‘Come back to the raft, Huck honey’: Reprise

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Manly LoveManly Love: Romantic Friendship in American Fiction
by Axel Nissen
University of Chicago Press
231 pages, $45.

 

Once upon a time, American men could openly express intense love for each other without shame or self-consciousness, without any sense of being effeminate or unnatural. Such “manly love” did not preclude emotional, sexual, or conjugal relationships with women. This is Axel Nissen’s argument in Manly Love: Romantic Friendship in American Fiction.

Nissen’s study is historical as well as literary. The main sources of information about the love lives of people in the past—court records, medical texts, diaries, and letters—have their limitations. Nissen contends: “If we want to understand what it was like to be a man-loving man in the nineteenth century, we should turn to the fiction of the period.” Fiction was where Victorians explored the questions of love and (up to a point) sexuality. Nissen treats male romantic friendship as his central paradigm, “a pervasive cultural myth” that informs the lives, hopes, and ideals of 19th-century American men.

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