“Better Angels,” The Story Behind the Story
Bayard Taylor wrote “Joseph and His Friend: A Pennsylvania Story” in honor of his recently deceased friend, poet Fitz-Greene Halleck. It is his work that inspired me to retell it as “Better Angels.”
Fitz-Greene Halleck was born in the Puritanical town of Guilford, Connecticut, in 1790. He realized fairly early on that he had different desires from other boys. While his classmates went out for sports and chased girls, Fitz-Greene wrote frilly poetry and dreamed of courting other boys.
His first romantic encounter arrived from Cuba in the person of Carlos Menie. Sent by his father to learn English, Menie somehow ended up in the same village as 19-year-old Halleck. The two spent much time together, and following Menie’s return to Havana a year later, Halleck penned scores of poems inspired by his pining for the dark-skinned boy he greatly missed.
At the first opportunity, Halleck ran off to New York, where he had heard he would meet men with similar inclinations. His poetry brought him to national attention early on, and he became known as one of this country’s best writers. However, it was not the public’s adoration he desired. Halleck wanted more than anything to be in a loving relationship with another man.
In confessional letters to his sister Maria, Fitz-Greene described the attributes (and pitfalls) of the men he knew through his work or at a series of Greenwich Village boarding houses. They all fell short of his high standards for matrimony.
Through a friend of Maria, Halleck finally met the man of his dreams, Doctor Joseph Rodman Drake, in 1813. Halleck and Drake quickly began a life together than included writing poetry collaboratively and entertaining other bachelor friends.
Bowing to family pressure, Drake married Sarah Eckford, a woman from a wealthy family, in 1816. Halleck refused to be part of the wedding ceremony, and the two hardly communicated for months.
In 1817, the two finally reconnected, at Drake’s insistence. They worked together until Drake’s early death in 1820.
Halleck quickly assumed the role of widow, with grief unbounded. The love of his life had perished much too soon. He wrote an elegy for Drake, and a few of the stanzas are carved into the headstone.
Green be the turf above thee,
Friend of my better days!
None knew thee but to love thee
Nor named thee but to praise.
Throughout the rest of his life, Halleck mourned Drake. His creative output diminished, and, starting in 1832, he worked for John Jacob Astor as an account manager, hardly ever writing poetry during that time.
After the death of Astor in 1848, Halleck could no longer afford living in New York, and he returned to his native Guilford. He spent the rest of his days lecturing and writing infrequently. Although he had received offers of marriage from women, some of whom were wealthy devotees, Halleck turned them all down, determined to live the life of a “gay bachelor.”
Many compared his work (and life) to that of Lord Byron, for whom he compiled a complete edition entitled Works of Lord Byron.
Following the death of Halleck, Bayard Taylor decided to write a novel loosely based on his friend, the famous bachelor poet. There are many comparisons, parallels, and allusions to the relationship between Halleck and Drake woven into Joseph and His Friend. Due to the culture of the time, Taylor could not openly discuss the true nature of the friendship, and he had to resort to subtle phrases, coded language, and euphemisms. However, careful reading evokes the same-sex nature of the characters.
Homosexuality in the United States
Much of the history of same-sex culture in America has been erased, forgotten, or whitewashed. There are tales of Native Americans having Two-Spirit or berdache tribe members who were highly regarded as spiritually-advanced. Some adopted the clothes and ways of the opposite sex, but their behavior was accepted and not considered improper.
The Judeo-Christian culture of the European explorers/invaders did not accept same-sex relationships, and they attempted to squelch such behavior. The French tended to be more tolerant of homosexuality (France decriminalized same-sex activity in 1791), but the Protestant British accused those French Catholics of favoring a Mortal Sin.
Early Colonial laws regarding “Sodomy” and “Buggery” advocated capital punishment; however, over time, each state dropped its death sentence, with New York being one of the first, and Halleck’s Connecticut being one of the last.
Due to its more relaxed and cosmopolitan nature, New York City became the center for homosexual culture in the early 19th Century. The Bowery was the hub for “like-minded” gentlemen, with such establishments as the Paresis Club, Little Bucks, Manilla Hall, the Palm Club, the Black Rabbit, Samuel Bickard’s Artistic Club, the Slide, and Pfaff’s.
Over time, the more conservative religious civic officials made it more difficult for same-sex couples to congregate in public, and raids on LGBTQ bars and establishments became fairly routine up until the 1969 Stonewall riots.
During the mid-19th Century, most people with homosexual feelings tended to move to larger population centers (New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco) where they could be judged more on the quality of their work than by whom they wanted to be intimate with.
Most Judeo-Christian religions had harsh words for homosexuals, but Unitarians and the Quakers were more open to differences, as long as the differences did not compete with their core Christian values. Taylor, being brought up Quaker (and most likely homosexual himself), might have had more compassion and understanding than other writers of his time.
