Was Bayard Taylor America’s First Gay Novelist?
Exploring the foggy world of an 18th-century novelist.
Time and circumstances change how we look at things. In the 1870s, a man who consorted almost exclusively with other men—traveling and sleeping with them, speaking of his love for them—would be about average. What choice did a guy have? Victorian convention made relationships with women formal and artificial. Only male relationships could be close and casual.
Today, though, it all seems rather, well, gay.
That’s the posthumous predicament of Chester County’s Bayard Taylor. In 1870, he published the not-so-successful novel, Joseph and His Friend: A Story of Pennsylvania. Some historians have since declared it America’s first gay novel. As evidence of Taylor’s sexuality, they point to his six-year engagement to
high-school sweetheart Mary Agnew. “The engagement, like all suspicious engagements, was a long one,” observed Philadelphia writer Thom Nickels. “What forced the marriage was Mary Agnew’s coming down with tuberculosis.”
The couple had only been married two months when she died in December 1850. Quite convenient—except that Taylor later remarried a woman with whom he then lived for 20 years.
Born in Kennett Square, Taylor was the product of an English-German family. His father, Joseph, was a prosperous farmer. Farming didn’t interest Taylor, so it was his good fortune when, in 1837, his dad
was elected Chester County sheriff. The new job required that the family relocate to West Chester, where young Taylor attended Bolmar’s Academy, a private school probably several notches better than any available near the family farm. While studying in West Chester, he published his first article, an account of a visit to Brandywine Battlefield, in the West Chester Register. His first poem ran in the Saturday Evening Post the following year. He was just 16.
Taylor wanted to go to college, but his family had no money for that. Instead, he apprenticed for four years with a West Chester printer. He lasted 12 months, quitting when Philadelphia magazine editor Rufus Griswold suggested that he write a book of poetry.
Taylor wound up selling Ximena; or the Battle of the Sierra Morena, and Other Poems by subscription. The title work is 40 pages of verbose Victoriana about a battle in medieval Spain. Taylor made enough from Ximena that—with letters of commitment from the Saturday Evening Post and the Gazette of the United States to print his travel stories—he could afford to buy out his apprenticeship and travel to Europe.
The European tour lasted two years. When he returned, Taylor republished his newspaper columns in book form: Views A-foot; or Europe Seen with Knapsack and Staff, written to appeal to the would-be traveler of modest means. “I could not content myself to wait until I had slowly accumulated so large a sum as tourists usually spend on their travels,” wrote Taylor in his preface. “It seemed to me that a more humble method of seeing the world would place within the power of almost everyone what has hitherto been deemed the privilege of the wealthy few.”
He took a second-class cabin, ate and roomed with locals, and did a lot of walking. The book sold well, and Taylor received congratulations from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier, both of whom met with him on a visit to Boston. Heady stuff for a 21-year-old.
Needing a steady income, Taylor bought a newspaper in Phoenixville. But the daily grind of running it wasn’t really his style. One biographer, Albert Smyth, wrote that Taylor had a “delicately adjusted nervous organization” that “shrank from the coarse and homely duties of the garden and the field.” That is, from routine. After a year, he sold the paper and moved to New York to work for $5 a week at The Literary World. Published from 1847 to 1852, the paper was the New York Times book review of its day—the first important American weekly devoted to discussion of current books.
It was a great position from which to meet anyone in American publishing. Taylor was handsome, personable and, according to Smyth, full of personal magnetism “to his finger tips.” He soon attracted a variety of offers. The best came from Horace Greeley. In 1848, Taylor began a life-long association with the New-York Tribune, which soon sent him to California to write about the Gold Rush. That trip resulted in Eldorado, one of his best and most popular travel books. When Taylor returned to New York in March 1850, he received a raise and a partnership in the Tribune.
Back in Kennett Square, Mary Agnew was dying. While her fiancé bustled about in New York, collecting accolades and working on high-profile projects, her life had become a search for relief from a nagging cough and physical decline. In the era before antibiotics, that meant fresh air and sunshine. But, as winter came in 1850, it was plain that neither had altered her downward trend. “We have had some heartbreaking hours, talking of what is before us,” Taylor wrote to a friend in October. “We were married on the 24th. There were only three persons present—Mary’s parents and my mother. I shall be obliged to leave for New York tomorrow.”
