Q19: The Queer American Nineteenth Century
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
256 pages, 152.00 x 229.00 mm
- ISBN: 9780812223651
- Published: October 2016
"Heterosexuality, this novel forthrightly claims, is a poor substitute for passionate love between men—and heterosexuality's historical emergence in the nineteenth century is consequently, Cecil Dreeme laments, a grave misfortune."—Christopher Looby, from the Introduction
Freshly returned to New York City from his studies abroad, unmoored by news of the apparent suicide of his accomplished childhood friend Clara Denman, and drawn in spite of himself toward the sinister man-about-town Densdeth, Robert Byng is unsettlingly adrift in the city of his birth. Things take an even stranger turn once he finds lodgings in the Gothic halls of Chrysalis College in lower Manhattan. There he meets the mysteriously reclusive Cecil Dreeme, brilliant artist and creature of the night. In Dreeme, Byng finds a friend unlike any he has known before. But is Cecil the man he claims to be, and can their friendship survive the dangers they will soon face together?
Issued posthumously in 1861, Cecil Dreeme was the first published novel of Theodore Winthrop, who has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the first Union officers killed in the line of duty during the Civil War. Newly edited by Christopher Looby, it is a very queer book indeed.
Introduction: Cecil Dreeme and the Misfortune of Sexuality
Biographical Sketch of the Author
—George William Curtis
I. Stillfleet and His News
II. Chrysalis College
III. Rubbish Palace
IV. The Palace and Its Neighbors
V. Churm Against Densdeth
VI. Churm as Cassandra
VII. Churm's Story
VIII. Clara Denman, Dead
IX. Locksley's Scare
X. Overhead, Without
XI. Overhead, Within
XII. Dreeme, Alseep
XIII. Dreeme, Awake
XIV. A Mild Orgie
XV. A Morning with Densdeth
XVI. Emma Denman
XVII. A Morning with Cecil Dreeme
XVIII. Another Cassandra
XIX. Can This Be Love?
XX. A Nocturne
XXI. Lydian Measures
XXII. A Laugh and a Look
XXIII. A Parting
XXIV. Fame Awaits Dreeme
XXV. Churm Before Dreeme's Picture
XXVII. Raleigh's Revolt
XXVIII. Densdeth's Farewell
XXIX. Dreeme His Own Interpreter
XXX. Densdeth's Dark Room
* * * * *
Cecil Dreeme and the Misfortune of Sexuality
It's always fascinating to come upon a record of an actual reader's lively encounter with a book. Here is a story about a real nineteenth-century reader and his fraught engagement with the novel you are holding, Theodore Winthrop's Cecil Dreeme. On January 10, 1875, a young man named Henry Blake Fuller was enduring a dismal stint as a clerk in Ovington's crockery store in Chicago. He had turned eighteen years old the day before, and he confided moodily to his diary (to which he gave the grandiloquent title "A Legacy to Posterity") that he felt he would always look back upon himself at eighteen "as a boy in bad health, & who wished to be somewhere else. In short as a discontented young person. Unfortunate!" Fuller felt acutely conscious, he told his diary, of his many personal inadequacies, which he tallied in self-deriding terms reflecting the standard novelistic clichés of the time: "Harry Fuller at eighteen would never serve as a romantic hero. No olive complexion, no hair in graceful curves and black as the raven's wing; no commanding figure, no fascinating presence, no woman's tenderness with a man's courage.—but why torment myself by prolonging the list of my own deficiencies. Yes, I may set myself down as quite an ordinary person." Then suddenly the diarist's attention turned from morose self-examination, rendered in familiar novelistic terms, to a novel he had just read—this very novel. "Read Cecil Dreeme yesterday. A peculiar book. Not a profound observation. A book that interests me greatly." Versions of many of the romantic clichés with which he had just berated himself would, in fact, have been ready to hand in the florid "Biographical Sketch of the Author" by George W. Curtis that prefaces Cecil Dreeme (included here as an integral part of this "peculiar" book). Fuller would have read there of Winthrop's "keen gray eye" and "clustering fair hair" (5), would have learned that Winthrop's "sensitive seriousness grew sometimes morbid" (8) and that he was afflicted with "an ill-health that colored all his life" (9); that he had "a flower-like delicacy of temperament" characterized by "the curious, critical introspection which marks every sensitive and refined nature" (11), but that his "womanly grace of temperament merely enhanced the unusual manliness of his character and impression" (11-12). Fuller would have found, in other words, someone whose "ill-health" matched his own "bad health," but who was somehow a paragon of the "romantic hero" he felt he was not. He would have found a model for his own morbid self-castigation, but perhaps also an image of something less "ordinary" that he might aspire toward.
