The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Susan Sontag

Am in the midst of reading—no, devouring—Reborn, the first volume of Susan Sontag’s diary. What’s unexpected is how devastatingly charming it is. Her earnestness as a child, her intermittent goofiness as a young adult. Her passion throughout. Sontag at age 14:

I believe, furthermore, that an ideal state . . . should be a strong centralized one with goverment control of public utilities, banks, mines, + transportation and subsidy of the arts, a comfortable minimum wage, support of disabled and aged. State care of pregnant women with no distinction such as legitimate + illegitimate children.

At 16:

With my new eyes I re-survey the life around me. Most particularly I become frightened to realize how close I came to letting myself slide into the academic life. It would have been effortless . . . just keep on making good grades . . . and, at the age of sixty, be ugly and respected and a full professor. Why, I was looking through the English Dept. publications in the library today—long (hundreds of pages) monographs on such subjects as: The Use of “Tu” and “Vous” in Voltaire; the Social Criticism of Fenimore Cooper; A Bibliography of the Writings of Bret Harted in the Magazines + Newspapers of California (1859–1891) . . .

Jesus Christ! What did I almost submit to?!?

At 23:

Tonight David [i.e., David Rieff, her son and the diary’s editor, at the time three years old]—on the dressing table in the bathroom, being prepared for bed by Rose—said: “How do people have two husbands? When one dies?” I answered: “That’s right. If one dies, you can marry again if you want.” To which he answered: “Well then, when Daddy dies I’ll marry you.” I was so startled + delighted that I could only reply: “That’s the nicest thing you ever said to me, David.”

He seemed quite calm, but I was almost in tears . . .

At 25:

Tonight (last night!) at Paul’s place I reely wuz speeking French. For owers ‘n ‘owers, with him and his very sweet parents. What great fun!!

. . . and . . .

I am scared, numbed from the marital wars—that deadly, deadening combat which is the opposite, the antithesis of the sharp painful struggles of lovers. Lovers fight with knives and whips, husbands and wives with poisoned marshmallows, sleeping pills, and wet blankets.

It’s a novel, but better, because it’s all real. She knows herself; she doesn’t know herself. She figures it out; she forgets what she has figured out. All the intellect, all the striving, which seemed so fearful and offputting while Sontag was alive, are now revealed as no more than weapons that she took up because she had to, in order to live as she wanted to live, that is, as an intellectual in a world that did not respect homosexual women. With honesty, which neither her mother nor her husband nor even her lovers commend in her, she takes hold of that Proteus her self and simply keeps her hold on it, until its cascades of change slow and at last it reveals its nature to her. It seems to have been stipulated in the terms of her success that she could never write its story except privately. This is the novel she was willing to give up criticism to write. The trick of it is that in her journal she had already written it.

Later. I’ve finished. I’m bereft. I can’t believe I have to wait another year to read the next volume. I think the following was in the New York Times Magazine excerpt from the diaries a couple of years ago, but it’s still amazing:

My need desire to write is connected with my homosexuality. I need the identity as a weapon, to match the weapon that society has against me.

It doesn’t justify my homosexuality. But it would give me—I feel—a license.

And this, I think, I could have written in my own journal last week:

My “I” is puny, cautious, too sane. Good writers are roaring egotists, even to the point of fatuity. Sane me, critics, correct them—but their sanity is parasitic on the creative faculty of genius.

In Sontag’s honor, I will try to be a little more monstrous.


“The big question about Roderick Hudson,” a friend said to me, before I started reading it, “is, did Henry James have any idea how gay it was.” Now that I’ve finished, I agree that this is a good question.