Mary Agnew was buried in December. Eight months later, Taylor was off again, this time to the Middle East. In Egypt, he met August Bufleb, a German businessman. Both men became enamored of the other. Bufleb wrote home to his wife that Taylor was “a glorious young man.” “If it were not for you, I would go with him. He has won my love by his amiability, his excellent heart, his pure spirit, in a degree of which I did not believe myself capable,” he said.
Of Bufleb, Taylor told his mother, “When we speak of parting in a few days, it brings the tears into our eyes.”
Whatever was going on, Bufleb became an important friend. Taylor’s later visits at his home strengthened his interest in things German. They also introduced him to Marie Hansen (the niece of Bufleb’s wife), whom he would marry in 1857, and led to his appointment as U.S. ambassador in Berlin.
Taylor lived well. He built a mansion, Cedarcroft, which still stands in East Marlborough Township, and used it to entertain lavishly. But that lifestyle became a sort of prison: Taylor wanted to be known for poetry and fiction. But the need for money demanded that he focus on travel writing, which was popular. In his career, Taylor wrote 10 travel books and was known as the “Great American Traveler,” but travel interested him less and less.
Taylor’s first novel, 1863’s Hannah Thurston: A Story of American Life, is set in Chester County, which he clearly loved, though with mixed feelings. The book describes the area’s pleasures—tavern dances, foxhunting, etc.—but also the “serious people” (Quakers and reformers) who were forever pushing women’s suffrage, abolition and other causes. Taylor’s title character is a Quaker suffragist who ultimately gives up her activism when she finds happiness in submission to a strong and sophisticated man.
The New York Times described the work as “strangely peaceful” for something written during the Civil War. The review interpreted the story as one of love triumphing over all.
Taylor’s opinion of women seems to have declined still further by the time he published Joseph and His Friend in 1870. It’s prefaced by a dedication to “those who believe in the truth and tenderness of man’s love for man, as of man’s love for
woman.” The hero is a handsome, blue-eyed 22-year-old Pennsylvania farmer, Joseph Asten. Engaged to one Julia Blessing, Asten falls hard for Philip Held, a man into whose arms he’s literally thrown in a minor train accident.
The marriage is a disaster. Julia has a taste for luxury that soon eats into her new husband’s finances, and her father borrows money for business ventures that turn bad. Then Julia dies, after accusing Joseph (unfairly) of infidelity. He is implicated in her murder, but is acquitted when Held bursts into court with a witness who proves that Julia herself had bought the arsenic that killed her.
His ordeal over, and Joseph resolves to go west with Philip.
They took each other’s hands. The day was fading, the landscape was silent, and only the twitter of nesting birds was heard in the boughs above them. Each gave way to the impulse of his manly love, rarer, alas! But as tender and true as the love of woman, and they drew nearer and kissed each other. As they walked back and parted on the highway, each felt that life was not wholly unkind, and that happiness was not yet impossible.
The story doesn’t end there—19th-century convention wouldn’t have permitted it. Joseph does go west on a trip, glimpses a valley paradise that Held had described, and sends him “manly” love letters. But then he goes home and takes a sudden interest in Held’s look-alikesister, Madeline. Convention prevails.
The novel was not popular. Smyth dismissed it this way: “It’s an unpleasant story of mean duplicity and painful mistakes. The characters are shallow and their surroundings mean. There is not a single pleasing situation or incident.”
Taylor’s defense of the book was mostly muted. “What I attempted to do,” he wrote, “was to throw some indirect light on the great questions which underlie civilized life, and the existence of which is only dimly felt, if not intelligently perceived by most Americans.”
Was Taylor gay or just worldly? It’s hard to say for sure. His attitudes differed from those of his contemporaries. He was fond of the Middle East, where male friends still walk hand-in-hand in public. He was also religiously tolerant—even of phallic worship, which he said offered “profound philosophical truth.”
Perhaps he was merely a traveler who, after a long time away, returned to his native land and saw it for the first time.