Many questions arise here. The teenaged Fuller was certainly a great reader: the diary in question is full of references to novelists and novels, poets and poetry, as well as histories and other literary genres. Wilkie Collins (July 12, 1874), Charles Dickens—he reported reading David Copperfield and Dombey and Son (July 14), Nicholas Nickleby (Aug. 23), and Bleak House (Nov. 22)—Goethe's Iphigenie auf Tauris and Schiller's Maid of Orleans (July 17), Longfellow's "Wayside Inn" (July 20), Johnson's Rasselas (Aug. 30), Bulwer's The Last Days of Pompeii (Sept. 27), Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Jan. 28, 1875), Scott's The Lay of the Last Minstrel and The Lady of the Lake (Nov. 25), and Macaulay's Essays (Dec. 25)—Fuller mentioned all of these and more. About many of them he had substantive critical observations to make, as a future novelist very well might. Some of them he read patiently over an extended period of time, and returned to for rereading and reconsideration. But about Cecil Dreeme, which he evidently read in one day—on his eighteenth birthday, no less, and in a state of deep discontent—he could not muster anything that would satisfy him as "a profound observation." Something about Cecil Dreeme left him nonplussed, but at the same time intrigued. "A peculiar book," he wrote. "A book that interests me greatly."
How did Cecil Dreeme come to Fuller's attention? What did he find "peculiar" about it, and why did it interest him so "greatly"? Did someone who had responded to its peculiarity—and who thought its peculiarity would interest Fuller—recommend it to him? We probably cannot know. Fuller went on to become a noted writer himself, and many decades later he would write one of the earliest unmistakably queer American novels, Bertram Cope's Year (1919). The fact of this later literary performance, and the knowledge that Fuller was also an avid lover of men, perhaps licenses us to infer that the great and baffled interest that his teenaged self took in the "peculiar book" Cecil Dreeme must have had something to do with its (and his) incipient queerness.
The single word Fuller used to describe the novel, the mere epithet peculiar, is a curious one, having served over the years prior to the invention of homosexual identity as one of the many vague euphemisms that could evoke what was not yet, in 1875, as firmly conceived, securely denoted, or publicly recognized as it would soon come to be: a style of sexual personhood that had not yet coalesced into a defined social identity, did not yet have a label, had not yet become a description under which people could act and could understand themselves and others to exist. Cecil Dreeme's narrator, Robert Byng, tellingly refers at one point to the "peculiar power" that the dangerously magnetic Densdeth exerted over him, and at another place to the "too peculiar a tenderness" he himself felt for his beloved Cecil Dreeme (194, 281, emphasis added). A decade earlier Nathaniel Hawthorne's narrator, Miles Coverdale, teased his friend Hollingsworth in The Blithedale Romance (1852) by reading to him some suggestive passages from the writings of Charles Fourier, and explaining to him ("as modestly as I could") the radical sexual arrangements that Fourier advocated. Coverdale then provocatively asked Hollingsworth whether he thought they could introduce these "beautiful pecularities" into their own communal practice. At roughly the same time as Winthrop published Cecil Dreeme another adventurous novelist, Margaret J. M. Sweat, had the eponymous protagonist of Ethel's Love-Life (1859) describe to her fiancé Ernest the "peculiar relationship" she had with a woman named Leonora: "Women often love each other with as much fervor and excitement as they do men," Ethel patiently explained, and although Leonora has been banished from Ethel's life their "subtle essences mingled and assimilated too thoroughly ever to be entirely disunited."
Fuller in 1875 may not yet have had any sense of a firm sexually categorical possibility for himself or for a character in a novel. But he was certainly aware of the bent of his own desires, and of his unsuitedness for the role of romantic hero if it would entail an erotic interest in women. Naturally, then, he would have taken a great interest in a novel that, among many other things that might have appealed to him, featured a passionate friendship apparently between two men, described unabashedly (and repeatedly) as "more precious than the love of women" (235), "a love passing the love of women" (275). But that passionate friendship, forthrightly depicted in 1861 by Theodore Winthrop as something that did not entail categorization as "homosexual," would have been at least somewhat more likely by 1875, when Fuller read the novel, to have had such an implication. But then again, it would not yet certainly have had this implication: many readers and reviewers at the time did not detect any such suggestion. Same-sex romantic friendship was then in the midst of a long late nineteenth-century transition from a perfectly normal and even celebrated form of personal attachment to a suspect and eventually deviant form of desire. What we have, in the encounter between Henry Blake Fuller and Cecil Dreeme, then, is a neat vignette exhibiting a book written and published before what is often called the "invention" of the homosexual (indeed, the invention of the heterosexual too) and an act of reading coming in an uncertain, slightly later moment when that incomplete invention may or may not have been clearly known to this particular young reader. The book's transitional status, and the liminal quality of this scene of reading, both contribute to what Fuller called "peculiar" about Cecil Dreeme.What he called "peculiar" corresponds to what we might today call queer.
