer, Richard. “The Overflowing of Friendship.” In American Sexual Histories,edited by Elizabeth Reis, 102-114. Oxford: A John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., Publication, 2012.

Norton, Rictor. “The Search for Cultural Unity.” In The Myth of the Modern Homosexual: Queer History and the Search for Cultural Unity by Rictor Norton, 3-33. London: Cassell, 1998.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America.” Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1, no. 1 (1975): 1-29.

Webster, Daniel. “Early Life.” In Letters of Daniel Webster. Edited by C.H. Van Tyne, 3-30. New York: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1902.

Webster, Daniel. “Letters of Daniel Webster, 1801-05.” In American Sexual Histories. Edited by Elizabeth Reis, 116-121. Oxford: A John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., Publication, 2012.

Weeks, Jeffrey. “The Social Construction of Sexuality.” Excerpted from Sexuality by Jeffrey Weeks. London: Routledge, 1986.