The word “homosexual” did not enter our common vocabulary until very late in the 19th Century. Until generally-accepted terms for people in non-heteronormative relationships emerged in the mid-20th Century, some of the derogatory words used were: sodomite, pederast, calamite, bugger, bender, poofter/poof, fairy, fey, invert, and Uranian. Some of these terms made same-sex activity sound illegal, immoral, or other-worldly. Over time, as society in general has become more tolerant and accepting, the LGBTQ communities have chosen their own labels and symbols to describe themselves.
In Joseph and His Friend, Taylor attempted to relate a tale of two men who found love with each other. However, due to the stringent restraints placed on mentioning such delicate subjects in literature at the time, he was not able to portray the story openly and had to use suggestive ways to describe his characters’ motivations. Even so, the book has been labelled, “the first American Gay novel.” Better Angelsis my attempt to update his 1870 work, relating and retelling the tale frankly and more naturally.
Title: Better Angels
Author: Wayne Goodman
Release Date: June 4th 2017
Genre: Gay Fiction, Retelling, Historical
Find Better Angels on Goodreads
Joseph Asten, a handsome, 23-year-old farmer living in the Allegheny River Valley shortly after the Civil War, secretly longed for intimacy and love with other men. He devised a misguided plan to marry a woman who knew of his “dual nature” then his life took some unexpected, fateful turns.
Bayard Taylor’s Joseph and His Friend: A Pennsylvania Story is considered the first American Gay novel. Originally published in 1869 as a serial in The Atlantic, the author could not relate the story openly and had to use suggestive ways to describe his characters’ activities and motivations. In Better Angels, Goodman retells the tale frankly and candidly, free from antiquated 19th Century cultural restraints. This is the author’s second book revivifying forgotten, historically-significant Queer stories. Previously, in Vanya Says, “Go!,” Goodman updated the first Russian-language Gay novel Wings, by Silver-Age poet Mikhail Kuzmin.
Available on Kindle Unlimited
Praise for Better Angels:
“A lovely story, sumptuous in language and ideas with a rich ambience. For people who love a love story, it is thoroughly rewarding.” –Vincent Meis, author of Deluge
“Goodman has turned the pallid prose of travel writer Bayard Taylor into a scintillating trip through 19th Century America. Those who loved James Baldwin’s Another Country and Giovanni’s Room will ﬁnd something of value in Goodman’s latest triumph.” – Kevin Killian, author of Tony Greene Era
“Better Angels is a great read and a wonderful glimpse into a story of the 19th Century that has rarely been told. It writes queerness back into literary history, with an anti-racist spin.” – Dr. Ajuan Mance, author of Before Harlem
“A remarkable literary feat of resurrecting the first American gay novel. With meticulous prose and clever dialogue, Goodman offers a fascinating glimpse into love between American men in the 19th Century.” – Elizeya Quate, author of Face of Our Town
“Better Angels takes another obscure, early Gay novel and brings it back to life, updating language, amplifying the story, and presenting love between men and men, and women and women more directly than it could have been presented when the book was ﬁrst published. Goodman performs a historical service, giving readers a glimpse of Gay life lived 150 years ago.” –Richard May, author of Inhuman Beings
Joseph felt the hum from the multitudinous spirits of life in every nerve and vein, marching triumphantly in a procession through secret passages and summoning the phantoms of sense to their completed chambers. He imagined his mind and soul balanced above a strong pinion as he rode farther and farther from his home.
At once, the great joy of human life filled and thrilled him. All possibilities of action and pleasure and emotion swam before his eyes. He envisioned many of the individual careers he had ever read about in all ages, climates, and conditions of humanity–dazzling pictures of the myriad-sided Earth. All this could be his if he but dared to seize the freedom waiting for his grasp.
He finally accepted that he did feel love for his longtime friend, Elwood Withers, as he himself had described it on their ride to the first gathering at the Warriners. Joseph would rather touch Elwood’s hand, or shirt, more than kissing anyone else. Miss Blessing and Lucy Henderson may have stirred a mild passion in him, but nothing like his constant craving for male companionship. Even with all the buffoonery and loud talk, Elwood had captured Joseph’s heart. Elwood embodied all the things Joseph aspired to be–outgoing, confident, worldly–and it made his brain run to his heels whenever Elwood came into view. However, Elwood professed to be interested in the young women, particularly Miss Elizabeth Henderson. Joseph understood his feelings could not be reciprocated, and he had to accept that his feelings differed from the others. His love for another man made him feel like a lone stalk of corn in a field of waving wheat.
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Wayne Goodman has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area most of his life (with too many cats). When not writing, he enjoys playing Gilded Age parlor music on the piano, with an emphasis on women, gay, and Black composers.