Early Fall: ‘Cracking the Closet’

Published in: September-October 2023 issue.


IN OLDEN TIMES the concept of “the closet” didn’t exist, and the idea of “coming out” had yet to be invented. Nevertheless, starting in the 19th century, a number of artists and writers found ways to “crack the closet” by expressing their sexuality between the lines or in the interstices of their work.

            Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were nonconformists in so many respects; it’s hard not to wonder about their sexual feelings and fantasies. There’s a growing consensus that Thoreau was “queer” in some sense beyond his cabin-dwelling, couch-surfing ways. He left some clues behind in his writings concerning his love of men, including Emerson himself. Over the years, their friendship followed the arc of passionate lovers: effusive declarations followed by jealous fits of pique and, finally, anger over being jilted. Mitchell Santine Gould argues here that part of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” can be read as a manifesto for people to tell the truth about their sexual nature, however unconventional.

            Later in the century, a writer who expressed a surprising curiosity about homosexuality was Stephen Crane, best known for The Red Badge of Courage. William Benemann discusses a number of incidents in which Crane placed himself in the company of New York’s homosexual underground, ostensibly to conduct research for a novel (never written) about a starry-eyed youth who comes to New York and ends up as a street hustler.

            The year 1928 saw the publication of two novels in England that explored the outer limits of gender and sexuality for the time (see Meghan Tibbits-Lamirande’s piece). Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness dealt explicitly with sexual “inversion” and featured a protagonist who might be considered transgender today. The hero in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando starts as a man but becomes a woman early on and stays that way through the multi-century epic. Orlando is, in fact, based on Woolf’s real-life female lover, Vita Sackville-West.

            Moving into the 20th century, Ignacio Darnaude revisits illustrator J. C. Leyendecker, whose work for Ivory Soap and Arrow Collars gave him plenty of opportunities to draw pictures of well-dressed, and at times scantily dressed, American men. There’s always a perfectly innocent explanation for the intimate scenes involving two men at the club or in the locker room, but modern eyes can’t help but detect an undercurrent of desire. Leyendecker was, in fact, a gay man, and the model he used in many of his works was his lover, Charles Beach.

            Playwright Robert Patrick, who passed away earlier this year, catapults us into the 1950s, when he wrote a slew of plays for the Caffe Cino in Greenwich Village, many of which featured gay characters and sexual extravagances of all kinds. The Cino was an important cultural institution that splintered and evolved into what came to be called “Off-off-Broadway”—still a hotbed of sexual experimentation to this day.