Queer is a term in use today to suggest a broad range of erotic tastes, inclinations, attachments, and desires that do not fall neatly into the binary categories the dominant culture still frequently deploys for the sake of distinguishing between the normal (heterosexual) and the abnormal (homosexual). It seems fair, then, to describe Cecil Dreeme as a queer novel, since it doesn't entirely observe or respect that binary distinction (and certainly doesn't frame that distinction in the rigid way that later generations would do). Cecil Dreeme depicts some "peculiar" ways of feeling and desiring, relatively unfamiliar to us today, and registers the profound effects of what may have seemed to its author like the faintly incipient and unwelcome emergence of sexual taxonomies that (as it happens, because Theodore Winthrop was killed in the Civil War) he would not live to see put firmly in place. Unlike his reader Henry Blake Fuller (1857-1929), whose life began before the homosexual had fully become, in Michel Foucault's famous phrase, "a species," a recognized type of person, but who did live to see that historical emergence play itself out, Winthrop died in 1861 just as that process of sexual emergence was faintly beginning to get traction. Fuller's youthful recognition of this quality in Cecil Dreeme—what he was able in 1875 to call "peculiar" and what we might today call queer—hints at the role Winthrop's novel may have played in the lives of other readers who recognized in it something that interested them greatly but that they could not precisely describe. And it suggests as well the agency Cecil Dreeme may have exercised in beginning to articulate modern forms of disciplinary sexual identity (the novel taints some forms of desire as "perverse," and there is, after all, a faint odor of suspicion attached to Fuller's adjective "peculiar") as well as articulating countervailing literary resources for erotic dissidence ("It interests me greatly").
At the same time, then, as Cecil Dreeme takes its historical place in a genealogy of emergent sexual identities, it also takes its place in a history of resistance to that emergence, because of the share it takes in the devoted preservation of what Peter Coviello has nicely called "all the errant possibilities for imagining sex that have sunk into a kind of muteness with the advent of modern sexuality." Cecil Dreeme regrets what it senses as the imminent "deployment of sexuality," in Foucault's terms—the stringent necessity people would soon be under to sign up for (or be assigned to) one sexual category or another. Cecil Dreeme thus takes us back to a time before "homosexuality" and "heterosexuality" fully existed—indeed, even before a crisp distinction came to be made between the realms of the sexual and the nonsexual as such. Perhaps the queerest thing about Cecil Dreeme is its tense negotiation of the fuzzy boundaries between the realms of the senses that it would designate as, on the one hand, morally blameworthy "sensuality" (184), and, on the other, those it would celebrate as innocent pleasures of the senses.
If you have ever wondered how and why the unnecessary institution of heterosexuality emerged in history, Cecil Dreeme has a provocative answer. The novel's date, as I have suggested, is fairly close to one of the usual chronological markers of the advent of heterosexual/homosexual differentiation, that is, the first appearance of the term homosexual in print—in German—in 1869 or so. Many historians of sexuality have pointed out how the articulation of one category of sexual existence, homosexuality, implies the existence of its opposite, heterosexuality. Cecil Dreeme evocatively captures the feeling of the fraught moment when this strange new thing, heterosexuality, appeared on the historical scene as an untested and not universally welcomed phenomenon—one whose cunning attractions, it appeared to some, might not outweigh its punitive exactions. Heterosexuality, this novel forthrightly claims, is a poor substitute for passionate love between men—and heterosexuality's historical emergence in the nineteenth century is consequently, Cecil Dreeme laments, a grave misfortune.
