Joseph and His Friend, originally published in 1870 by Bayard Taylor, tells the story of the handsome, twenty-two-year-old country farmer Joseph Asten, set in 1867-8 Pennsylvania. The title character, like many a man before him (or since), feels himself to be “different;” he broods because love must be “hidden as if it were a reproach; friendship watched; lest it express its warmth too frankly…” with only one road available to him “—that leading to the love of woman.” Succumbing to societal pressure, he marries the thirty-year-old Julia Blessing, a manipulative, worldly woman from the city. While on the train back from the city after meeting his prospective in-laws, Joseph makes the acquaintance of Philip Held, a twenty-eight-year-old with “all the charm of early manhood:” golden hair, gray eyes, and moustache over a full mouth. As Joseph gazes at Philip’s beauty, Philip gazes back, with a look that responds, “We are men, let us know each other!” (Taylor notes that this sort of look “is alas! too rare in this world.”) A train wreck lands Joseph in Philip’s arms (literally) and the two men discover that they are to be neighbors. The night before his wedding, Joseph stays with Philip, who declares to him that “a man’s perfect friendship is rarer than a woman’s love,” and that moreover he can be “nearer than a brother. I know that I am in your heart as you are in mine.” Joseph’s marriage to Julia quickly deteriorates, as her duplicity becomes apparent; Joseph finds himself drawn more and more to Philip, but even after his marriage ends, his love for Philip is never depicted physically, but rather remains brotherly. The novel ends on a jarring note, implying that Joseph has begun courting Philip’s sister Madeline, and may eventually marry her.
Fields begins her magisterial tome with a short discussion as to whether Joseph and His Friend is truly the earliest American Gay novel; she then alternates each chapter of Taylor’s original novel with supplementary material about such topics as the author himself, the man who inspired the novel (Fitz-Greene Halleck), their connections to the better-known literary figures of Walt Whitman, Bram Stoker, and Oscar Wilde, as well as discussions about historical influences, e.g., the American Civil War, the Lincoln presidency, arsenic as a cosmetic, etc. Some readers may be put off by this format; I recommend focusing on reading the text of the novel first, then returning to the background material, as I did. Additionally, Fields includes over a hundred pages of accompanying primary sources as appendices: poems by Taylor, Halleck, and Whitman (including a huge extract of Leaves of Grass); reviews; letters by Whitman, Stoker, Wilde, and others; even a poem by Abraham Lincoln extolling same-sex marriage. (Full disclosure: as a former academic, I am a sucker for any kind of scholarly apparatus, but even I did not read through all of the appendices, except for Lincoln’s poem.)
So how does Joseph and His Friend hold up after all this time? I wondered as I began reading, and I found the plot compelling enough to finish the novel in a couple of sittings. I found the elevated tone of the dialogue entertaining in its own right (while simultaneously doubting that nineteenth-century Americans really spoke in such a manner, even the educated class). Probably the greatest obstacle to a modern reader is the opaque nature of the novel: as risqué as the quotes above may have seemed to the nineteenth-century reader, most twenty-first century readers might question whether Joseph and Philip are anything more than friends, especially if they are aware of the nature of friendship among men in earlier historical eras. (They embrace on page 218, and kiss on page 221 of Fields’ edition, but otherwise do not consummate their passion for one another.) Still, whether or not Joseph and His Friend is the first American Gay novel (it was published a year after the first appearance of the word homosexual in print by Karl-Maria Kertbeny), it is an important artifact in Gay literary history, and Fields is to be commended for retrieving it from obscurity and providing us the tools to enjoy it in its proper context.
Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske