Book Review

Haggerty, George E. Men in Love: Masculinity and Sexuality in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Reviewed by William Warner | July 12, 2000

There is a wonderful polemical directness in George E. Haggerty’s important new contribution to gay and lesbian studies in this period, entitled Men in Love: Masculinity and Sexuality in the Eighteenth Century. Haggerty accepts the consensus position, as developed by Michel Foucault, that modern homosexuality, as a practice and identity position, is a relatively recent, late 19th century invention. But he offers a shrewd correction to two recurrent tendencies he detects in most of the scholarship on male-male relationship: to repeat the logic of the sodomy trials of the eighteenth century by straining to discover if the men in question really “did it”; or, conversely, to assure us all, that no matter the scope, passion, and extravagance of avowal of desire and affection between men, “they were nothing more than friends.” Haggerty gets us to see what is homophobic and disciplinary in these two responses. Why, since Western culture has given us a powerful, ambiguous and vexed four-letter word to describe this type of human attachment, why don’t we just call it “love?” Because, some might reply, the word “love” can function as a euphemism, sliding in meaning, as it so often does, between lustful sexual acts and a profound feeling of attachment? Yes, replies Haggerty, and that is precisely what makes “love” the proper word and concept to describe the “men in love” in the eighteenth century his book investigates. Framing his study with a deft and readable overview of the debates in gay studies, Haggerty organizes the first half of his book into overviews of three historically specific types of masculinity: the “heroic friendships” found in Restoration heroic drama (and beyond) that build upon the idealization of the male-male bond in classical times; the “gay fops” and “straight fops” who populate the comedies and novels of the eighteenth century, figures who most often express the culture’s unease with effeminacy; and, finally, the special importance of the man of feeling and sensibility as he develops in the novels and letters of the second half of the century, and offers a language for the articulation of more explicit same-sex love. All three of these chapters deliver a vivid account of how a particular style of masculinity offers a way of expressing same sex love, or making it a matter for public opprobrium. What emerges is a strong sense of the variety and dynamism of the way men loved men. The second half of the book offers case studies of Thomas Gray, William Beckford and Horace Walpole. In these three chapters, Haggerty finds a way to balance a sensitive reading of the biography with a nuanced reading of their writing. The object of attention is the relationship between men, and the nature of that relationship, at it unfolds in tension with the homophobia of the period. However, Haggerty shows, in his thoughtful discussion of passages from poems and plays and letters and novels, how entangled matters of love are with the writing of texts. Thus, by reading Gray’s series of texts to an absent and beloved friend – first Horace Walpole then Richard West – Haggerty demonstrates how Gray finally sublimates those feelings into the complexly realized melancholy of the Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard. In moving from a same sex love that must be hidden in private letters or Latin poems, Gray memorializes his own loss in a form that allows it to become public and universal. Like the best criticism, Haggerty’s readings changes the way very familiar literature reads. Because of the power of Haggerty’s account, it will be difficult to push the simple but vivid fact of men in love back into the closets of our cultural and literary histories.

Back to Book Reviews