Sara A. Lewis (VO): Welcome to Points South. I’m your host Sara A. Lewis of the Oxford American. In this episode we’re exploring male friendship. You’ve heard of a bromance. But, today we’re taking it back to the 19th century to relationships shared between Southern men, filled with tenderness and devotion. Relationships that seem to exist outside of contemporary definitions of friendship and romance and homo and hetero. In his essay, “Bedfellows Forever,” Logan Scherer charts the history of male romantic friendships, looking to unions between a group of Southern lawyers to better understand his own tangled affinity for a fellow grad student. Today, still grappling with how to define his own relationship, Logan revisits this dynamic with new insight from writers at the forefront of masculine intimacy. Here’s Logan:
Logan Scherer: In 2013, I was on the verge of losing him for good: the husky, 6-foot former college athlete from the Smoky Mountains who towered over me and wrote me poetry and passed out in my bed and called me bro and brought me into the North Carolina woods. For our first three years as grad students, we were attached at the hip, but he was about to marry a woman. I felt the magic of our all-consuming brotherhood disappearing. From the beginning I’d been baffled by my own desire, the contradictions of our magnetic bond: I always slept on the couch, and let him take my bed at the end of our Miller High Life-fueled nights. Our connection felt beyond physical, almost spiritual. Did I just not want to admit we had a romance, had we found the highest form of friendship possible, or did we share something else entirely? That winter of his engagement, right as I was beginning to lose him to the milestones of heteronormativity, I learned that there was a whole historical category for our form of companionship: 19th-century romantic friendship. In the 19th-century American South, there were men who loved their friends more deeply than they loved their wives. They visited each other, wrote poems to each other, pledged unending loyalty and forever friendship. There is an extensive body of novels and short stories that pay tribute to these relationships, with titles like Joseph and His Friend:A Story of Pennsylvania, “Tennessee’s Partner,” “Two Gentlemen of Kentucky,” Two College Friends. I was supposed to be writing a dissertation about 19th-century American literature, but instead was spending all my time thinking about these weird historical friendships, writing short stories about my childhood, trying to describe, to myself, my own romantic friendship. I’d become a student of my own desire. My 2019 Oxford American essay, “Bedfellows Forever,” attempted to reconstruct that experience of studying my longing while its object left me. Now, three years after that essay, and 12 years after I first met that fated friend, still trying to make sense of my desire, I talked to two historians of emotional life in the nineteenth-century U.S. South, Anya Jabour and Sergio Lussana. Then I talked to Brontez Purnell, an Alabama-born writer, dancer, and musician, who places himself in the Southern Gothic tradition. Regents Professor of History at the University of Montana, Anya Jabour encountered the letters of Virginian lawyers William Wirt, Dabney Carr, and their circle of romantic friends from 1803 to 1832, and was struck by their outpouring of intimacy.
Anya Jabour: The particular circle of male friends that I studied were all lawyers. And they all met in either the very late 1700’s or the very early 1800’s and forged these ties of friendship that were really essential to their wellbeing in every aspect of their lives. So they confided in one another about their feelings for each other, of course, but they also confided in one another about their misgivings, about their chosen profession of the law, about their, sometimes difficult periods of depression, as well as updates on the status of their romantic relationships with women.
LS: As an evangelical Protestant, William Wirt believed he would be reunited with his friends in the afterlife.
AJ: These male relationships coexisted side by side, very comfortably with heterosexual marriage and indeed the men themselves seemed to suggest that they saw these relationships not as mutually exclusive, but as mutually reinforcing. They didn't need to defend or legitimate their relationships, their relationships were wonderful, and they were the ideal and they were completely compatible with their understandings of manhood.
LS: William Wirt became friends with Dabney Carr at some point in their late teens or early twenties when the two rising lawyers were making their way around Albemarle County, Virginia in search of clients, sometime between 1791 and 1799. An enslaver, like all of these men, and a colleague and correspondent of Thomas Jefferson, William would go on to become Attorney General of the U.S., every step of the way turning to his friends for emotional and professional support.
AJ: Many of the men in this circle named their children after one another as a way of solidifying what had been sort of quasi kinship ties and making them more real kinship ties. So, for instance, while there’s a circle of men that I discuss in my research, the two people who had the closest and best documented relationship, William Wirt and Dabney Carr, both named, children for the other. And of course also both wrote to each other about how this was very meaningful in a way of rendering that relationship legible and, marking its importance and its permanence as well. Part of what it meant for them to be a cultured gentleman was to be in touch with one's emotions, not to repress one's emotions. And so they just kind of gushed.
