The second stop on my queer literary adventure has been delightful! As much as Melmoth the Wanderer was a slog through meandering gothic horror, Joseph and His Friend, A Story of Pennsylvania, by Bayard Taylor is brimming with sweetness and romance.
Published in 1870, Joseph and His Friend, on its face, is the story of Joseph Asten, a 23-year-old farmer who lives a sheltered, but comfortable life with his aunt in rural Pennsylvania. Taylor paints him as a nice young man. A shy, earnest person who takes folks as he meets them. The wonder of this book is that the love story isn’t between Joseph and his new bride. It’s between Joseph and his friend, Philip Held.
There’s the obligatory “bolt out of the blue” moment when Joseph first spots Philip on a train.
“He was moderately handsome, yet it was not of that which Joseph thought; he felt that there was more of developed character and a richer past history expressed in those features than in any other face there. He felt sure—and smiled at himself, notwithstanding, for the impression—that at least some of his own doubts and difficulties had found their solution in the stranger’s nature.
Bayard Taylor. Joseph and His Friend: A Story of Pennsylvania (p. 91). cbook2823. Kindle Edition.
Of course, there’s a minor train accident and Joseph (literally) falls into Philip’s arms. So far, they’ve had a few interactions, but every time they’re together Joseph and Philip are both careful and tender in the way of young lovers in 19th-century romance.
There’s no sexual relationship between the two men, and everything I’ve read about the book leads me to believe it won’t be explicitly stated or implied. But the gravitas of the two men’s growing regard for each other is full of stomach-flipping lightness that’s the mark of a good romance.
Joseph and His Friend: a Story of Pennsylvania was Bayard Taylor’s final novel. According to the Kennett Library’s biography, he considered it his best work, but it wasn’t received well by the public. Joseph is regarded as one of the first gay novels in American literature and is a jumping off point for many folks who study queer literary theory and gender studies.
Joseph and Philip both demonstrate masculinity that eschews toxic, machismo. They are both competent, intelligent men who don’t feel the need to beat their chests to prove they are men. No one is clutching their cravat and agonizing over the nature of their friendship or trying to “out man” each other (at least not so far).
It’s refreshing, which is a weird statement when applied to a 19th-century novel. But, as an author of queer historical fiction and erotic fantasy/romance, the gentle kindness of the protagonist and the man to whom he forms a romantic attachment is beautiful to watch develop.
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The other aspect of Joseph that I’m entranced by is the representation of such an openly romantic relationship in a book that was written and published the late 19th-century. As a person who self-identifies as queer, I think it’s important to look for representation in the past and present and advocate for representation in the future.
Taylor’s novel requires no mental gymnastics to read as queer and that’s why it’s an important stop on this queer time-traveling adventure.
“Spring Landscape,” Thomas Doughty (American, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1793–1856 New York), ca. 1853–56, Gift of George F. Shelton and Mrs. F. H. Markoe, in memory of their father, Theodore B. Shelton, 1917, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, www.metmuseum.org.