A WRITER'S WIT
My Book World
Photographs of Men Together, 1840
-1918. New York: Abrams, 2001.
A number of years ago I bought a box of notecards entitled Dear Friends, featuring fifteen cards of five different subjects: pairs of nineteenth-century men photographed in intimate poses. Recently I became aware that these photographs were featured in a book by the same title. Deitcher, art historian and critic, has put forth a large collection of such photographs and makes speculative commentary about his subjects. He explores if men of the nineteenth century were less concerned about how they were viewed than men in the ensuing centuries seemed to have been. Are these heterosexual men holding hands, with arms around each other, brothers of one brand or another? Indeed, did people even use terms like hetero- and homosexual? They did not, not until Freud and his ilk contrived them.
Among many interesting observations the author brings to the reader’s attention is the idea that men’s work was largely artisanal, that a teen would live under the same roof under the direction of an older man for several years, to learn a trade before venturing out on his own. In his town my own grandfather (born 1894) lived with a man old enough to be his grandfather and learned the harness-making trade. With advent of the industrial age this kind of relationship faded away. Men became isolated in their work, and competitive, though ironically they worked elbow-to-elbow in factories. It is lovely to think that men of varying sexualities might have felt comfortable in their skins enough to express physical affection that might or might not have been sexual. After all, I believe prepubescent boys find a certain strength by being physically close to their fathers. I too one day will have a strong body like this one. I too will father children. I too will be strong. On TV the other night the camera panned over a major league baseball game crowd, and an older boy was standing behind one would presume his father, with his arms loosely around the man’s neck. The father, perhaps born in the seventies, was okay with it, kind of like a lion would withstand the affections of a cub. It was a touching sight, one seldom seen when I was that age. Deitcher seems to echo my feelings:
“My initial enthusiasm on seeing this photograph was soon tempered by recognizing their mutual resemblance. Could they be father and son? The collector also enclosed a copy of documentation that had accompanied the photograph when he bought it. In part, the documentation read: ‘A piece of paper behind the image has the names Henbraon Van Pelt and Ed Thomas.’ So, I concluded, they are not father and son” (132).
“We are left, then, with uncertainty, with that blend of desire and doubt that transports the observer to conduct research that itself leads back to uncertainty. In their elusiveness, their resistance to naming and categorization, such photographs become their own poetic evidence of the fluidity that marked the relations they reveal yet cannot prove” (150)
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction 2017