I had read a fair number of James’s other novels before coming to Roderick Hudson, and in that light, what my friend refers to as its gayness is a bit of a surprise. One hears a lot about the alleged homosexuality of James, but in most of the novels of his that I’ve read, it’s so implicit in his subjectivity as to be beneath notice, unless you’re the sort of person who tags delicacy of perception or subtlety of expression as gay. True, it’s possible to see something not quite heterosexual in the valetudinarian, hands-off policy of Ralph Touchett, or in the refined collecting habits of any number of other characters, but the reader doesn’t sense any deformation in the material because of it. That is, if a character seems a tad gay, it’s perhaps because James wants you to understand that he is a tad gay. It’s plausible that Touchett might be, for example, leaving aside the question of whether he knows it about himself; one may entertain the possibility without having to imagine that James has lied to you about Touchett anywhere along the way. There don’t seem to be any substitutions or rearrangements; James doesn’t seem to try the Albertine strategy, for example, Proust’s trick of turning a man’s male beloved into a female character. The women seem to have been conceived of as women, not as men who have been transposed into women. Where he seems to have worked with material that in its original form involved homosexual desire, he omits but does not distort.

But that’s not the case in Roderick Hudson, and there’s something a little off about it, as a result. In the opening chapters, James drops hints that seem almost lurid. When Rowland Mallet, a well-meaning, somewhat purposeless, thirty-year-old heir, visits Cecilia, the sexy, ironic-voiced, twenty-eight-year-old widow who is his not-by-blood cousin, in Northampton, Massachusetts, she at one point apologizes for the town’s meager social resources by saying, “If I refused last night to show you a pretty girl, I can at least show you a pretty boy,” and then reveals a bronze statuette of a “naked youth drinking from a gourd . . . a loosened fillet of wild flowers about his head.” Rowland likes it an awful lot. It was sculpted, Cecilia reveals, by her friend Roderick Hudson, a twenty-four-year-old law student, who, when he and Rowland meet, explains that the cup in the statue is a symbol of “knowledge, pleasure, experience.” Rowland replies, “Well, he’s guzzling in earnest,” and soon decides that what he will do with his life is take Roderick, whom he considers a “beautiful, supple, restless, bright-eyed animal,” to Italy, so that he can study art and blossom into a sculptor.

And no one bats an eyelash—that’s the first thing that seems false. When, in a similar case, Mrs. Touchett takes Isabel Archer to England, there’s no whiff of scandal: the age difference is much greater, Mrs. Touchett is married, however unhappily, and the two women are related. But the motivation for Rowland to take Roderick abroad seems insufficient, unless one supposes that Rowland has a crush. James immediately quashes that supposition by concocting a female love interest for both Rowland and Roderick—in fact, the same female love interest. The reader is asked to believe that as a consequence of Rowland’s invitation, Roderick suddenly proposes marriage to his distant cousin and longtime housemate Mary Garland, whom Rowland just as suddenly discovers that he’s in love with. On second thought, Roderick’s abrupt proposal isn’t the false point—one can easily imagine that a heterosexual, somewhat egotistic young man, in the face of new and unknown risks, might suddenly grab for security at a woman he has long taken for granted—but Rowland’s abrupt tumble into love definitely is. Or rather, the notion that he is in fact in love is implausible. Where Mary is concerned, James’s narrative doesn’t allow us to see too clearly what’s in Rowland’s mind, but the most perspicuous emotion he seems to have is feeling sorry for her. He seems very badly to want to believe he’s in love with her, but that fish belongs to a different kettle.

In Venice, there’s another lurid touch. Faced with masterpieces by Titian and Veronese, Roderick briefly feels inadequate. Then he and Rowland hire a gondola.

Roderick lay back for a couple of hours watching a brown-breasted gondolier making superb muscular movements, in high relief, against the sky of the Adriatic, and at the end jerked himself up with a violence that nearly swamped the gondola, and declared that the only thing worth living for was to make a colossal bronze and set it aloft in the light of the public square.

