Here are the answers to our questions – straight from author William Benemann himself. And remember, if these answers bring up any other questions, let me know and I’ll pass them along again. Enjoy.
1) The thing that really struck me about the book was the fact that the author had to rely on really circumstantial evidence for some of the people’s sexual orientations and for who they were sleeping with. I wonder how he felt about that? Did using very circumstantial evidence worry him? How did he decide when the evidence was strong enough to out someone?
Hey buddy, don’t dis circumstantial evidence! In History it’s all we’ve got. History is not like Mathematics or Science. Just as there’s no crying in baseball, there’s no QED in History. An historian collects evidence, interprets it, and presents a theory. No one gets to drop the mic. Two historians looking at the same evidence can come up with completely conflicting conclusions; that’s what keeps book publishers in business and tenure committees scratching their collective heads.
You’ve raised an essential point, though: what constitutes acceptable evidence for the history of LGBTQ lives? In academia there are a set of rules — historiography — that establishes generally agreed upon principles about how to document a person’s life. Unfortunately, those rules were established for straight lives, and in most cases they don’t work for gay people. Our relationships are not documented in the same way. Until very recently we were not allowed to solemnize or legally establish our relationships in any way, so there are no church records, no marriage licenses, no announcements in the social column of the local newspaper. If you were lucky, your obituary mentioned in passing a “longtime companion” who was left behind to mourn you. But did that term mean he was just a very good buddy who would really miss you? Sometimes. Did it mean a beloved partner who shared his life with you for half a century and was the most important person on the planet for you? Frequently. But who’s to know the difference now?
Our relationships do not result in biological children, so the whole panoply of evidence from baptismal records to DNA sequencing reveals nothing at all about our sex lives. In the early years of America’s history, sodomy was a capital offence for men (lesbian relationships were discounted as being improbable, so they were never illegal). Where are the letters? the diaries? the confessional autobiographies? There are a few that have surfaced, but most men were reluctant to put on paper something that could get themselves hanged. When such writings were created, they were frequently destroyed by surviving family members who didn’t want to foment scandal. (Much was lost this way, even as late as the AIDS crisis.) When the writings survived the censoring hand of embarrassed relatives, they were often rejected by archives as inappropriate, or accepted but silently filed away with no indication of sexual content. My passion for nearly two decades now has been digging and sifting through archival collections to try to recover buried lives.
To use another metaphor, I think of it as assembling the pieces of a jig saw puzzle, where you know that some pieces will always remain missing. I can hold up one individual piece and solemnly swear that the puzzle shows the Statue of Liberty, but you’d have no reason to believe me. It’s my challenge as an historian to gather enough pieces to make a convincing case for what the image actually shows. With enough pieces I can prove beyond a doubt that it’s the Statue of Liberty — or perhaps only that it isn’t a kitten with a yarn ball. The question, of course, is how many pieces do I need to assemble in order to convince you? If you go to the Amazon listing for Men in Eden and read the reviews, both the blurbs from peer-reviewed history journals and the comments of average readers, you’ll see that one person says the book “Doesn’t prove anything” while another says it was “Utterly convincing.” How is that possible? It reminds me of a phrase that was popular a while ago on the Berkeley campus with African American students: “It’s a Black thing. You wouldn’t understand.” The phrase is irritatingly dismissive — and absolutely correct. If something about Black history or culture doesn’t resonate with me as being true, that does not mean that it isn’t true. It just means that I need to ask myself if I am knowledgeable enough about the topic to make a judgment about its truthfulness.
Most readers who are familiar with LGBTQ culture immediately connect with the incidents in my book. They grasp the parallels, they understand the significance of the absences. Unfortunately, gay history and culture is rarely a part of the curriculum, even today. In some parts of this country teachers are prohibited by law from even mentioning the topic in the classroom. To suggest that students should have a baseline familiarity with LGBTQ American history and culture is to push The Homosexual Agenda.
So, how did I feel about using “really circumstantial evidence”? It was a choice between assembling and presenting that evidence, or remaining silent. I chose not to remain silent.
2) How did the author feel about using common gay stereotypes (for example, the dapper, well-dressed, looks-obsessed man) to make the case that some of these people were gay? A lot of gay people don’t fit those stereotypes and lots of people fit those stereotypes who aren’t gay.
