Queer Cowboys and Other Erotic Male Friendships in Nineteenth-Century American Literature
Paalgrave Macmillan – Hardcover 2005 / 160 pages / ISBN 0-312-29340-2 / $55.00. Paperback 2006 / 160 pages / ISBN 1-4039-7597-3 / $12.95
In Brief: Illuminating study of same-sex relationships on the nineteenth century American frontier, drawing on fiction, non-fiction, and visual sources.
Long before director Ang Lee’s groundbreaking critical and popular triumph, Brokeback Mountain (2005), I was intrigued by the fascinating, but largely undocumented, history of same-sex relationships on the American frontier. In fact, there is a long film tradition of LGBTQ+ Westerns.
This phenomenon first caught my attention in Jonathan Ned Katz’s seminal work, Gay American History (1975), where he noted that the West, with its vast spaces and dearth of overly-inquisitive neighbors, must have proven irresistible for many gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, who wanted the freedom to live their own lives beyond the threat of conventional society’s wrath. Katz included a few tantalizing textual excerpts, including a deeply moving cowboy love poem (“The Lost Pardner”), but noted that there are precious few surviving texts. Pioneers rarely wrote letters or journals, and queer pioneers had to keep their secret lives hidden even on the range. But Chris Packard, in Queer Cowboys and Other Erotic Male Friendships in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (2005), has now explored this territory with breadth and depth.
To give you a taste of the sometimes heartbreaking love between cowboys, here are a few lines from Badger C. Clark’s “The Lost Pardner” (1917), which Packard quotes in his introductory section. The narrator mourns the loss of Al, his long-time partner:
We loved each other in the way men do
And never spoke about it, Al and me,
But we both knowed, and knowin’ it so true
Was more than any woman’s kiss could be.
We knowed – and if the way was smooth or rough,
The weather shine or pour,
While I had him the rest seemed good enough –
But he ain’t here no more!
Packard draws on literary, documentary, and visual sources to provide not only the fullest portrait we have of same-sex relationships in the old West, but insights into what life must have been like for these double pioneers, of both geographical and emotional frontiers. These settlers created the first same-sex relationships in American history away from the censorious eyes, and imprisoning judges, of the settled East. Packard uses scholarship to let us know what it must have felt like to live in the real, everyday world of the Old West.
Despite the excellence of this important study, I do have a few cavils. Although Packard is clear about his masculine focus in the title – “…Erotic Male Friendships…” – I wish he had included at some information about lesbian and bisexual women on the frontier, even if only to note its scarcity. What kind of bonds did settlers’ wives form, during the long weeks and months when their husbands were away? And what about the relationships between the women who worked in the brothels? Despite the time their job demanded that they spend with male customers (were there ever any female clients?), the formed communities of women. Queer Cowboys certainly illuminates the gay and bisexual male experience of some frontiersmen, but I hope that Packard or other scholars will now try to unearth more details about “Erotic Female Friendships” in the Old West.
Call me a nitpicker, but the consistent misspelling of the influential critic Leslie Fiedler’s name, as “Feidler,” drove me nuts. Packard offered a thoughtful critique of Fiedler’s 1948 Partisan Review essay, “Come back to the raft ag’in, Huck Honey!,” which introduced same-sex readings of classic American novels like Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick; I just hope the next edition of Queer Cowboys will correct the spelling error. (Forgive my digression, but I want to recommend highly Fiedler’s indispensable 1960 study, Love and Death in the American Novel, which incorporates the essay mentioned above, as well as the extraordinary 1923 work which inspired it, Studies in Classic American Literature, from bisexual novelist (Women in Love) and poet D.H. Lawrence.)
Now, on to the many strengths of Queer Cowboys. I especially like how Packard ferrets out the homoerotic subtext not only of canonical nineteenth century American authors, including James Fennimore Cooper (primarily his series of five novels, including The Last of the Mohicans, which comprise the Leatherstocking Tales, but also less well-known but intriguing works like The Two Admirals), Mark Twain (including some of his private “Rabelaisian” writings which you never had assigned in high school, like the phallic satire “The Mammoth Cod” – ‘cod’ being slang for penis), Bret Harte (whose classic “Tennessee’s Partner” has at last been outed), and, of course, Walt Whitman, perhaps America’s greatest poet, and certainly its most jubliant gay voice.
Packard also provides a fascinating, detailed analysis of Owen Wister’s life, which is not as straight and narrow as I had assumed, and how it relates to his masterpiece, the defining novel of the Western genre, The Virginian, a Horseman of the Plains (1901). (I was surprised to learn that the most cosmopolitan of great American authors, Henry James, was an enormous fan of The Virginian, perhaps because the closeted James could relate to Wister’s homoerotic subtext.) Packard’s reading illuminates, in the best queer studies tradition, the many resonant samej-sex aspects of the book. This extensive section on Wister is a highlight of Queer Cowboys. It has also has done what I never thought possible: made me want to reread The Virginian as soon as possible.
Packard also introduces us to several authors, and some cowpokes who only rarely picked up a pen, whom I had never heard of before, but whose works and lives shed light on the experience of men loving, and living with, men in the Old West. There is the gay Harvard graduate, Frederic Wadsworth Loring, whose homoerotic novel Two College Friends (1871 – I encourage someone to post a free, online copy) was the start of a literary career, until he was killed, at age 23, by Apaches. (Packard takes a critical view of Loring, exposing his narrow cultural biases, but by contrast British novelist Charles Reade, author of the classic historical novel The Cloister and the Hearth (1861), called Loring the most promising of all the young American novelists: this makes me want to read Two College Friends all the more.) A more successful, and long-lived, career in the West can be seen in Andy Adams’s autobiographical The Log of a Cowboy: A Narrative of the Old Trail Days (1903), which recounts – both in its text and between the lines – something of the same-sex intimacy between men on the range. You will get to know all of them, and their works, in Queer Cowboys. Packard profiles many other men – journalists, cowboys, miners, Indians, vaqueros, and members of various all-male private clubs – who defined themselves by excluding women and domesticity, while embracing what Theodore Roosevelt called “strenuous living” in the “purity” of the wilderness. We see how homoerotic admiration and intimacy were key aspects of Old West, both in fiction and life, long before the clinical term “homosexual” came into common, and pejorative, use.
Through sources ranging from literature to dime novels, and with a wealth of photographs and drawings, Packard brings these gay and bisexual men of the nineteenth century to life. With Queer Cowboys, we can imagine how they, not to mention the now famous cowboy/lovers of Brokeback Mountain from a century later – might have responded to Whitman’s final words in “Song of the Open Road” from Leaves of Grass:
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?
How many queer men, and women, heeded Whitman’s call and traveled, beyond “preaching and law,” to a new world in the great open West? We will never know their numbers. But through Queer Cowboys, we can come closer to understanding, and even feeling, their extraordinary lives.
PLEASE NOTE: I will soon redo the below graphic to reflect the new, more inclusive name of this part of my website: LGBTQ+ Literature.
Reviewed December 19, 2005 / Revised October 20, 2020