LS: Two decades into his marriage, in 1824, William wrote to Dabney: “I have certainly never loved a man as I love you–and never shall–If I could have lived alongside of you all the days of my life, I should have been happier and I am persuaded should have made a better figure both in law and literature.” Why couldn’t I just gush? Why couldn’t my own romantic friendship—if that’s what it was—withstand all the years of his marriage? I had a twisted dream of being my best friend’s sidekick, his shadow, the former twink he’d never have to let go of through the decades of his otherwise normative life. But in our moment, there was no real space for romantic friendship. For a while, I thought my vision was a doomed, repressed love, a real-life Call Me by Your Name or Giovanni’s Room, a Brokeback Mountain set in Appalachia, but I see now that what I want is darker, stranger, purer, wilder. I mean friendship and I mean love, too, but I don’t exactly mean building a life together, existing in the world together. I mean devotion to the point of self-cancellation, building a world and existing only there, holding reverence for a friend who contains everything, who might hold you and lecture at you about U-boat sailors, who takes long walks with you and eats pizza with you, from whom you ask nothing, not loyalty or exclusivity, just that there’s always room for magic. Perversely, these nineteenth-century men who lived in a moment before homosexuality was a social category, felt queerer to me than any form of intimacy I knew of in the twenty-first-century.
AJ: There’s lots of nineteenth-century sources that suggest that friendship was far superior to marriage. Because marriage brought with it economic responsibilities for men, economic dependence for women, legal authority for men, legal subordination for women. Especially in the South, it could be tied up with kind of dynastic considerations of building family prestige and family wealth. Whereas friendship was pure, right? It was uncontaminated by these worldly concerns.
LS: After 2013, I didn’t completely lose my romantic friend to marriage. For the next six years, we cataloged every little thing we did to each other in gigantic block text messages. He texted me the instant he knew Tinashe’s “2 On” was a classic. He texted me when he found out his wife was pregnant. I told him when I started seeing a new hairstylist and sent him pictures of my cuts. He told me when he started making his way through a New Orleans cocktail book. I told him when I couldn’t sleep. He told me when he wanted to party. He called me Logs. We were making our own archive, and I loved living in it.
AJ: The substance of their relationship really is their correspondence. We know from their correspondence that they did have reunions and they prized those reunions and they anticipated them and they planned for them. One of the ironies right, of being a historian of the 19th century in particular, is that we have the best evidence of relationships when the people in the relationship are not physically together because that of course is when they write letters. So in this case, it was really helpful that they led such peripatetic lives, and saw each other relatively infrequently because that gave them the incentive to write these incredibly, lengthy, emotionally revealing letters. The evidence of their physical contact mostly comes from these letters to one another, in which they’re remembering the last time they saw each other. And they definitely refer to holding one another’s hands, embracing. William Wirt says something about, you know, if I could hold your hand, you would be electrified with a vengeance. Which certainly suggests a certain erotic charge to their relationships.
LS: William and Dabney were obsessed with their own emerging archive. “Yes, I know what that business of filing away and reperusing old letters is,” William wrote to Dabney in 1824. “It is I think one of the purest, tenderest holiest banquets that the heart of man can know; when the correspondence has flowed from a friendship like ours—I have preserved every scrip of a pen that I ever received from you—they are among my most valued treasures…” In 2019, when we moved to cities on opposite sides of the country, our messages started becoming more sporadic. I got worried I’d never see him again, that this time I really was losing him for good. As I drafted the essay, “Bedfellows Forever,” I wanted to memorialize this uncategorizable, mystifying decade-long friendship. I became obsessed with my own archive: our text message history, a draft of an email I never sent when I thought I might’ve been in love with him, the thank-you note he wrote me after his wedding, the slip of paper he wrote the title of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library on to make sure I didn’t forget the book he wanted me to read, a notebook I wrote in every Thursday night for two months at a bar called Hi Tops in West Hollywood, after the last time I saw him. I never inscribed any of the books I gave him as gifts because I didn’t think he’d want anyone to know who they came from. At the time, I wasn’t even sure I wanted a record myself. Writing this essay, all I wanted was a record. Historically, the urge and luxury to record are also instruments of domination and exclusion that beg retrospective questions about whose stories are told and how. There’s something cursed about the archive of so-called manly love that William and Dabney encased themselves in. Concurrent with these enslavers’ friendships was their systematic violence, the complete stripping of humanity from the people they enslaved. Obviously we can't read these letters separate from that evil, which must have suffused every part of their emotional lives. In communities of enslaved men, deep friendship thrived. In his book, My Brother Slaves: Friendship, Masculinity, and Resistance in the Antebellum South, Sergio Lussana talks about the centrality of homosocial relationships to enslaved men who lived on sex-segregated plantations, how intense friendship gave them emotional support. The homosocial male spheres of drinking, gambling, wrestling, and confiding in each other cultivated a masculinity counter to the forces of white masculinity that wanted to destroy them. Creating space for camaraderie and tenderness in the wake of separation from their wives and children, and in the midst of continuous physical, sexual, and emotional violence from white enslavers.