Many stereotypes become stereotypes because they distill basic truths. There are always exceptions, of course. In the eighteenth century there emerged a figure labeled the fop, who was effeminate in his mannerisms and fussy about his appearance, which was usually peacock-showy. The fop was not necessarily seen as someone who enjoyed having sex with other men, but he was definitely viewed as being unmanly. During the Regency Period in England, under the leadership of Beau Brummell, there was a revolution in men’s fashion. Out was the ostentation, replaced with fine tailoring and a restricted color palate — basically black, white and grey. Any man who wanted to be considered “manly” followed those restraints; any man who flaunted them opened himself up for suspicion regarding his sexuality. You’ll remember the dilemma of Alexander Barclay (p. 95.) His job as a clerk in St. Louis required him to be “faultless in appearance as regards dress,” but he was determined not to cross the line into foppishness, as had many of his fellow clerks — but he wasn’t sure where that line was drawn. With the exception of a brief flourish in the 1960s, the restrictions on men’s fashion have remained in place. So strong is the connection between fastidious attention to appearance and homosexuality that a few years ago it was necessary to coin a new word — metrosexual — to refer to men who were obsessive about their appearance while not being attracted to other men. Without the stereotype, the distinction would not have been needed.
I believe all men are concerned about their appearance. My father once threw across the room a shirt my mother had bought him, because he thought it was an inappropriate color for a man to wear. But men who have embraced their gayness find it easier to throw off the chains that society places on them when it comes to what they can and cannot wear. And whether it’s a tight t-shirt to show off your hours at the gym, or lumberjack flannel, denim and boots, or a faerie’s feathers and beads — it’s all drag. Even the decision to be unconcerned about what clothes you’re wearing is a conscious choice to present a particular appearance.
I believe gay men’s heightened concern with appearance is a function of the process of becoming aware of being gay. Sometime around junior high you wake up and find yourself inexplicably behind enemy lines, in hostile territory and in imminent danger. There’s nothing quite as terrifying to a young teen as being different, not blending in. And to a boy the very worst fate possible is to have people find out that you’re a faggot. So very quickly around the time that you’re twelve or thirteen, you crank up the dial on your awareness of appearances, as high as it will possibly go. In too many cases, your life depends on it.
I’m assuming that your question particularly focuses on the free trappers who were part of the fur trade. As I mention of pages 69-72, the free trappers were singled out by their contemporaries as being “vain of their appearances.” At a time when gender roles in America were bifurcating into strictly-defined separate spheres of male and female, the free trappers were famous for blurring the line, even ornamenting themselves in ways that only Native American women dressed. I would never state that all free trappers were having sex with one another, but I think they are an important piece of the puzzle in understanding what was going on with gender and sexuality among the trappers.
3) What does the author think the most important effect of these people’s gayness was on the actual fur trapping trade?
I would flip the question around. I don’t think these people’s gayness had an effect on the fur trapping trade, so much as that the trade had an important effect on their gayness. By creating a space that was virtually all-male for months at a time, the fur trade allowed them to let down their guard, and to indulge in sexual behavior that they would have had to avoid if they stayed on their farms or in their villages. It allowed them to act on their sexual urges.
4) Stewart and others he met along the way were well educated – was that the norm for fur trappers/traders?
Stewart’s educational level was something I was never able to pin down with any certainty. I know he didn’t go to university, as one of his brothers did. He makes classical allusions in his novels that indicate at least a general familiarity with history and mythology, but it’s difficult to gauge how much of that is due to formal education, and how much is just osmosis from living in an aristocratic environment. For the other traders, educational levels ran the gamut. William Sublette, if we can judge by his letters, was nearly illiterate. At times you need to read his handwriting aloud in order to hear what he was saying, since his spelling skills are so rudimentary. The fur trade attracted men from all walks of life, and all educational levels.
5) Compared to other books about the West, you waited quite a few chapters to introduce the hardships of everyday life. Was that a conscious choice? How did that play into the issues raised in the book?
Because I chose to use the life of William Drummond Stewart as the framework for my exploration of homosexuality among the fur traders, his biographical details pretty much dictated the structure of the book. The first chapter discusses his childhood and young manhood as the second son of a Scottish laird growing up in Murthly Castle. The second chapter focuses on his two autobiographical novels, providing an overview of the plots, and pulling out incidents that give us a clue to his homosexual activity. The third chapter describes his arrival and early months in the US, and goes into some depth about the type of homosexual community he would have encountered in 1832 in New York City. Only with the fourth chapter and his arrival in St. Louis does he encounter any type of hardship of life on the frontier. The topic really doesn’t logically come up any earlier.
6) Could you address the idea of being a homosexual vs. engaging in homosexual behavior. This issue was brought up at the discussion in terms of those situations where men are banded together without other options i.e. at sea, etc.. Is there a difference? Does that change the story?
I think what you’re talking about is situational homosexuality versus a homosexual orientation. In order to understand what was going on among fur trappers and traders in the wilderness, you need to abandon any idea of sexual orientation as being binary — that people are either gay or straight. As Alfred Kinsey’s research in the 1940s and 1950s showed, sexual orientation is a continuum. Kinsey graphed it as a line from 0 (100% heterosexual) to 6 (100% homosexual). There are few 0s or 6s; most people fall somewhere on the continuum. Hence you can have a man who is overwhelmingly attracted to women, who has never even been conscious of feeling any desire for men. Yet if he is put in prison without access to women, in time he will almost certainly feel attraction for, and start having sex with, men. Has prison turned him gay? Of course not. It’s just that people are sexual beings, and if their preferred sexual object is not available, the minority part of their sexuality becomes engaged.