The reader fans himself with alarm over such passage, but nothing really comes of them. James seems to have toyed with the notion that something in Roderick’s artistic sensibility might have responded to Rowland’s generosity, but he went no further than toying. That’s fine; there’s no real distortion here. Someone like Roderick probably wouldn’t have responded to someone like Rowland, in the way he might have responded to a gondolier. The trouble is with Mary Garland, and with the conceit, which James sticks to grimly until the end, of Rowland’s love for her. I ended up more or less convinced that James had effected a variation on the Albertine strategy with her. (Spoiler alert: Stop reading now if you don’t want to know how the novel ends.) In other words, I felt that James more or less consciously intended for Rowland’s supposed love for Mary to stand in for something he felt he couldn’t represent, namely, Rowland’s actual love for Roderick.

The conviction seems hard to avoid while reading Roderick and Rowland’s final confrontation. In it, Rowland offers Roderick money, which Roderick resists taking, out of what he calls “brute instinct.” He lashes out at the older man’s generosity, making a strange accusation: “Decidedly there are certain things you know nothing about.” Rowland: “These things—what are they?” Roderick: “They are women, principally, and what relates to women. Women for you, by what I can make out, mean nothing. You have no imagination—no sensibility, nothing to be touched!”

To the anachronistic gay reader, this seems promising. “You are incredibly ungrateful,” Rowland answers. “How do you know whether I have loved or suffered?” he continues, and then goes on to call Roderick an egotist. “You are selfish. . . . You regard other people only as they play into your own hands.” The anachronistic gay reader marvels: Is James headed for the éclaircissement that I think he’s headed for—that of an older gay man about to lose patience with a younger straight one who has taken his favors without returning his affections, and is the older gay man about to discover, to his chagrin, that love doesn’t go by tit-for-tat rules?

The two men continue their accusations and confessions. Roderick reaches the point of realizing that Rowland has been suffering at his hands. “I must have been hideous,” Roderick half-apologizes. “It has been a terrible mistake, then? . . . And all this time, you have been in love? Tell me the woman.”

Rowland felt an immense desire to give him a visible palpable pang. “His name is Roderick Hudson.”

Not, of course, though a rewrite is temptingly easy (“The surprise was great; Roderick coloured as he had never done. ‘Heaven forgive us!’ Rowland observed the ‘us’…”). In James’s novel, Rowland outs himself as a man in love with Roderick’s fiancée. Oh well. The revelation sends Roderick careening to his death, as such revelations generally do in melodrama, and the death doesn’t bring Rowland and Mary together, as such deaths generally don’t in crypto-gay fictions. But wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?

Abolition and gay marriage

Four years ago, I wondered on this blog whether 18th-century abolition causes 21st-century gay marriage. Or, to put it less mystifyingly, and more precisely, I wondered if the order in which states abolished slavery in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries would predict the order in which they instituted gay marriages or civil unions in the late twentieth and early twenty-first. At the time, I only had two data points, Vermont and Massachusetts, but I predicted that New Hampshire would legalize gay unions before New York would, preconceptions about the isle of Manhattan notwithstanding. Today the New Hampshire legislature passed a bill authorizing same-sex unions, which the governor is expected to sign.

Not that I’m the sort to say I told you so or anything. Nonetheless, in triumph, I thought I’d revisit my data. Four years ago I came up with my 18th/19th-century list by ranking the states according to the proportions of slaves to total population reported in the 1790 census. That was laziness on my part; I did it because I didn’t have at hand a list of the years each state abolished slavery. I’m still lazy, but today such a list is readily available, so here’s a comparison based on slightly better 19th-century data and a few more years of 21st-century data: side-by-side tables of states in the order they instituted gay marriage or civil unions (through a court ruling or legislation) and in the order abolished slavery (through a constitutional provision, legislation, or a court ruling):

Advent of gay marriage or civil unions

1999 Vermont
2004 Massachusetts
2005 Connecticut
2006 New Jersey
2007 New Hampshire

Abolition of slavery

1777 Vermont
1780 Pennsylvania
1783 Massachusetts
1783 New Hampshire
1784 Rhode Island
1784 Connecticut
1799 New York
1802 Ohio
1804 New Jersey
1816 Indiana
1818 Illinois

Sources: Human Rights Campaign and Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860, qtd. by Afrolumens Project’s FAQ about slavery in Pennsylvania

As you can see, I went the extra mile and colorized the state names to make it easier to see the pattern. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but I think it’s a pretty striking one. I would have thought that by now the pattern would have been broken by the passage of gay-union laws in states like California, low in the right column not because they abolished slavery later but because they didn’t exist until later. But though California has come close, it hasn’t passed gay civil-union laws yet.