Sergio Lussana: They trusted one another to share their discontent. And they criticized slavery in their private spaces. And in some cases they plotted active rebellion.
LS: In the biography of Isaac Williams, Sunshine and Shadow of Slave Life, based on conversations between Williams and William Ferguson Goldie, Isaac Williams recounts his dear friendship with Henry Banks, a 19-year-old boy he escaped with when he was around 26. On the run together for two weeks through the Virginia woods, they were captured, shot, confined to the same prison, and then escaped together again, spending months in a cave, where Isaac would hum in a low voice to help calm his young friend. This is male-to-male intimacy as not merely adoring but life-saving. Whereas William, Dabney, and their friends reveled in the aristocratic privilege of creating their own archive, only the enslaved men lucky to survive could leave a record of their friendships, and only then, in the often white-framed form of the QUOTE “slave narrative.” In his work, Lussana relies on autobiographies, oral testimonies, and interviews, including the ones conducted by the Works Progress Administration from 1936 to 1938. Lussana points to Frederick Douglass’ third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, where he writes in vivid detail about the beauty of male friendship.
SL: This is what Douglass says. And, and it’s wonderful. He says, “For much of the happiness or absence of misery with which I passed this year, I am indebted to the genial temper and ardent friendship of my brother slaves. They were every one of them manly, generous, and brave. And yes, I say they were brave and I will add fine-looking. It is seldom the lot of any to have truer and better friends than were the slaves on this farm. It was not uncommon to charge slaves with great treachery towards each other, but I must say I never loved, esteemed, or confided in men more than I did in these. They were true as steel, and no band of brothers could be more loving.”
LS: Here, Douglass taps into the same literature of sensibility that William Wirt and Dabney Carr channeled in their letters to each other.
AJ: They were very well-read in the sort of literature of sensibility, which valorized, for both men and women, being connected to one's feelings, being expressive, not subordinating the heart to the head, being in touch with one's feelings and expressing one's feelings openly. These were all ideals and the kind of sentimental literature that these men read and also wrote.
LS: In this way, we see how Douglass thought of himself and his “manly, generous” friends in the tradition of “manly” love, proposing an even higher vision of masculine tenderness. I was seduced by men lyrically voicing their affections for other men because I myself was stuck in the pre-verbal sometimes-joyous, sometimes-tortured wonderment that I associate with boyhood. Back in 2013, my romantic friend and I, we talked about almost everything with each other but I kept from him my most urgent desire. We were in our twenties; we acted like second graders. We ate pizza and watched submarine movies and Hannah Montana: The Movie and never thought about the future. Writing “Bedfellows Forever” put adult language to our boyish spree, but none of the language satisfied me. After that essay, I wrote more sketches, more stories about the sacrosanct, disappearing friendship I couldn’t stop thinking about. I wrote a book, and I kept re-writing that book for three years, because I didn’t think it accurately captured my desire, because I still didn’t understand my desire. In winter 2021, I read Brontez Purnell’s 100 Boyfriends, a cascading collection of tales about spidery queer male desire. It’s a book overflowing with sex, but it was “Ed Name’s Written in Pencil,” the heartbreaking short story of two 7-year-old boys, in a small Alabama town, who find themselves in a short-lived love they can’t even begin to make sense of that spoke to me most. I spoke with Purnell about this story, about why romantic friendship brings us back to boyhood, and about his own experience seeking intimacy and kinship in the rural South.
Brontez Purnell: I grew up in Alabama during the late eighties and it was just, like, such a specific time period, just the way it looked and, I don't know, the way it smelled…In that incubator of the eighties, right, everything was so gendered. I liked this story about kind of first grade, second grade, kindergarten or whatever, because it's the cornerstone of where we learn these behaviors. Who's our friend. Who's not our friend. Who can get away with what.
LS: At the center of the story is 7-year-old Mickey, who lives with his grandparents and father. The first half of the story is about Cortez, Mickey’s bully who constantly launches gay slurs at him on the bus while pinching his nipples and gripping his crotch so hard that he cries and he later pees on him. The second half of the story is about Mickey’s beautiful but extremely fleeting friendship with Ed, a new kid in school who is only in town for what feels like one day. They both wish they had t-shirts of the female psychic feline warrior from ThunderCats and share crayons. In this way, the story shows a very violent masculinity and a very tender masculinity.