But if we must resign ourselves to the unhappy fate of heterosexuality's emergence and eventual dominance, Cecil Dreeme further implies, then perhaps something can be done to make it a tolerable form of life. If only it could be infused, the novel finally suggests, with the passionate intensity that had belonged principally to male same-sex attachments, heterosexuality might then prove to be a more or less satisfactory arrangement. (Readers who don't want the plot's twists to be revealed should postpone reading the rest of this introduction). This is the meager hope with which the novel's narrator, Robert Byng, is left when the man he loved (known to him as Cecil Dreeme) turns out to be a woman (Clara Denman) in male disguise. This revelation creates for Byng a vexatious problem. Can his cherished same-sex love be transmuted, somehow, into heterosexual attachment? Perhaps it can—although Byng continues to refer to his beloved mostly as "he" and "him" and "Cecil Dreeme" even after Clara's true sex and actual name have been revealed (335ff.). "Every moment it came to me more distinctly that Cecil Dreeme and I could never be Damon and Pythias again" (347-48), Byng laments. He continues: "And now that the friend proved a woman, a great gulf opened between us" (348). "But thinking of what might start up between Cecil Dreeme and me, and part us," Byng rues, "I let fall the hand I held" (348, emphasis added). If something were now to "start up" between them—and if Byng could reconcile himself to recognizing her as "Clara," which he continues to be unable or unwilling fully to do even at the novel's end—it seems it would always be an attachment troubled by the sacrifice it exacts from its practitioners, the compulsory abandonment of the prior institution of same-sex friendship. Robert's love for Cecil was fundamentally predicated on his being a man—although, to be sure, a peculiar man, "a man of another order, not easy to classify" (138). If he could now love the woman, Clara, it would be a love always haunted by its need to draw upon and, if possible, transmute the charisma of homoerotic attachment into heterosexual desire.
Here is how it goes. Having been surprised and dismayed by the discovery that the man he loved dearly—the delicately enchanting young painter Cecil Dreeme—was in fact, all along, a young woman in disguise, the novel's narrator is left at the tale's close with a melancholy task ahead of him—converting his powerful love for Cecil into a different, derivative, and denatured kind of love, the love of the woman Clara Denman, who had been masquerading as Cecil. The man Byng has called his "friend of friends" (229, 291), "dearer to me than a brother" (296), "part of my heart" (321)—"this friend closer than a brother was [now] a woman" (335). What can happen to a friendship "more precious than the love of women" (235), "a love passing the love of women" (275), when its object now turns out to be—a woman? It is a bit like what Millamant says to Mirabell in William Congreve's The Way of the World (1700), setting out her conditions for consenting to marry him: if he will agree to her various stipulations, she says, it is possible that she "may by degrees dwindle into a wife." Cecil Dreeme leaves Robert Byng to wonder what it would mean, and whether he can consent, to dwindle into a husband and, perforce, reconcile himself to being in effect a heterosexual. Byng has spent a considerable portion of his tale describing his never very enthusiastic or strenuous attempts to convince himself to fall in love with a woman ("I loved, or thought I loved, or wished that I loved" another character, he avers, the enchanting Emma Denman ; "I had fancied I loved" her, he later admits ). But he has all the while been more apt to worry about the dire prospect of being "imprisoned for life in matrimony" (72). It is as if we see him, then, when the gender of his love object has been suddenly switched, internalizing the new coercions of heterosexuality before our eyes. To the revealed Clara he says, "I talked to you and thought of you, although I was not conscious of it, as man does to woman only" (338). Again: "Ignorantly I had loved my friend as one loves a woman only" (348).
One easy mistake to make about this novel's plot, however, is to judge that the eventual revelation of Cecil Dreeme's female identity constitutes a wary retreat from the queer potential that the novel has created. It might seem, to be sure, that Winthrop's novel about a man's love for another man is fatally compromised—or, as some recent readers would have it, rescued—by the belated revelation that one of them is in fact (sigh of relief) a woman. One commentator, for example, writes of Byng and Dreeme that "gradually their comradeship deepens into something more: a friendship 'more precious than the love of women,' reminiscent of the Greek lovers Damon and Pythias." But then he adds, not very coherently, "At last, to the narrator's relief, his heterosexuality is reaffirmed—more or less—when it turns out that the delectable roommate is a woman in disguise." (That "more or less" is a nasty touch: it amounts to a homophobic sneer.) The novel, as I have emphasized, portrays Byng as emphatically not relieved to discover that Dreeme is a woman but as in fact quite the opposite: surprised, disappointed, confused, and dismayed. Nor is his "heterosexuality" reaffirmed by this revelation—it is anachronistic to think of him as securely possessing a quality of "heterosexuality" that would be satisfyingly "reaffirmed" by the revelation of Dreeme's female sex. It would be more accurate to say that with the revelation that Cecil is really Clara, the unwelcome fate of heterosexuality is rudely forced upon him.