My new prediction, then: gay marriage in Pennsylvania, which looks overdue.

Queer or peculiar?

While I was reading up on Andrew Jackson last month, I stumbled across what sounded like a love story between two men, a story I hadn’t heard before. During the Battle of New Orleans, at the end of the War of 1812, the Jewish merchant and philanthropist Judah Touro was hit in the thigh by a cannonball while on militia duty. Touro had enlisted as a common soldier. When news of his injury reached his friend and fellow merchant Rezin D. Shepherd, who was serving as an aide to a naval commodore, Shepherd reacted dramatically: he left his post, found Touro, put him in a cart, carried him to his house, hired nurses to care for him, and thereby saved his life.

Shepherd’s spontaneous actions were risky. Under Andrew Jackson’s command, soldiers were sometimes shot for leaving their posts without permission. Naturally enough, Touro and Shepherd "were ever afterwards inseparable in this world," according to the 19th-century historian Alexander Walker. When Touro died, he left half his fortune to charity and the rest to Shepherd, between $500,000 and $750,000. That sounds like no more than gratitude, except for a further detail: Walker writes that Touro and Shepherd "lived under the same roof" even before Shepherd saved Touro’s life.

The detail would seem to put Shepherd and Touro’s relationship in a different light. Is there more to the story? Over the past month, when I’ve had a spare moment, I’ve tried to find out a little more about Touro and Shepherd. The short answer: Inconclusive.

Touro never married. I don’t know yet whether Shepherd did, but probably so; he had at least one daughter. It turns out that Touro was rather famous as a philanthropist; he gave money not only for the Bunker Hill Monument but also to Mass General Hospital in Boston and Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, and to churches and synagogues in New Orleans, New York, Newport, and elsewhere. He even left $50,000 to Sir Moses Montefiore for relief of the poor in Jerusalem. And he was almost as famous as an eccentric. Though one of the richest men in America, Touro "usually ate his meals by himself, and . . . resided in cheap boardinghouses until relatively late in life," according to the American National Biography—a description that seems to contradict Walker’s claim that Touro and Shepherd lived together. But the ANB adds, somewhat cryptically, "What has not been learned since [Touro’s] death continues to puzzle scholars."

In 1955, the scholar Bertram Korn argued in the Jewish Quarterly Review that Touro had been praised as a Jewish philanthropist more than he deserved to be. Korn suggested that Touro was in fact guilty of an inexplicable "indifference towards Jewish life" and felt that the credit for Touro’s bequests should actually go to a journalist named Gershom Kursheedt, without whose charm, patience, and persuasive powers, Korn believed, Touro would have left his money only to civic charities. Korn shed no light on Touro’s special bond with Shepherd, but he did quote a number of Kursheedt’s private expressions of frustration with Touro. "You know he is a strange man," Kursheedt confided to a friend, and likened the millionaire to a snail or a crab. "Mr. Shepherd tells me I must be very careful to humor him or in an instant all may be lost."

In the end, I can’t say whether Touro was queer or merely peculiar. A couple of sources relayed a rumor that Touro remained a lifelong bachelor because in youth he had been in love with a cousin, Catherine Hayes, and had never got over his broken heart when their family separated them. But the sources were careful to specify that it was no more than a rumor. Another source adds that "he certainly avoided the society of ladies and was never willing to exchange a word with them." But that doesn’t really tip the scales either; social awkwardness would explain that behavior better than homosexuality would.