Sexual orientation is not a choice. Sexual behavior is. Many men who find themselves programmed more towards the 6 end of the Kinsey scale decide they nonetheless do not want to live as gay men. They marry and have children. As long as they are not too far towards the 6 end, they can continue to function, though they always wonder if perhaps they are missing out on something. Someone who is very close to the 6 end has no more chance of being lastingly happy engaging in heterosexual sex than a man very near the 0 end has in engaging in homosexual sex.
Because I believe that sexual orientation has remained virtually unchanged over time, I believe that in the United States in the early 1800s there were men who were overwhelmingly attracted to other men. It is these men who have been the object of my research. In one sense, I’m not really interested in men who have sex with men only because of an absence of women. They are the ones who engaged in sex with other trappers during the year, and then went absolutely wild at the rendezvous because they really, truly preferred to have sex with women. My primary interest is in the men who left their birth communities and consciously removed themselves to places where they knew men would be having sex with other men.
I smiled when I read your “at sea, etc.” I am currently about two-thirds of the way through writing my next book, which is on American sailors. I hope to finish the first draft by the end of the year. Is it too early to schedule a book club reading?
7) The idea of machismo also came up. Stewart was very well respected because he had proved himself, so his sexuality seemed not to take center stage. Can you talk more about the idea of masculinity and its relation to homosexuality in this era.
Good question. And a complex one. Stewart’s facility with a horse and a gun went a long way towards securing his acceptance among the men of the fur trade, but I don’t think issues of sexuality can be separated from those of class. Americans had a love/hate relationship with European aristocrats, an ambivalence fueled by defensive feelings of inferiority and envy. The trappers were highly suspicious of a nobleman who was willing to leave his castle in order to live like them in a buckskin tent in the wilderness. Aristocrats were expected to be effeminate and frail (“lisping” was the word Audubon used to describe Stewart), and Stewart didn’t fit that stereotype — not entirely. He was rugged, but also refined. He adopted Western clothing, but insisted that the waist of his jacket be nipped in just so. He ate by the campfire — but brought along his own preserved delicacies and liqueurs. In short, he walked a fine line. His evident hunting skills bought him a huge amount of tolerance, even fierce friendship. And in keeping with a strongly-held ethos on the prairie and in the mountains — that people should keep their nose out of things that didn’t concern them — what he and Antoine did in their tent at night really didn’t figure into the picture.
8) The group also wondered why you chose the pictures you did and why you chose not to include a map (which they felt would have been helpful). Furthermore, they didn’t find Kit Carson’s gun placement all that suggestive – is there something you know that we don’t?
It didn’t occur to me to include a map, but I can see that of course that could have been helpful. I would have had to mark places, instead of routes of travel though, since Stewart moved around from coast to coast over a period of seven years, overlapping his tracks and returning several times to the same place. There are also some gaps in the documentation, so I would have been able to pin point only where he was on a particular date, but not exactly how he got there.
The pictures that I did include were an attempt to give some visual support to the text. In some cases (as with the counter jumpers and the portrait of Antoine Clement) I discuss the image in the text, and I always find it irritating if an author describes an image but then doesn’t show it. I would have dearly loved to include more of the amazing Alfred Jacob Miller paintings of Stewart and Clement, but they unfortunately are mostly in museums and archives that charge for use. I paid a $125 fee to use one them! When Sir Thomas Steuart Fothringham offered to let me publish anything in his family collection for free, I of course jumped at the opportunity. Did I go overboard on Scotland? Sorry!
As for Kit Carson’s gun (and the drawing of a naked John Colter), when I saw them my pupils involuntarily dilated — which of course is the point that I make in the text. There were images that I believe were purposely designed to appeal to a readership of males who were attracted to males, while appearing largely neutral to the rest of the public. To me the sexuality jumps right off the page. Can we say perhaps that it’s a gay thing? [Insert here one of those disgusting smiley faces]
9) The Dewey Decimal System places your book in the Gay and Lesbian section. Do you feel it would live better in history of the West or biography – as it is both of those too?
I love this question!!! For twenty-five years before retooling as an archivist, I was a professional cataloger. I always worked in university libraries that used the Library of Congress system, instead of Dewey, but the idea is the same. Back in the Pleistocene Age when I was a callow library assistant in the Catalog Dept. at UC Berkeley, I had a supervisor who prepared a little cheat sheet card for us with the general practices she wanted us to follow when doing our bibliographic checking. At the bottom she wrote, “DON’T AGONIZE!!” Those words have stayed with me over the years, and I used to use them myself whenever I was training new catalogers.