In a similar vein, another commentator has written that when Dreeme is revealed to be a woman in masculine disguise, "the revelation is startling to Robert who now has an explanation for his sexual attraction to the young man." Again, this gets things desperately—one wants to say deliberately, perversely—wrong. Byng has not been at all troubled by his romantic attraction to Cecil Dreeme; on the contrary, he has felt personally gratified and even morally strengthened by it. Thus he has never felt any need of an "explanation" for this attraction; such a claim betrays, again, an anachronistic imposition of later ideas of sexual normalcy upon a very different nineteenth-century set of assumptions about the moral value and intrinsic beauty of same-sex intimacies. And it prejudicially assumes, to boot, that heterosexual attraction is natural and proper and that its hidden motivating presence here would somehow justify Byng's otherwise inexplicable erotic attraction to another man. Cecil Dreeme does not think that there is anything wrong with same-sex passion, that it needs "explanation" or that one would naturally be relieved to have an opportunity to disown it. Could this in fact be what Henry Blake Fuller found so "peculiar" and yet so interesting about it?
Cecil Dreeme's liminal historical position, on the cusp of the invention of sexuality, can be measured by the kinds of responses it began to engender in the decades after its initial popularity and Fuller's intrigued but slightly nervous response to it. Julian Hawthorne in 1887 reviewed "Theodore Winthrop's Writings" and found himself baffled and perturbed by the greater popularity of Cecil Dreeme as compared to Winthrop's other novels, which he considered superior. John Brent, he writes, is "more mature" in style and "quality of thought," and "its tone is more fresh and wholesome." Hawthorne ratchets up the suggestive moralizing a few pages later on: in Cecil Dreeme "the love intrigue is morbid and unwholesome," and the characters are "artificial and unnatural." And there is more: "Cecil Dreeme herself [Hawthorne, unlike Byng, has no trouble assigning her the correct gendered pronoun] never fully recovers from the ambiguity forced upon her by her masculine attire." Tellingly, Winthrop's "unwholesome" production reminds the younger Hawthorne of his father Nathaniel's Blithedale Romance, which, as we have hinted, had its own interest in the "beautiful peculiarities" of sexual irregularity.
Theodore Winthrop's other novels—Fuller would have found them all quite "peculiar" too, despite Julian Hawthorne's insistence that they were not "unwholesome" like Cecil Dreeme—are ripe with suggestions of same-sex and other queer desires that do not conform to either Winthrop's contemporaries' emergent norms or to what have become ours. Edwin Brothertoft (1862), for example, is a historical romance of the American Revolution, in which the narrator is fascinated by nothing so much as the magnificent and evidently locally celebrated moustache that one of the tale's heroes, the patriot Major Peter Skerrett, wears. "On his nut-brown face his blonde moustache lay lovingly curling," we are told. When Skerrett disguises himself as a redcoat officer as part of a plot to rescue Edwin Brothertoft's estranged daughter Lucy—whose coarse and dishonest mother, having deceived Brothertoft into marriage, now intends to marry her daughter unwillingly to an oafish British officer named Kerr—the patriotic destruction of this fabled moustache is called for, since its widespread celebrity would otherwise give Skerrett's true identity away. But Skerrett at the same time fears—because he is dreaming romantically of Lucy, whom he has yet to meet—that without his beauteous and "lovingly curling" moustache he will not make the best first impression on her when he achieves her rescue.
Lucy, for her part, is actively conjuring a mental image of her fondly awaited handsome rescuer and his anticipated virtues: "Truth, Virtue, Courage and the sister qualities, Lucy had dimpled into the bronzed cheeks, as a sailor pricks an anchor, or Polly's name, into a brother tar's arm with Indian ink" (240). It is tempting to say that something like a fantasy of heterosexual romance is being metaphorically converted here into a moment of pricking intimacy between two sailors for whom "Polly" is just the generic name for a little-regretted absence. In Edwin Brothertoft nearly every realized affiliation between a man and a woman is ugly and deformed, characterized by treachery and horror; even the promising match between Peter Skerrett and Lucy Brothertoft, once he (sans moustache) does rescue her, is left conspicuously unrealized and strenuously uncertain at the end. "It seems the fair beginning of a faithful love" (emphasis added), we hear from the narrator, but he asks nervously whether this love will "end in doubt, sorrow, shame, and forgiveness; or in trust, joy, constancy and peace" (369). That pregnant question is the very last line of the novel, and no answer is given—unless the discouraged answer lies, only partially hidden, in the near-homonymy between "brother tars" and "Brothertoft."
