Queer Cowboys: And Other Erotic Male Friendships in Nineteenth-Century American Literature Paperback – 1 Mar 2006
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A searching and original study. Chris Packard has managed to tease out evidence of same-sex attraction in places where one would not have expected to find it. - Larry McMurtry, co-writer of the award-winning screenplay for Brokeback Mountain and author of Lonesome Dove
Thanks, Chris Packard, for searching out eros between men in the texts that created the iconic image of the Western American hero. So 'Come back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!' and see what this scholar has found. - Jonathan Ned Katz, author, Love Stories: Sex between Men before Homosexuality
Thought provoking, and the author has courage.....worth reading. - Amazon customer review
About the Author
CHRIS PACKARD teaches Literature and Writing at New York University and New School University, USA.
Top Customer Reviews
Some passages are rather hard going such as “queer theory…posits that erotic desire between men essentially erases identity since it subverts the transitional subject/object praxis that undergirfs presumptions about heterosexual desire.”
What really went on under the stars and out on the vast plains all those years ago will never really be known. For the most part the cowboys were illiterate and English wasn't even their native language with Spanish more than likely the most common language on the range. It is not unreasonable to suppose that young men of a gay disposition with no education or family support would have found male friendships on the plains very rewarding. The men would have become surrogate family and no doubt - in the absence of women - some men would have turned to the willing for comfort. I believe the psychologists call it 'situational homosexuality' - the same as observed in prisons, the Army, boarding schools and segregated religious societies. There may be no emotional component however and the behaviour evaporates when society norms are re-established.
I would be curious to know what marks were awarded for the original thesis. High marks for structure and form. Low for content.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Gay readers tend to reflexively enthuse over books that present "queer history" in a positive light, while straight readers too-often bring a sackful of prejudices. The latter, in particular, are obvious in these reviews. (See the reviews of "Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe".)
The "Queer Cowboys" title is intentionally provocative. The subtitle tells us what the book is actually about -- the way 19th-century American writers and literature presented close male friendships. (In this usage, "erotic" means emotional, not necessarily sexual.)
Does it bother you that Mark Twain was very much aware of what men did with each other when women weren't around? Or that he apparently wrote a sketch about a man who'd lost his girlfriend asking his best friend to submit to penetrative sex as an act of consolation? Does it bother you that cowboys engaged in mutual masturbation (and other activities) to relieve their sexual stress -- and probably to "take pleasure in" their masculinity? Does it bother you that "The Virginian" has bluntly homoerotic elements, * that Owen Wister was probably in love with the man the title character is modeled on? Does it bother you that several of Bret Harte's stories ("Tennesee's Partner", "In the Tules", "Uncle Jim and Uncle Billy") are barely disguised narratives about two men's physical and/or emotional attraction to each other? **
If so, you won't like this book.
It's disappointing to see reviewers mis-reading what (to me) is plain in Packard's analysis. Given that cowboys, ranchers, miners, mountain men, et al, present an image of rough masculinity, stories about them are implicitly homoerotic. But Packard focuses on the "coded" -- and sometimes not-so-coded -- elements. Nowhere does he suggest that all cowboys had sexual feelings for each other, or that if Pea-Eye Parker and Dish Boggett just happened to wander into the bushes to masturbate, that made them "homosexuals". ***
What he is showing is what is plainly there, if you don't willfully blind yourself to it. Amos Lassen's naive review reveals that he has little knowledge or understanding of human sexuality. Human males have been messing around with each other as long as there have been human males, regardless of how you choose to label such behavior.
Someone might profitably study Westerns for coded homoeroticism. For example, in two of the Mann/Stewart films, Jimmy Stewart's character and his sidekick briefly reminisce over what they friendship has meant to them, and how much they care about each other. This might not have been intentionally homoerotic, but it /is/ there, and is worth noting, as American films of any genre do not generally have such scenes. ("The Far Country", in particular, written by Borden Chase (who also gave us the infamous "I wanna see your gun" scene in "Red River", is a story of the "bachelor marriage" of Jimmy Stewart and Walter Brennan. It's crudely obviously when you take off your heterosexual blinders.)
My only quibble with "Queer Cowboys" is that Packard occasionally over-interprets and exaggerates his case. But not too often.
Recommended, unless you're afraid of alternative points of view.
* I have recently read all the novels and short stories referred to in this review.
** In "Uncle Jim and Uncle Billy", Harte notes that Jim and Billy, a "married" couple in a mining camp, sleep in separate beds. This was probably a conscious attempt to avoid any suggestion of deviant sex. Such an interpretation would probably not have occurred to a strictly hetero writer.
