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    A Gay Victorian Love Story

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky–

    It was love at first sight for the two young men, students at Harvard just before the Civil War. Tom, “a lovely boy,” was strikingly beautiful—his “beauty charms you immediately”—with “soft, curling brown hair, deep blue eyes, and a dazzling complexion.” Ned, “not as handsome as Tom, still was “a graceful boy of twenty,” with an olive complexion, brown eyes, “lips strongly cut,” and a mercurial personality.

    Ned was deeply in love with Tom. “I care more for him than for any one else in the world,” he told a professor, “but you never will know how much.” He wondered “if I shall ever care for any woman as much as I do for Tom.” He refused to meet Tom’s parents, he said, “because I did not wish to have our attachment or my character analyzed or criticized” by them.

    Their attachment was obvious to others. After they enlisted as soldiers in the Civil War—Tom followed Ned into uniform—even a rebel soldier, a “Virginia barbarian” with “a rough, unshaven face” noticed it: “You care for him as you would for a gal, don’t you?” And why not? He’s “pootier than any gal I ever see anywhar.”

    The friends, of course, would do anything for each other. First Tom saved Ned’s life during a fierce battle. Later, captured by Confederates, Ned escaped across enemy lines with Tom to get him the help he needed after being seriously wounded. He told an orderly tending Tom, “Go outside” and “let no one enter under any pretext whatever.” Then he “threw himself down beside Tom … laid his hand upon his forehead, and bent over and kissed his hot face.”

    At last Ned spoke his true feelings to Tom. “O my darling, my darling, my darling! Please hear me. The only one I have ever loved at all, the only one who has ever loved me. If you knew how I love you, how I have loved you in all my jealous, morbid moods, in all my exacting selfishness—O Tom!—You won’t forget Ned, darling; he was something to you; you were all the world to him. O Tom!”

    Journalist, novelist and poet Fred W. Loring told Ned and Tom’s story in Two College Friends, published in 1871, the year after he graduated Harvard summa cum laude. Written at a time when human sexuality simply was not discussed or even acknowledged publicly, Loring, in what to us seems remarkably frank terms, described a deeply emotional, homo-romantic relationship between the boys, including numerous allusions to the true and complete nature of their intimacy.

    It was a “gay” love story from 1871. Loring’s readers would not have thought so, however. During the 19th century, Americans believed in intense “romantic friendships” between two people of the same gender, who often expressed their mutual affection with great candor. Erotic intimacy, which our world sees as necessary to validate a passionate love between two people, was not required—or acceptable—to complete the yearning two men or two women had for each other.

    When it was published, Loring’s readers would have found the novel in a tradition of American storytelling that went back at least to Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826); included Melville’s Moby Dick (1851); and continued with Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). These books, and others, as the historian A. L. Rowse wrote in a different context, “do not see manliness as instinctive, but rather as something to be gained by moral effort.” This is also Loring’s theme.

    Here was a world where young men—or a younger man guided by an older man—were deeply devoted to each other, achieved manhood through personal moral struggle, had committed relationships, and sacrificed for their companion. It was a man’s world completely, one that was away from the “interference of women,” who they believed brought civilization and softness.

    By the time Two College Friends appeared in print, Loring was a member of a government-sponsored expedition to the Arizona Territory as a correspondent for Appleton’s Journal. The trek was difficult, especially for a sensitive New England author used to raw oysters and eiderdown, and not hardtack and rough cloth. In August of that year he wrote to his employers, “I am bootless, coatless, everything but lifeless,” but he stayed with it for another three months.

    Loring met Evil Merodach, a saddle mule whom he named after an obscure Babylonian monarch mentioned in the Bible, at an Arizona trading post in October. The two never became great friends. The beast threw him several times, trampled his hat, and decided to be difficult at inconvenient moments, including those just before they had their picture taken, Loring’s last.

    That November, after eight months on the frontier, Loring was dead in an ambush near Wickenburg, Arizona, where he is buried.

    In his eulogy, William Ellery Channing wrote of “Loring! Boy of the Roman face, The sweeping locks, and that expression stern, Sweet in its early manhood.” Was he Ned? Was he truly so passionate about another man? We may never know.

    As somebody once remarked, “Most gay history lies buried in bachelor graves.” Loring eventually became unread, but his only novel remains a heartfelt tale of the great, enduring love between two college friends long ago.

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.