Winthrop's other completed novel, John Brent (1862), has an even weirder and richer queer subtext. The first-person narrator, Richard Wade, early in the Western portion of the tale acquires a magnificent black stallion that no one has yet been able to tame and ride. But Wade himself is able to domesticate the steed using the methods of love. "I loved that horse as I have loved nothing else yet, except the other personage for whom he acted," prefiguring the heroic horse's later crucial mediation of his relationship with the eponymous John Brent, a dear college friend with whom Wade was once intimate and with whom he is now to be reunited. "Brent was [then] a delicate, beautiful, dreamy boy" (41), Wade recalls; he reappears suddenly in Nevada ten years later when Wade, who has been seeking gold, is packing up to return east and care for his widowed—and now dead—sister's two orphaned children. When the long-lost Brent rides toward him Wade first mistakes him at a distance for a handsome Indian brave of the kind that James Fenimore Cooper's pen might have drawn in his lustrous beauty: "'The Adonis of the copper-skins!' I said to myself." And then Wade unabashedly confides to the page: "I wish I was an Indian myself for such a companion; or, better, a squaw, to be made love to by him" (38).
But as Brent draws nearer, Wade begins to recognize him as a deeply tanned white man—"not copper, but bronze" (38)—and, indeed, soon hails him as his beloved school friend, whereupon their interrupted intimacy is resumed and they set out across the prairie together. Brent has changed—those ten years, we learn, have involved struggle and pain, due to a woman's perfidy—but those difficulties, in Brent's own words, "have taken all the girl out of me" (39). And to explain Wade's initial misrecognition, he adds—here it comes again—"'Ten years have presented me with this for a disguise,' said he, giving his moustache a twirl" (39). The moustache aside, however, this doesn't explain Wade's fantasy of being a "squaw" so that he might be "made love to" by a handsome Indian brave; in Winthrop's world, this desire evidently needs no explanation at all.
Although Brent ends up at the novel's end with an anticipated marriage to a fine woman, abetted by his loyal friend Wade, the latter is left alone for the moment with his bated love for Brent—whom he loved, he tells us, "as mature man loves man. I have known no more perfect union than that one friendship. Nothing so tender in any of my transitory loves for women" (57). When this same Richard Wade appears again in another piece of Winthrop's fiction, a long story published in the Atlantic Monthly, "Love and Skates" (1862), he is somewhat older and now expressly in search of a wife of his own: he is judged to be "incomplete and abnormal" because he's unmarried. Wade eventually, like Brent earlier, finds his own excellent woman to marry, but not until he has a peculiarly intense passage with one Bill Tarbox, a rough worker in the Hudson River Valley iron factory Wade has been sent to superintend. Wade and Tarbox are both thirty years old, described as each other's matching physical counterparts, each a "Saxon six-footer" (137, 139). Wade first establishes his managerial authority and manly dominance by beating Tarbox in a fistfight; Tarbox thenceforth respects and admires Wade, and becomes his devoted ally—as well as avid ice-skating partner. When the river freezes over one Christmas Day, and the entire town goes out for a frolic on the ice, Wade and Tarbox have an opportunity to demonstrate their well-rehearsed skill as a figure-skating pair: "Wade backwards, Bill forwards, holding hands . . . both dropped into a sitting posture, with the left knee bent, and each with his right leg stretched out parallel to the ice and fitting compactly by the other man's leg. In this queer figure they rushed through the laughing crowd" (154). A "queer figure" indeed, holding hands face to face and with legs interlaced, but with sharp blades extended in each other's vicinity too—their tense rivalry and their tight attachment both expressed in this peculiar posture.
I have thus far concentrated on representing Winthrop's depiction of same-sex love as a mainly positive phenomenon—and something that threads through many of his published writings—in order to correct a few egregious misrepresentations of Cecil Dreeme. But it must be conceded after all that this is itself a rather one-sided account of queer relations in it. This is a novel that presents what I will call a "stereoscopic" picture of male-male love. There are two same-sex love plots in it, one of which I have discussed (involving Byng and Dreeme), which is understood to be beautiful and healthy, while the other (between Byng and a seductive character named Densdeth) is condemned as morbid and suspect. The two queer love plots share the space of the novel uneasily, we might say; the one fits within the literary tradition of exalted same-sex romantic friendship, the other within a competing tradition that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has called the "paranoid gothic," characterized by its melodramatic depiction of "homosexual panic."