*** I interpret Larry McMurtry's refusal to acknowledge sexual behavior among cowboys, etc, as simple cowardice.
Owen Wister's THE VIRGINIAN was a famous novel written by a contemporary of Henry James who actually was a cowboy himself, briefly, in youth. Its narrator, an Eastern newcomer, is in love with the Virginian, that's pretty obvious from Packard's canny precis. This chapter is the highlight of Packard's discussion and the one that comes closest to furthering his thesis. Succeeding chapters descend into writing's netherworlds, of softcore porn, lockerroom ballads, and Mark Twain's obscene smoking room talks, to show that American men were not above appreciating same-sex love as a basis for comedy, though it is a pity Packard couldn't find any cowboys doing so.
The book feels oddly foreshortened at the end, as though the publisher were punishing him for running overtime and stopped the argument, arbitrarily, at a certain number of pages. But I enjoyed myself thoroughly and could definitely see an expanded edition.
The stated objective of this thesis is to explore the "bonds that hold ... [same-sex partners, i.e. `sidekicks'] together, particularly the erotic affection that undergirds their friendship." To do this it painstakingly explores the "originary" texts of seminal, nineteenth-century writers who, individually and collectively, created the prevailing stereotype of the devoted same-sex partners. Moreover, the author undertakes to "teach readers how to recognize homoerotic affection in a historical discourse that was free from the derogatory meanings associated with post-1900 evaluations of male-male erotic friendships"--a not overly presumptuous ambition, given that Packard teaches literature and writing at New York University and New School University.
Okay, I am one such hypothetical reader, so let's see how well Professor Packard achieved his objectives.
At the risk of oversimplifying Packard's thesis, it starts with an underlying premise that before 1900--i.e. before "the modern invention of the `homosexual' as a social pariah"--cowboy relationships were freely represented as quite a bit more affectionate than they are after that date. Moreover, although the stereotypes generally depicted ethnic warfare; citing the threat of "savagery" as justification for ethnic slaughter, and the freeing-up of territory to make way for European homesteaders, writers like James Fennimore Cooper wrote about friendships, "even marriage rituals," between members of warring groups based on shared values. In addition friendships between young whites and natives were quite common. These mixed friendships usually had the natives tutoring the boys in the primitive ways of the wilderness, and included rituals of brotherhood, i.e. exchanging blood, and other physical, nuptial-like rites.
Notably absent from this literary same-sex scenario is any role for femininity, which is described by one quoted authority, Walter Benn Michaels, as "...the problem of heterosexuality." The `problem' being the threat of reproduction in a period when fear of mixed-ethnicity through sex or marriage was keen in American culture. Moreover, femininity and reproduction ran contrary to the strong, independent, and particularly `free' nature of the cowboy characters.
"Within canonical as well as ignored literature, high culture as well as low, homoerotic intimacy is not only present, but it is thematic in works produced before the modern want him to be queer. America's official emblem of masculinity is not one who settles down after he conquests ... rather, he moves on, perpetually conquering, and repeatedly affirming his ties to the wilderness and his male partner."
Having thus stated his hypotheses, Packard then goes on to support these with an anthology of mostly "canonical" writings--i.e. Cooper's "The Leatherstocking Tales," Owen Wister's "The Virginian," and Walt Whitman's poetry. He also introduces some lesser known examples, such as Claude Hartland's "The Story of a Life," Frank Harris's "My Reminiscences as a Cowboy," and Frederick Loring's "Two College Friends."
While circumstantial, when read from a homoerotic perspective Packard makes a very compelling case, over all. There are no `smoking-gun' examples, of course, because such blatancies would have been considered excessive by Eastern readers--meaning east of the Mississippi, but it is evident that the implication was there just below the surface. Consequently, he has also taught us how to recognize homoerotic affection in "historic discourse."
To get to that level of edification, however, the reader has had to wade through an Introduction that I found to be a jumble of complex ideas, confusingly presented and fraught with academic jargon--i.e. "nexus," "praxis," "lingua franca," and so forth. A case on point:
"Given the instant and undying popularity of cowboys in U.S. popular culture during a period of rapid national expansion, to identify a homoerotic core in its myth about the supremacy of white American masculinity is to imply that American audiences want their frontiersmen to practice nonnormative desires as part of their roles in nation building. In other words, if there is something national about the cowboy (and other frontier heroes of his ilk), and if there is something homoerotic about American national identity as it is conceived in the American West."
Perhaps I am a bit slow on the uptake, but I didn't find the "In other words" any more elucidating than the original statement.
Happily, once he launches into the body of the argument his tone becomes somewhat less esoteric, and apart from belabouring some points--giving a new dimension to the term `moot point'--he presents a very interesting and informative perspective on nineteenth-century thought.
Those looking for titillating erotica, however, are bound to be disappointed but well-informed after reading this work.
Gerry Burnie Books
Canadian history from a gay perspective series.
It is cashing in on the 'virility' factor assoicated with cowboys.
I suggest you reading this book in tandem with "Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth Century Caribbean"
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