There is nothing magical about a call number, there is no Platonic ideal, there is no such thing as a “correct” call number. A call number is nothing but a location indicator, like the address of your house or apartment. A highly-skilled cataloger could assign one number to a book s/he picked off the truck on Tuesday, and different one if s/he selected it on Friday. Every book is on many topics, but it can sit in only one place on the shelves, so you need to select the most logical place for your particular library. America has a tradition (thanks primarily to Melvil Dewey) of arranging books by topic. That is not the case in Europe, where even some large academic research libraries shelve them by spine height and/or date of acquisition (a much more efficient way to run a library!) That practice removes the possibility of joyous serendipity when browsing the stacks, but cuts down on the time needed for processing and on the space taken up for storage. And browsing is a poor substitute for scholarship.
What’s important is the subject headings that are assigned, and the Library of Congress did a bang-up job of assigning them for Men in Eden. There are six of them, that pretty much cover all the bases. Now, my preferred way of doing this would be for a library to buy multiple copies of my book. Shelve one under Gay Studies, one under the American West, one under Biographies, one under the Fur Trade, etc. Oh, and I got a great review from a journal called History Scotland, so another copy to shelve with the Scottish History collection. Clearly the best solution for library browsers. Unfortunately, no library has shown any enthusiasm at all for the Benemann System, so I’m afraid you’re stuck with Dewey.
10) They wished you would have set the stage a little better in a global context in terms of how homosexuality was treated in the UK vs. the US during that time – not for Stewart, but in general. Could you provide some more background?
This is a huge topic. One of the reasons I decided to focus my research on American history is that so very much has already been published on the gay history of Europe, particularly the UK and France. For England the best source is Richtor Norton’s Mother Clap’s Molly House: the Gay Subculture in England 1700-1830 (GMP Publishers, 1992). Also excellent is Charles Upchurch’s Before Wilde: Sex Between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform (University of California Press, 2009). There is amazing stuff that has been written about Paris, since the police had a cadre of undercover agents known as les mouches who infiltrated gay groups and filed extensive reports on what they observed. Unfortunately, most of the studies have yet to be translated. The best is Claude Courouve’s Les Assemblées de la Manchette: Documents sur l’Amour Masculin au XVIIIe Siècle (Paris : Courouve, 1987). Pierre Hahn’s Nos Ancêtres les Pervers: la Vie des Homosexuels Sous le Second Empire (Béziers : H&O Éditions, 2006) is also excellent.
The only work that I know of that makes some effort to compare the UK and the US is my own Male-Male Intimacy in Early America: Beyond Romantic Friendships (Harrington Park Press, 2006). I devote an entire chapter to surveying research on Berlin, Paris and London, using it as a place to launch into what was happening in the US at the same time. Do not run out and purchase the book! Several years ago now Harrington Park Press was bought out by Routledge (London), and Routledge acquired all of Harrington’s book list. They are now selling my book on Amazon for a ridiculous $58.95 for the paperback (the hardcopy goes for as much as $140). Get ye to your friendly local public library.
11) Do you think current history books and teaching should be revised to include this history? Is it important to provide a more well-rounded and diverse approach to the West?
I think any survey of our history that purposely excludes the contributions of LGBTQ Americans is a fraud and short-changes our students by giving them a skewed idea of what really happened. When I was in elementary school the contributions of women and people of color were almost entirely overlooked, and I see this as a continuation of the fight to recognize that not everyone of importance in American history was male, white and straight. This issue is particularly important these days, when the airwaves are filled with voices calling for an end to diversity and to so-called “political correctness” (what my parents used to call “being polite to others”). I have great hope, because young people today seem to accept issues of sexuality and gender in their stride, and to welcome an open discussion. Unfortunately, people of my generation (and the one earlier) still control the purse strings, the legislatures and the school boards, so a lot of them are going to have to die off before we see meaningful change. I have faith that will happen.
I just wanted to say that they praised your even-handed approach to Stewart. We have read some accounts where the author becomes smitten with their subject and blind to all their wrongdoings and you remained fair. They also really appreciated the book because it made them think about other stories that aren’t being told and made them question, “What don’t we know?”.
I’m so pleased you said this. Biography is my favorite genre. I’d rather read a biography than just about anything else. But I’ve become aware over the years of what I think of as the Biographer’s Dilemma. You spend several years virtually living with someone. You read their personal mail and their private diary. You get to know their family members on a first name basis. You visit their home and stand in the rooms where they ate and where they slept. Inevitably you begin to feel that you are members of each other’s family, and the temptation is strong to paper over their faults and excuse their short-comings. I was particularly vulnerable because I was hoping to supply what we don’t have: a gay American hero from the 1830s. I was relieved actually whenever WDS acted like a jerk. It made writing about him so much easier.