I borrow the term "stereoscopic" from the novel itself (147). One of the peculiarities of the tale has to do with Byng's nonrecognition of Clara Denman when she is first presented to him in male disguise. This obtuseness may seem implausible to some readers. After all, Byng knew Clara and her sister Emma intimately in childhood, even played "little husband and little wife" with them (188), but oddly he doesn't at all recognize Clara now. True, Byng has been told that Clara is dead, so he does not expect ever to meet her; she is also in masculine disguise, apparently quite convincing; he has been prepared by others in various ways to meet a young man, an artist named Cecil; the room where they first meet is dark; Cecil is pale and wasted with lack of nourishment; and ten years have passed since they last met (when he was fifteen and Clara was several years younger). Clearly Winthrop labors to make this nonrecognition seem passably believable under the circumstances. At several moments in the story Byng almost thinks he has seen Cecil before, but he cannot quite remember where or when. Later, Clara says that she recognized him instantly: "I knew you as my old playmate from the first moment" (347). But because he does not appear to recognize her in that first moment, she doesn't reveal herself to him. She is relieved, also, to be able to go unrecognized, since she is in hiding from Densdeth, living in deep fear of being located by him. Dreeme's reclusiveness argues that he has a secret of some kind, and this putative secret continues to stimulate Byng's curiosity even as he feels duty-bound to respect its privacy—but still he never brings himself to recognize Clara in Cecil.
There is certainly something willful in Byng's nonrecognition, as he later comes to admit: "And every moment fancies drift across my mind that I actually know his secret, and am blind, purposely blind to my knowledge, because I promised when we first met that I would be so" (213). When he first encounters Cecil Dreeme, famished and half-conscious, he forbears to look directly at him, thinking it would be rude to stare at someone who was only half awake and too weak to resist uninvited inspection: "Curiosity urged me to study the face more in detail. But that seemed disloyal to the sleeper. . . . I therefore stopped intentionally short of a thorough analysis of his countenance" (137). When Dreeme does become fully conscious, however, Byng looks intently at him, "eye to eye" (147), and he has one of his fleeting sensations of half-recognition: "As we regarded each other earnestly, I perceived the question flit across my mind: 'Had I not had a glimpse of that inspired face before?'" (147). He already knows that Dreeme is a painter, so he immediately thinks of likely places he might have caught sight of him plying his trade in the past (here is where the image of a stereoscope comes in): "I may have seen him copying in the Louvre, sketching in the Oberland, dejected in the Coliseum, elated in St. Peter's, taking his coffee and violets in the Café Doné, whisking by at the Pitti Palace ball. He may have flashed across my sight, and imprinted an image on my brain to which his presence applies the stereoscopic counterpart" (147). The stereoscope (also called a stereograph) was a technology, widely popular in the nineteenth century, for creating the illusion of three-dimensional depth in a photographic image. A pair of almost identical pictures was printed side by side on a single paper card, one a right-eye view and the other a left-eye view of the same scene (that is, the images were captured from fractionally divergent perspectives, as a person's two eyes would see a scene from very slightly different angles). The photographic card was inserted into a viewer (a hand-held viewer, sometimes called a Holmes Stereoscope, after its inventor, Oliver Wendell Holmes, who made this entertainment device affordable for the American market). The parallax effect of the two slightly offset images required that the viewer's brain combine them, as it combined the visual sensations from a viewer's own two slightly divergent eyes, thus producing the appearance of three-dimensional depth of field. Used metaphorically by Winthrop (or, rather, by the narrator Byng), the idea of having seen Dreeme fleetingly once, somewhere in the past, and now having a second image to complete, as it were, the stereoscopic effect, should logically lead to recognition rather than stymie it.
But instead of recognizing his old playmate, Byng cannot (or will not) do so, even as he observes that Dreeme appears to recognize him:When he glanced up at me anew, I fancied I saw an evanescent look of recognition drift across his face.
This set me a second time turning over the filmy leaves of the book of portraits in my brain. Was his semblance among those legions of faces packed close and set away in order there? No. I could not identify him. The likeness drifted away from me, and vanished. (150)As readers we must take Cecil Dreeme stereoscopically, as it were: the two queer romances (one beautiful, one sinister) are each other's slightly mismatched counterparts, which, if taken together, produce a historical reality effect. The "stereoscopic counterpart" of the plot of glorious romantic friendship in Cecil Dreeme is the counterplot of sinister same-sex attraction centered in the figure of Densdeth. And just as Byng cannot bring his two images of Cecil together, the novel, we might say, does not bring its two homoerotic love plots into a single focus. This is not, in my view, a deficiency at all—rather, it is one of the qualities that makes Cecil Dreeme such a powerfully queer witness to the contradictions of its historical moment, its suspension between a prior historical deployment in which same-sex passion was uncontroversial and celebrated and an emerging historical deployment that would soon stigmatize same-sex love as morbid, unwholesome, indecent, and perverse.