Neither new nor rare

Historians have debated at length the question of when certain ideas about homosexuality came into currency. Here’s a piece of evidence, not previously reported to my knowledge:

In the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts on 11 December 1868, a young man named Samuel M. Andrews was tried for murder. He pleaded not guilty by reason of “transitory insanity.” He was driven mad, he said, by Cornelius Holmes’s attempt to have sex with him.

It was a strange, sad case. According to the prosecuting attorney, Cornelius Holmes was not like other men. He was fifty-three years old at the time of his death and weighed 225 pounds. A bachelor, he lived alone in a boarding house. Though he had no occupation, he was said to be worth $20,000. The prosecution claimed that “The only person with whom he was at all intimate was the prisoner,” Andrews, who had killed him. The defense more or less agreed with this characterization of their relationship. Andrews “was almost the first young man Cornelius Holmes had ever met, who had not slurred him, & hooted at him,” Andrews’s attorney said. He added that Holmes “was not an idiot; . . . He was rather slow; played in childhood with children younger than himself.”

How intimate were they? The lawyers tried to bring this out. There was a telling exchange during the examination of a witness named Lysander Bartlett, a ship’s carpenter:

Question. Were Cornelius & Andrews intimate friends?

Witness. Mr. Andrews can tell you better than I can.

Chief Justice. You should not say to counsel that Andrews can tell you that better than I can. It is improper.

Witness. ‘Tis, eh? I knew they were intimate. . .

After Andrews was arrested for the murder, witnesses saw him kiss Holmes’s body.

In court, Andrews had a difficult task: he had to establish the nature of Holmes’s interest in him, and he had to make it sound plausible that he had resisted Holmes’s advances despite their persistence. He didn’t quite manage. He testified that “about nine years ago one stormy evening,” he and Holmes had shared a bed. “After talking awhile he turned towards me, & tried to put a part of his person between my legs, behind. I left the bed.” Though Holmes made other advances, the friendship continued. In fact there were hints that Holmes had thought of leaving his money to Andrews.

The murder came about one day when Holmes beckoned Andrews to follow him off the road and into the forest. Once they were alone, Holmes threw him down, tore open his pantaloons, put his hand in a relevant place, and said, “Now I’m going to have some, this time.” In a panic, Andrews grabbed a stone . . . That, at any rate, is what Andrews claimed in court, though he also claimed, confusedly, that he was “entirely unconscious of what took place.”

In summing up, the defense stressed how common Holmes’s tendency was:

Nor, gentlemen, is this any new crime. Go to our soldiers & sailors, inquire of our naval officers & see whether it is a new crime. The government would have you believe that this is an improbable story, because the crime is rare; gentlemen, this story is more than probable, for it is a crime which has always existed.

The prosecution, on the other hand, stressed how unlikely it was that Andrews would have had to kill Holmes in order to defend himself from rape. “Rape,” the prosecution insisted, wasn’t even the right word; in fact, the proper word didn’t exist, because the thing was impossible. The whole question of sex between men, the prosecution suggested, was probably a red herring: “There was in the present case no adequate evidence of any voluntary acts of indecency between the parties,” the prosecution argued, “but even if such existed, these had no tendency to prove an attempt to commit this act by force.”

In his instructions to the jury, the judge observed that Andrews had taken Holmes’s earlier advances quite calmly and had remained his close friend despite them. Taking the hint, the jury found Andrews guilty of manslaughter, and he was sentenced to twenty years.

(Source: Report of the Trial of Samuel M. Andrews, Indicted for the Murder of Cornelius Holmes, before the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, December 11, 1868, including the Rulings of the Court upon Many Questions of the Law, and a Full Statement of Authorities upon the Subject of Transitory Insanity. By Charles G. Davis, of Counsel for the Prisoner. New York: Hurd & Houghton. Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1869.)