BP: Masculinity denotes that we must always be able to take care of ourselves, but we're also like kind of being traumatized by other boys who are being traumatized. The mode of the world is that boys traumatize each other to keep masculinity in place
LS: My own dreamboat’s masculinity—his ratty, duct tape-covered boat shoes, his Old Spice, his love of Peyton Manning, and of, course, his silence—enchanted and tormented me like nothing else and no one else could. The other thing was this: he appreciated the use of Gwen Stefani’s “Cool” in the Elle Fanning ice-skating scene of Somewhere as much as I did. Still, all these years later, his poems about the warblers we saw in 2013 feel tenderer to me than messages from men who tell me they want me. I don’t want them. I want to live with him, in our archive, instead.
BP: I think it's like the cornerstone of my life. There's my best friend. He's a poet. And I remember, I met him probably when I was 24 and was just like immediately, like in love with him, like, so in love, like love at first sight, but then also, I don't think he shared the same romantic feelings, but of course, we both worked at the same diner. I remember, you know, in my twenties, like basically living on his couch, rent-free, you know, cause it's like, he didn't wanna be my boyfriend, but he also could not live without me and I could not live without him. I feel like as I’m turning 40, he's closer to 40, we finally found this like groove because this friendship has lasted longer than any boyfriend. I’ve yielded more emotionally, creatively from it than anything. And how do you, how do you categorize that? Or how do you ever move on from that? I look at him, and I almost feel like his body is my own because it’s just, I’ve been so close to it and I've known it so much and, he's been inside my head so much.
LS: Even in 2021, I still believed our friendship could be life-lasting. Even now, I don’t think he is out of my life. I keep rewriting this book, and I don’t foresee an end anytime soon. Now that I’ve turned him into a literary companion to write about over and over again, the question of category that once tortured me has exploded open into endless possibility: we’re 19th-cenutry romantic friends, we’re two boys in 1997 just having fun, we’re Frog and Toad, the adorable, sensitive anthropomorphic amphibians who look after each other and do everything together in Arnold Lobel’s series of children’s books from the ’70s.
BP: I do think two men in a friendship are on some level supposed to be in love. I really do.
LS: Why does this always bring me back to the beginning? Not just the beginning of my own romantic friendship, to tell the story all over again and try to, this time, figure out what it was and is, but to the beginning of adolescence. For William and Dabney, gushing romantic friendship was about the most refined, lasting, manliest of feelings. It was compatible with and reinforcing of their married adult lives. And Frederick Douglass writes of the “manly” gallantry of his “brother slaves,” men whose survival depended on the enduring commitment of their companions. Now, a century and a half later, queerness and heterosexuality are equally codified social categories that work alongside an enforced masculinity to limit what intimacy between men can be. In the nineteenth century, you could grow up and keep your romantic friend. Today, becoming a man is to lose that magic. Men don’t have dreamy friendships. That’s why I want to dwell in my equivalent of the historic: boyhood. That’s also why, in a collection that covers a full range of adult experience, it’s Purnell’s story about elementary schoolers that I keep returning to.
BP: I still feel like, I don’t know. I feel like we're all still little boys trying to find our best friend.
LS: What happens when you find him, but the world can’t contain you, when the world has no space for whatever it is your friendship is?
AJ: Not to take anything away from the important, demand to make same sex marriage legal and keep it that way. I think laying so much focus on marriage means that we may have lost sight of all of the other important relationships that we can have and probably should have. In the US, we don't organize our society that way.
LS: I want to organize my mind the way our society can’t. These days, when I think about him, we’re in striped pajamas. Mischievous and gushing—we are just boys in a treehouse—we’re eating nachos and banana pudding and he’s lecturing me about warblers from his big recliner. We’re up to no good. We don’t know much. Maybe what I’m really writing is as simple as a children’s picture book: boyhood as a past and a future. The world takes away the fluidity of romantic friendship as soon as we start becoming men. I refuse to concede. At 34, I aspire to the fuzzy wonderment of my early boyhood, where friendship is romance is perfection is nightmare is everything you could ever want and fear all at once, where everything that will eventually no longer be available to us never has to go away.
SAL: Visit oxfordamerican.org/pointssouth to read Logan’s essay, “Bedfellows Forever” and to find excerpts and images of nineteenth century male romantic friendships. This episode was produced by me, Logan Scherer, Noah Britton, Christian Brown, and Alice Berry, with Christian Leus and Patrick McDermott. Adam Forrester and Sydney Nichols are our Points South interns. Thanks to Brontez Purnell and Doctors Anya Jabour and Sergio Lussana. Letters from William Wirt are accessible via the Library of Virginia. Additional recording done by WEAREPRODUCERS in Berlin, Germany, University of Montana Missoula, Outset Studios in London, and Skyline Studios in Oakland. Post-production by Curtis Fye and Trey Pollard of Spacebomb. This episode is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.