Roland Barthes in his classic essay "From Work to Text" (1971) elaborated upon the concept of the text (which he famously distinguished from the work) by saying that the essential plurality of the text will make it seem "stereographic," written from multiple directions and thus necessarily read from multiple angles. "The stereographic plurality of the text" is produced, he said, not merely by the ambiguity of its contents but by the irreducible multiplicity of its "weave of signifiers." This image of the stereographic text also appeared in his S/Z: An Essay (1970), where Barthes referred to "the stereographic space of writing." By this he meant to foreground the way in which all writing (understood as text) is characterized not by the peaceable coexistence of different meanings but by their irrefragable heterogeneity, their dissemination of meaning. One senses that Cecil Dreeme fits the description very well, and not only because, like the Balzac story "Sarrasine" that is Barthes's object of textual analysis in S/Z, Winthrop's text too involves gender masquerade. And not only because, as the notes to the present edition show, Cecil Dreeme is woven of countless quotations, allusions, and intertexts, from the Bible to ancient mythologies to the Western classics to contemporary literature.
Cecil Dreeme is "stereoscopic" (and slyly tells us that about itself) because its queer-affirmative "romantic friendship" love plot and its gothic "homosexual panic" love plot are so deeply at odds with one another and yet so intimately allied. Byng tells us that Densdeth aims at "perverting" him (64), as he "perverts" Mr. Denman (197), as he has in the past perverted the decrepit college janitor Locksley, and as he is currently trying to pervert another young man, Raleigh. Trying to characterize his magnetic attraction to the darkly handsome Densdeth, Byng reports that he felt "a hateful love for his society" (184). When Densdeth lies dying, stabbed and bleeding, Byng says he knelt down, "raised Densdeth's head" (330), and gently "parted the black hair from his forehead" (331). "There was the man whom I should have loved if I had not hated" (331). "Should have hated if I had not loved" would have done equally well here.
Chapter XX, "A Nocturne," is as good a place as any to observe this "stereoscopic" textuality in a short compass. Robert and Cecil have a habit of taking long walks together at night, when the reclusive painter feels relatively safe from public observation. But on this night the city seems ominous: "Night! When the gas-lights, relit, reawaken harmful purposes, that had slept through all the hours of honest sunshine in their lairs; when the tigers and tigresses take their stand where their prey will be sure to come; when the rustic in the peaceful country, with leaves whispering and crickets singing around him, sees a glow on the distant horizon, and wonders if the bad city beneath it be indeed abandoned of its godly men, and burning for its crimes. Night! The day of the base, the guilty, and the desolate!" (239). The evocation here of Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities of the plain understood to be given over to the carnal wickedness to which the name sodomy was therefore given, destroyed by the Lord, who rained "brimstone and fire" upon them (Genesis 19:24), cannot be accidental. And yet we are also given the thought of a young man in the rural countryside, looking toward what he has been told is the "bad city," and wondering whether it is in fact really "abandoned of its godly men, and burning for its crimes." It is in this very chapter that Dreeme and Byng first touch each other: "He dropped his cloak and took my arm. It was the first time he had given me this slight token of intimacy" (241). The gesture seals their love; they are now "Orestes and Pylades" (243), as they will be "Damon and Pythias" (348), two exemplary classical pairs of same-sex lovers. But then they have a fateful encounter with Densdeth outside a theater, and he recognizes (but conceals his recognition of) Clara Denman in the guise of Cecil Dreeme. The two love plots (the romantic and the sinister) meet and gaze at one another, so to speak—we might almost say cruise each other—on the nocturnal streets of New York City.
Cecil Dreeme has been reproduced here from its first printing (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1861) and has not been modernized except in one incidental respect. Contractions have been closed up (e.g., is n't becomes isn't, he 's becomes he's, did n't becomes didn't, I 've becomes I've, should n't becomes shouldn't). A few minor typographical errors have also been silently corrected.
The notes to the text at the back of the book, keyed to page numbers, identify quotations and many literary allusions; provide classical, biblical, biographical, and other historical references; translate non-English words and phrases; and provide other kinds of supplementary information.